Many years ago during a particularly intense period of asana practice I asked one of my teachers what she thought I needed to work on. I expected to receive another list of advanced postures, but after a long pause she said, “You need to learn how to be simple.” This was not the answer I had hoped for! I could certainly work my way through an exhausting regimen of postures, but could I be still for ten minutes? Could I take pleasure in the simple act of sitting, standing, or lying down? I had already begun to notice that my natural inclination in asana practice was drawing me toward stillness and into meditation. But unable to discern the difference between complacency and containment, after sitting quietly for a few minutes I would rally myself once again into action. On to the next posture! Gradually, as I began to trust my own inner prompting, my practice did indeed become more simple and I began to spend as much time in meditation as in asana.
I could certainly work my way through an exhausting regimen of postures, but could I be still for ten minutes?
With yoga riding the crest of a resurgence in the West, thousands of newcomers flock to yoga studios each day, most drawn—at least initially—to the physical benefits of asana practice. In fact, for most the word “yoga” simply means asana practice. For many it is an alternative to the gym, for some a means to stave off medical treatment for a spinal or health condition—both good reasons to start a practice. But for those lucky enough to happen upon a teacher or center committed to offering a deeper perspective on yoga, the practice of postures is a means to become more comfortable with stillness, more at peace with simple moments, and more content with simple things. By slowly releasing bodily tensions and liberating the flow of prana while refining our awareness of subtle sensation, asana practice can be an extraordinary movement back to the natural stillness that the ancient yogis describe as our original or primordial mind.
We have all had a taste of this inner quiet; it is usually accompanied by a suspension of the awareness of time passing. Any activity that completely absorbs the mind can bring about this pleasurable sense of immersion. But there can also be a subtle welling of fear and anxiety in the face of this stillness. Our original mind is so vast and so spacious that it can appear to be a most insubstantial place in which to reside. It is just this uncertainty that can send even an advanced practitioner of yoga running back to the tangible comfort of the body and the distracting “busyness” of yet more asana practice.
If you are among those who tend toward this kind of busyness in your practice and assiduously avoid meditation, consider simplifying your practice so as to come closer to that which you are avoiding. This can take the form of reducing the number of postures done in one session; staying for longer periods of time in fewer postures; or working with the same daily practice (with minor variations for balance) over an extended period of time. In this way, if you so desire, your practice can take on a more meditative quality, or prepare you for formal sitting meditation.
The following sequence comes from my own exploration—from taking one posture and working with it in subtle and increasingly intense variations. Because there is little movement from variation to variation, the sequence serves to draw the mind toward stillness. And by gradually increasing the intensity of sensation, the mind is further beckoned to go deeper to the place beneath sensation where there is steadfastness in consciousness. If you are a beginner, work with the first two variations only. Your stiffer body with its oh-so-acute sensations will have your mind sitting at attention in no time! Disregard how far you can go, and let your focus be riveted wherever you are. Staying present with your immediate experience, regardless of the physical position, leads the mind naturally toward stillness. If you are more flexible, the body will give you less riveting feedback—and because you receive less rancorous objections from your body, you’ll need to be more conscious in directing your attention inward. For you who continue on, the more advanced variations will help you sustain your focus.
Head-to-Knee Pose Sequence (Janu Shirshasana Sequence) Preparation
Begin by sitting on the floor in the stick pose (dandasana), centering your weight on your sitting bones. If your hamstrings are tight you may find your weight thrust behind the center of the sitting bones, causing your lower back to round. If this is the case, place a folded blanket underneath your buttocks, raising the height until you are able to sit with the spine and abdomen in a vertical position.
Slowly bend the left leg and draw the knee out to the side, placing your foot against the inside of your upper right thigh.
In this first variation, turn to face your left leg and, pivoting from your hips, release forward over your left knee. Allow your right buttock to come off the floor so the pelvis can freely revolve around the left hip.
When the leg is bent, the pelvis is no longer limited by the pull of the hamstring muscles which attach to the sitting bones. In this simple variation it is possible, even for the beginner, to feel the differentiation of the movement of the pelvis from the head of the femur. Bring your awareness to the subtle swelling and receding sensation of the breath into and out of the hip socket. Notice the oscillation of your pelvis around your hip bone, and how the sensation changes during each cycle of the breath—sensation on inhalation, sensation on exhalation, sensation in the moments of pause in between these phases. Stay here for one minute.
On an inhalation slowly sit up and turn on the diagonal so you are facing the space in between your left leg and right leg. In this position the hamstring of the right leg will begin to assert itself, but is still not as limiting as when the body is asked to bend forward over the extended leg. On an exhalation pivot forward between your legs. As you bend from your hips, maintain the length of your spinal column, using your hands to support you if necessary; otherwise, extend the arms along the floor and lower the forehead to the floor.
Again draw your awareness to the sensation inside each breath cycle—notice the texture of each sensation and the thoughts and images that arise. As you breathe in and out, let your mind settle in the pauses between the incoming and outgoing breath, drawing the mind to the still point beneath the movement of the breath. In each variation, once you have made all the necessary physical adjustments and your breath is moving freely, make this conscious descent into quietude. Stay here for 1–3 minutes.
Now transition to sitting upright once again and turn to face the extended right leg. Bend the right knee and raise your arms over your head as you elongate the spinal column upward.
On an exhalation tip forward over the right leg, laying your abdomen along the length of the right thigh if you can and lowering your arms to either side of the leg. If you are able to bend forward only slightly, use your arms to support your trunk; otherwise, rest your head on your shin.
Once again by bending the leg you have deactivated the hamstring muscles. In increments, gradually straighten your right leg—as you do so the sensation along the back of your leg will slowly intensify. Extend your right heel an inch or so along the floor and remain here for at least thirty seconds. Continue to elongate your abdomen along your thigh. Then extend your right heel an inch further and stay again; and so on until the leg is completely straight.
Your abdomen should remain parallel to the spine. If your abdomen has flexed back against your spine and there is an increasing gap between your abdomen and your leg, you are trying to come further forward by shortening your spine rather than opening from your hips. Be willing to stay at the stage of movement where it is still possible for you to maintain the length of your spine, even if this is with your right leg completely bent and your spine upright.
If you have been able to come forward 45°, support your head on the edge of a chair with your arms reaching to hold the back of the chair.
If you are a little short of bringing the forehead to the shin, rest your forehead against a small bolster placed across your shin.
These modifications will help you to approximate the feeling of resolution that comes when the head rests on the shin. Eventually you will be stretched over the length of the right leg. When the leg is completely straightened, bring your hands around the sole of the foot, grasping the back of the left wrist with the right hand, and reach forward through your arms.
The head-to-knee pose (janu shirshasana) is a combination of a forward bend and a twist. Its awkward asymmetry demands that the spine rotate to the right to come forward. You can make this rotation easier by drawing the head of the right hip back into the pelvis. Notice how extending the right leg out of the pelvis rotates the spine to the left. By feeding the right leg slightly back into the pelvis, the spinal column will naturally begin to turn into the twist.
As your hip moves back into the pelvis, let the pelvis release back, up, and over the hip so you continue to feel space inside the hip joint. Focus on broadening the belly of the thigh and calf muscles so the sensation of the opening at the back of the knee or the insertion points of the hamstrings near the sitting bones is thick and diffuse, rather than sharp and distinct. Stay here for 1–3 minutes, deepening your breath as the sensation intensifies. Let the intensification of the sensation draw your mind inward and beneath sensation, coming to the exhilarating still point where the mind is curving back into itself.
The following variations should be practiced only if you are comfortably resting the head on the shin in janu shirshasana.
Disturbing yourself as little as possible, shift your pelvis forward so that you are sitting on the heel of the left foot. This movement raises the right sitting bone and increases the leverage on the back of the right leg muscles. If you have a tendency to hyperextend your knees, place a folded blanket underneath the back of your knee for additional support. Raise your torso so that your arms are once again supporting you.
Take this opportunity to lengthen your spine even further and to broaden the back of your leg muscles. Stay in the posture for one minute.
Now shift the pelvis even further forward so that the heel of your left foot is now behind your left hip.
This position should not be mistaken for “hurdler’s stretch,” the all-too-common position of many runners, with the knee twisted to the side and the lower leg askew. The heel of the left foot should lie snug in against the left hip so that the leg is effectively in the hero’s pose (virasana) position. The weight should lie squarely on the base of the patella rather than listing to the inside of the knee. In this position the pelvis is remarkably free once again to revolve around the femur joints. Anchoring your weight over the left shin, allow the pelvis to float up and over the right leg. Once again clasp the wrists around the sole of the right foot and rest the forehead against the shin.
Feel throughout your body for any unnecessary tension. As you stay with the sensation of the asana, release any tension in your eyes, relax your tongue, and sequentially let go of any residual tension along the length of your spinal column. Deepening your awareness, feel into the core of the body for more subtle areas of holding and use your breath to soften and relax further. Stay for one minute and then release back into the stick pose to begin the cycle on the second side.
Your ability to move toward and into stillness is not dependent on a physical position.
Regardless of how many of these variations you are able to progress through, work within your capacity toward a sense of fullness and resolution in each posture. Your ability to move toward and into stillness is not dependent on a physical position. It is therefore as likely that you can experience a deep understanding of the peaceful ground state of the mind in a beginner’s asana as in a more advanced variation. There is nothing complicated about this process—it is as simple as breathing in and breathing out.
- Releases the hamstring muscles, increasing differentiation of movement between the pelvis and hips.
- Strengthens, lengthens, and releases the spinal muscles.
- Increases the flow of blood into the pelvis, stimulating the internal organs and sex glands.
- Calming for conditions such as headache, high blood pressure, and emotional upset.
People with spinal injuries where the intervertebral disks are compromised should be particularly cautious in working with this rotated forward bend.