If you were asked to name the four most important poses of the yoga tradition, which ones would be on your list? Headstand? Shoulderstand? Downward-facing dog? Triangle? And what would be your criteria for deciding?
You may be surprised at the list in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika—the most comprehensive and best-known early Sanskrit text on hatha yoga, which includes a chapter on asanas. Attributed to Svatmarama in the 14th century, the Pradipika says, “Siddhasana [accomplished pose], padmasana [lotus pose], simhasana [lion pose], and bhadrasana [gracious pose]—these are the four main asanas.” Notably, they’re all difficult sitting postures.
These and other sitting poses require unusual flexibility in the knees and hips—but even if you can sit comfortably in them, you may still wonder why the Hatha Yoga Pradipika considers them the most important. There must be something extraordinary about sitting—something secret and wonderful, something hidden in that physical form, something more than meets the eye. Perhaps that something special can be explored and awakened by asanas that help us master the essence of sitting postures.
In general, asana helps us weave together strands of wayward energies, organizing them into a state of greater coherence and integration. In particular, integrating the energies of the pelvis and chest can be a difficult task (but an important prerequisite for the sitting poses). Arm balance poses like leg-over-shoulder pose (eka hasta bhujasana), cock pose (kukutasana), and crow pose (kakasana), which physically connect the legs and upper extremities, can delightfully awaken and direct the energy in the pelvis and navel center, and draw it up into higher energy centers in the heart, throat, and head.
It helps us fan the secret fire that is asleep deep in the nervous system and the gut, and integrate the instinctive energies of the lower three chakras with higher aspirations and expanded awareness.
Consider the dramatic but fairly accessible leg-over-shoulder balance. At first glance, it’s easy to see how this pose can help us develop better hip flexibility, upper body strength, and balance. We need hip flexibility to master sitting, but beyond that, this asana is a balance pose which improves our focus, concentration, and confidence—all good qualities to develop in our yoga practice—and particularly necessary for the long periods of stillness that sitting postures afford us. And if we look a little closer, on the more subtle level, leg-over-shoulder balance satisfies an innate desire to draw in, consolidate, and knit together the outgoing energies of the pelvis, legs, and arms. It helps us fan the secret fire that is asleep deep in the nervous system and the gut, and integrate the instinctive energies of the lower three chakras with higher aspirations and expanded awareness. With that understanding, we are well on our way to discovering the mystical power of the sitting poses.
Hip joint flexibility and integration through the spine are the prime requirements for the leg-over-shoulder balance pose—and for most sitting postures as well. The following sequence will improve your flexibility and connect your work in the hip joint and pelvis with your shoulders and arms.
Sit with your left leg long on the floor, bend your right knee and place your right foot on the floor outside your right hip, a good distance from your inner left thigh. Press the back of your left leg, your right foot, and your hands into the floor to first lengthen the spine upward, and then to tilt the pelvis forward, bringing your torso between your right thigh and left leg. Wrap your right arm around your right shin. Work your arm around your bent leg and behind your waist, and bind your left wrist with your right hand. If your hands can’t reach that far, press them into the floor to help move your torso forward over your leg. With your hands bound (or with your hands on the floor) press your right arm into your right shin. Your right hip will lift off the floor, but continue pressing your foot into the floor. Move your lower back forward, keeping your shoulders level and the back of your neck long. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths. To come out of the pose, lift the chest, then release the arms and sit tall. Repeat on the other side.
From the starting position for maricyasana, grasp your right big toe with your right fingers and thumb, and grasp your left big toe with your left fingers and thumb. Focus your gaze straight ahead, as if on the bull’s-eye of a target. Then draw your right foot back toward the right ear and press your left leg away from the pelvis, as if you are about to shoot an arrow at the target. Keep your focus steady and breathe. Reach out through the left heel, even if you can’t straighten the leg, and keep your lower back lifting and your whole body aligned around the axis of your focus. To come out, release your focus and relax the limbs. Repeat on the other side.
Sitting cross-legged, pick up your right leg and bring your flexed foot into the crook of your left elbow, and your knee into the crook of your right elbow. Clasp your hands and draw your leg toward the chest. Lift up through your spine, sitting up straight as you draw your thigh toward your torso and your spine toward your thigh. Be careful not to torque your ankle: reach out through the inner edge of your foot. Relax your outer hip. Circle your whole leg in small circles in both directions, feeling the stretch around the hip joint shift as you move. It may also help to rock gently side to side or back and forth.
Then extend your left leg on the floor, lean forward, bring your right arm and shoulder under your right leg, and use both hands to slip your leg over your shoulder. Continue holding your foot or leg. You may bring your right hand to the floor. Again, rock from side to side, or shift your weight forward and back to work into the hip and back of the leg. You may also draw your right foot toward the ceiling, straightening the leg and further stretching the back of the leg. Massage the buttock muscles and any tightness around the hip joint by shifting your weight slightly and letting the weight of the body press down into tight places in the hip. Repeat on the other side.
As in the leg-behind-shoulder stretch, lean forward and hook your right leg over your right shoulder. Press both hands into the floor near the outer hips, and lean forward to center your weight. Then press your hands strongly into the floor, reach out and up through the left heel, and lift the pelvis and the left leg. Keep the left foot active, and focus your gaze straight ahead. Transmit the pressure of the leg over the shoulder down through the shoulder girdle, arms, and hands, and the lift of the pelvis and leg. (The lift and lightness of the leg and pelvis are in reaction to the downward thrust through the arms.) Draw up through the buttocks and pelvis, and draw the lower belly in. Hold and breathe for as long as you are comfortable, and then soften down. Repeat on the other side.
Now, to fully reap the benefits of the leg-over-shoulder balance, sit comfortably in a cross-legged position and pay attention to the body. Relax any undue effort but stay alert in your body and mind, absorbed in the inner perfection of the pose, and feel the breath wheeling through the inner space of the sitting body, awakening the innate blissfulness (or at least a measure of contentment!) that is always rooted there.