Find Your Bearings in Compass Pose: A Step-by-Step Guide
Parivrtta Surya Yantrasana is a deep and twisty shoulder, hip and hamstring-opening seated pose that goes by the English monikers of revolved sundial pose and compass pose.
I’m not particularly familiar with sundials, having grown up at the tail-end of the 20th century, with little interest in solar physics. Actually, I’m not well-acquainted with compasses either. I haven’t spent much time contemplating the cardinal directions, and I just take a wild guess each time my GPS tells me to “head South.” When a yoga teacher once told the class to “turn to face West,” I froze in a panic, craning my head out the window to try to spot the sunset (never mind that it was 10 am). Apparently I wasn’t the only directionally-challenged yogi, because no one else moved either. Eventually the teacher just sighed and said “face the blue wall.”
Lately, though, I’ve been playing a lot of Pokemon Go, a game much-touted for promoting physical exercise, fostering community, and even encouraging players to support local businesses. Turns out it can also be pretty useful for getting one’s bearings. In the midst of running through my town, chasing after Weedles and Nidorans, I noticed the little compass icon in the upper right hand corner of the game, reminding me the direction in which I was headed. The more I played, the more I became aware of where I stood in the grand scheme of North, South, East and West. There was something empowering about saying to myself okay, I need to head North. And then, well, heading North—even if merely to to catch a few extra Pokemon before my lunch break was over.
In a way, the confidence cultivated by holding a compass in the palm of my hand is similar to the confidence developed by figuring out the pose that bears its name.
Initially, compass pose can seem like quite the puzzle. How does my leg get back there? How do I keep it back there? How the heck am I supposed to reach my foot? And if I do reach it, Which side of my foot do I hold onto? Wait, is this supposed to be a twist?! Which way do I turn? But by approaching parivrtta surya yantrasana step by step, you can begin to orient yourself within the shape of the pose, and to get a sense both of the direction in which you’re headed and how to get there. What once felt like a frustrating endeavor can then become a thoroughly absorbing one .
Let’s break down compass pose, one piece at time, exploring a simple prep and variation that may help make the pose more approachable and accessible.
Preparing for compass pose
Compass pose is a deep hip, hamstring and shoulder opener, so it’s important to make sure your body has prepared for it adequately before giving it a try. Before you begin, practice a few of your favorite warm-ups and sun salutes, as well as plenty of simpler hip, hamstring, shoulder and side-body stretches.
Some of my favorite preparatory poses for a compass pose sequence are: standing crescent, half splits (runner’s stretch), side angle pose, lizard lunge, airplane lunge (great for working the “leg-over-arm” action required for compass pose), leg-over-shoulder pose (ditto, obviously), revolved wide-legged standing forward folds, pyramid pose, hand-to-big-toe poses, hip-openers like fire log pose and baby cradle, and the following variation of krounchasana (heron pose), which is a particularly wonderful prep pose, but also an excellent alternative if that whole leg-over-arm thing isn’t happening just yet.
Compass Pose Prep/Modification: Heron Pose Variation
Begin by sitting tall in dandasana (staff pose), with your legs extended in front of you. Bend your left knee, and cross your left foot over your right thigh; bend your right knee and draw your right heel to your outer left hip (as you would if setting up for the seated twist ardha matsyendrasana). Then, catch hold of both sides of your left foot with your hands (the left hand holding the pinky toe side of the foot, and the right hand holding the big toe side of the foot). Lean back to sit upright as you lift your left foot, bringing your shin parallel to the floor (with your left heel on the same level with and directly ahead of your left knee). Continue to sit tall, lifting through your chest and lengthening up through your crown.
From here, begin straightening your left leg to whatever extent suits your comfort. Continue to lift up through your sternum and lengthen through your spine.
Compass Pose Step-By-Step
Begin as you did for the prep described above, setting up as you would for ardha matsyendrasana. Catch hold of both sides of your left foot with your hands, leaning back to sit upright as you lift your foot. This time, instead of bringing your heel in line with your knee, keep your shin at an angle and aim your left knee out to the left (toward the outside of your left armpit). This will help facilitate the external rotation in the left leg that’s necessary for compass pose.
Before moving on to step 2, you may find it helpful to detour for a few breaths in baby-cradle pose, bringing your left knee into the crook of your left elbow, and your left foot into the crook of your right elbow, rocking from side to side as if cradling a baby.
Bring your right hand to hold your left heel (or the sole of the foot just above the heel), and bring your left arm to the inside of your left leg, holding your left calf with your left hand.
Begin snuggling your upper arm (or perhaps even your shoulder) under your leg: Lift your left heel up a little higher, and move your left thigh back to create space; then work your leg up over your shoulder and your shoulder under your leg. Continue with these actions: heel up, thigh back and shoulder under, until your leg is as high up on your arm as it can comfortably be. Hug your shin against your arm to keep your leg in place.
Bring your right hand over the top of your left foot, and hold the pinky-toe side of your left foot. Your head should now be framed by your left inner leg and your right inner arm. Bring your left fingertips to the floor beside you, walking them to the left so that your left arm is straight and you’re leaning slightly to the right.
From here, begin straightening your left leg to the extent you choose, continuing to lengthen through your spine as you spin your belly and rib cage to the right. You can gaze down toward your left fingertips, or turn your head to look up under your right arm if that’s comfortable for your neck.
Remain in compass pose for a few breaths, or for as long as you comfortably can while maintaining your best alignment, before releasing and repeating on the opposite side.
Variation: Compass Pose with a strap
If your hamstrings feel tight, or if you’d just like to create the feeling of more spaciousness in the pose, try practicing with a strap. Before your initial set up, make a small loop with your strap (just big enough to slide your foot through), and place the looped strap close enough so that you can reach it after you’ve worked your leg up over your shoulder.
Repeat steps 1-3 as described above. Then grab the strap and slide your left foot through the loop, catching hold of the tail of the strap with your right hand. Your head is now between your left leg and right arm. Hold the strap as high up—that is, as close to your foot—as you comfortably can.
Place your left fingertips on the floor beside you, and walk them to the left until your left arm is straight. Begin straightening your left leg any amount, continuing to lengthen through your spine as you turn your torso to the right and bend your right elbow out to the right. Gaze down at your left fingertips if that’s comfortable for your neck, or turn your head to look up under your right arm.
Working with parivrtta surya yantrasana is an engaging journey. I encourage you to explore compass pose with all of its preparations and variations. Whatever your relationship to the cardinal directions—and however keen (or not) your spatial orientation—I would guess that your experience of the space you occupy, both on the mat and in the world, may well be altered after working a bit with compass pose!
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!