Revolved head-to-knee pose generates an experience of freedom and ease, awakening a sense of the boundlessness of our true nature.
“How will I ever master that pose?” Anyone who has practiced yoga has asked themselves a similar question one time or another. I recall two occasions, both of which occurred in my 20s when I was at the height of my flexibility. The first was at a performance of Cirque du Soleil. The second was watching a contortionist on the boardwalk in Venice, California. Despite the number of advanced postures I could do, I felt a kind of hopelessness about the future of my asana practice on both occasions. If you’ve seen someone do something with their body that seemed utterly out of reach, you may have had similar doubts about your ability to attain mastery. These doubts compel us to examine the relationship between mastery of asana and extreme flexibility and/or strength. Before we assume we’ll never attain mastery in asana, let’s look at what it really means.
“How will I ever master that pose?” Anyone who has practiced yoga has asked themselves a similar question one time or another.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the most illuminating text on the science of yoga. Revered through the ages, its sublime and comprehensive teachings are contained in 196 aphorisms. Asana is only mentioned in four, a fact which sheds light on the place of the poses in the larger context of yoga.
Asana is first mentioned early in the second chapter as one of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. The last mentions are in sutras 2.46–48, where we find the teaching on its practice. Sutra 2.46 offers a basic definition and practice guidelines: “Asana is a steady or motionless (sthira) posture accompanied with a sense of ease or comfort (sukha).” But it is the last two sutras that address our question about mastery. Here Patanjali is crystal clear: while doing your asana (with sukha and sthira), “loosen effort while meditating on the Infinite (ananta).”
That’s it. There is no mention of becoming a master once you can, say, put your leg behind your head. Mastery doesn’t depend on feats of flexibility or strength but is sourced through communion with the Infinite.
Awareness of the Infinite is unquestionably a state of mind, yet certain postures more readily open the door. Some of the most direct are lateral poses—parivritta janu shirshasana chief among them. This powerful, radiant pose delivers an immediate experience of the boundless.
Awareness of the Infinite is unquestionably a state of mind, yet certain postures more readily open the door.
What does it mean to be boundless physically? The answer may surprise you: bodiless. That’s right—the culmination of asana is to no longer identify with your body. This idea is not as lofty as it may sound. In fact, it’s something we all aspire to. It’s called being healthy. Nothing reminds us more of having a body than physical suffering—the tiniest splinter brings us right back to our mortal coil. On the other hand, when nothing ails us we live joyously and spontaneously, even spaciously, unaware of the container called “my body.”
Therein lies one of the great paradoxes of yoga practice. The ultimate achievement in asana is to experience the Infinite—“no body.” Yet the very process of working on the body day after day to build physical precision and control often makes us more absorbed in it. That is the risk of seeing asana as a predominantly physical practice. The more we do it, the more absorbed we become in the very thing we are meant to move beyond.
So how does one get beyond the body? The answer, at least through asana, lies in the postures that move energy up—namely, backbends and laterals. Lateral postures are particularly effective. While elongating the spine, they create space in the intercostal, quadratus, adductor, shoulder, and abdominal muscles, as well as in the pelvis, lungs, and heart. They also stretch the kidneys, which, according to the Taoist tradition, frees stagnant energies that settle there as a direct result of unresolved fear. Finally, at the pranic level, laterals increase both prana and vyana, which activate the qualities of lightness and ascension.
So how does one get beyond the body? The answer, at least through asana, lies in the postures that move energy up—namely, backbends and laterals.
The postures in this article illustrate—with one exception—the main types of laterals: standing, open frame (arm balance), kneeling, and sitting. The supine open-frame type is not pictured. The five poses here are sequenced to provide maximum preparation for parivritta janu shirshasana, the apex pose of the sequence. A complete lateral practice should also include sun salutations, additional standing, sitting, and lying postures that have a backbend emphasis, as well as the appropriate counterposes.
The key to effective and safe lateral stretching is stabilizing the hips and then, while rotating the torso, maintaining length in the spine. Avoid overarching the lower back, collapsing the chest, or insufficient rotation. Proper alignment and maintaining a balance among stability, rotation, and elongation allow us to create a deep and dynamic lateral stretch. If necessary, go halfway in any or all of the postures in order to maintain that specific intention and to get the most benefit.
The ultimate achievement in asana is boundless freedom—a state of being so present and at ease with who we are that we are able to masterfully shape destiny itself.
What is the result of doing asana masterfully? Patanjali mentions nothing about physical accomplishment. According to yoga’s greatest sage, the culmination of asana is that duality (good/bad, happiness/disappointment, success/failure) no longer affects us. Asana done in the right spirit leads to being less and less at the mercy of the ups and downs of everyday life. Thus, the ultimate achievement in asana is boundless freedom—a state of being so present and at ease with who we are that we are able to masterfully shape destiny itself.
1. Triangle Pose Variation (trikonasana) prepares us for the deeper laterals. Grounds the legs to help anchor the hips. Emphasizes the extension of the waist and the spine—not the shoulder. The back body is on the same plane as the backs of the legs; the shoulders stack. Draw the top arm into the shoulder and activate the inner body to reach toward the top of the head.
Hint: Inhale, the spine lengthens. Exhale, move the navel toward the spine while rotating the chest toward the sky.
2. Standing Hand-to-Toe Pose (utthita hasta padangushthasana) is an adductor stretch that activates the secondary action of the laterals. Press into both heels. Both sides of the waist lift. While pressing the inner thigh of the lifted leg forward, rotate the torso in the opposite direction.
Hint: Inhale, expand the back body. Exhale, stabilize the standing leg and the sacrum.
3. Vasisthasana III is a classic lateral arm balance. Shins in, shoulders stack. Lift and press the inner thighs back while hugging the sacrum into the body.
Hint: Inhale, broaden the collarbones while drawing the waist and the ribs away from the hips. Exhale, the navel rotates toward the sky.
4. Latch Pose (parighasana) is deepened by emphasizing its asymmetrical component. To do this, expand the upper-side body (i.e., arch the upper-side waist, the intercostals, and the lung toward the sky).
Hint: Inhale, lengthen the side, the back, and the front bodies. Exhale, draw the tailbone into the body, applying enough rotation so that the shoulders are stacked.
5. Head-to-Knee Pose (janu shirshasana) stretches the back for the sitting twist:parivritta janu shirshasana. Press the inner thigh toward the floor and the extended heel forward. Externally rotate the inner thigh of the bent knee—gradually working that knee away from the straight leg. Elongate both sides of the waist.
Hint: Inhale, lengthen the sides and lift the collarbones. Exhale, flatten the lower back.
Photo credit: Lois Greenfield