30 Aug Three of a kind…Janu Sirsasana.
Asana Focus part one: Janu Sirsasana
Please note: this article contains references to the literary output of K Pattabhi Jois. If the inclusion of these references raises any questions please Contact Me.
Following on from last month’s article about the finishing sequence, I wanted to write about other aspects of our asana practice which can be unwittingly overlooked. It’s easy to understand why some postures get more attention than others.
Over the years I have noticed that most asanas (and some of the transitions between them) fall roughly into four groups. I have nicknames for these groups. I call the asanas I get asked about most often “The Spectaculars”. Headstands, backbends, jump -backs and jump – through’s plus just about anything involving an arm balance. These postures are hard to do but rather easy on the eye. Being photogenic, they get used a lot to advertise classes. They promise that you, yes YOU can look like this if you do enough yoga.
Then there are the “No Pain No Gain” postures. The ones we love to hate. These are often the postures we actually need to spend time with to develop enough strength for the Spectaculars. Only…we don’t spend time on them because they are downright unpleasant. When did you last pause to savour Purvattanasana, Navasana or Utplutih?
Dotted here and there through the practice are the “Riddles” (aka the ‘impossibles’). We ask lots of questions about these because the answers are often perfectly comprehensible to our brains but – sadly – not our bodies. Strange twists and binds which make legs and arms look like pretzels. Some of these postures can lead us to the astonishing discovery that it is possible to fall over whilst already sitting down.
And then there is just about everything else. These are the postures I am not often asked about.
One reason for this is that in terms of teaching they are not considered ‘core’ or ‘gateway’ postures. These expressions are sometimes used for the postures at which a student is held – often for quite some time – before being shown the next section of a series. It’s easy to think that so – called core postures must therefore be more important than others. In fact all postures are of great importance. Core postures are usually only stopping points for safety reasons: i.e. it would be unwise to progress beyond them until they can be handled with a fair degree of confidence and stability.
Over the coming months I’m going to take a look at some of the less spectacular or difficuilt (but nonetheless important) postures.
Placed almost at the centre of the primary or Yoga Chikitsa series is a trio of postures known collectively as ‘Janu Sirsasana’.
The name is interesting for a number of reasons. It is one Sanskrit name students learn more easily than others. This is partly because it doesn’t have an English nickname like ‘boat’, ‘down dog’ or’ lotus’. Janu means ‘knee’ and Sirsa means ‘head’. The French speakers amongst you might have noticed similarities between Genou and Janu. They may look different but the pronunciation is similar. The literal translation of Janu Sirsasna is “head to knee posture”. This is curious because it’s a rather scant description of what is going on. Janu Sirsanasa takes place in a run of asymmetrical variations of pascimattanasana: intense, seated forward bends (or, to literally translate the Sanskrit, ‘western stretches’). In the anatomy of classical hatha yoga the front of your body (your chest and abdomen) is the east side. Your back is the west. When you bend forward and present your back to the heavens you are facing west. If you bend the other way, lifting up your chest, you are facing east (Purvattanasana is the ‘east facing stretch’).
In the preceeding two postures much more detail is provided by the name. For example: Triang Mukha Eka Pada Pascimatanasana describes itself as an intense west stretch with one foot facing backwards.
Janu Sirsasana refers only to the act of taking your head towards the knee of the outstretched leg. It omits to mention the position of the other leg or – more importantly – the heel of the foot. This is probably because the heel’s position depends on whether you are practicing Janu Sirsasana A, B or C. It is the first of two seated postures with ‘sub groupings’ (the other is Maricasana).
Let us return to that heel, because it is key to understanding the posture and why it is such an important part of the primary series.
In Yoga Mala, Pattabhi Jois’ original treatise on yoga Chikitsa , Janu Sirsasana gets a longer write up than almost any other seated asana. Not because it is a particulary complicated posture (its actually quite simple to teach). Rather, the list of its therapeutic benefits is long and detailed. Like most of the seated forward bends, Janu Sirsasana tones and stimulates the digestive system but the three heel placements add another dimension. To run through those heel positions let us assume that we are talking about the first side of the posture, with the right leg bent and the left leg extended.
In Janu Sirsasana A the heel of the right foot is placed as near to the groin as possible. Once the heel is in place, the foot is softened and gently pointed, to ensure that the sole faces directly upwards. As the forward bend develops, the heel makes contact with the lower abdomen. In B, the right heel is placed beneath the perineum and the practioner flexes the foot to intensify the contact between heel and pelvic floor. In C the toes of the right foot are pressed down into the floor, forcing the heel upwards where it points towards the torso just left of the navel. As the forward bend develops, the heel presses into that point.
In previous articles I have mentioned the nadis. These are the channels through which ‘prana’ or ‘life – force’ moves around the body. there are 72,000 nadis. When stimulated by the twists, bends and points of pressure which characterise much of our asana practice, the nadis are ‘cleared’ so that prana moves more freely. The nadis have corresponding organs and bodily functions. Stimulation of the nadis improves these functions.
The three heel placements of Janu Sirsasana stimulate nadis related to the pancreas and kidneys. In turn these nadis purify the urinary and reproductive tracts. You notice this most overtly in B when the heel puts pressure on your urethra. For men, the same pressure also tones the prostate gland. For women, it regulates menstruation (as does C). Whilst we are singling out Janu Sirsasana it’s worth noting that it is very similar to a posture described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipka as ‘Maha Mudra’ (the great seal). In Maha Mudra the left heel is placed against the very front of the perineum and the right leg is outstretched first. No forward bend is involved. Instead the practitioner sits bolt upright, holding the straight leg. The breath is slowed as much as possible, whilst engaging Mula and Uddiyana Bandhas. The chin is locked on to the sternum. This is Jalandhara Bandha. In Maha Mudra one is supposed to visualise the central Sushumna Nadi (as opposed to focusing on an external dristi). Sushumna nadi is the line on which the chakras rest. It is the nadi that Kundalini ascends once awakened. So it’s fair to say this is a powerful visualisation. The Pradipka acknowledges the power of Maha Mudra by reminding readers that they should only try it under the supervision of a Guru. Krisnamacaria, in his notes on the Pradipka, writes that he would not teach Maha Mudra to anyone without knowing their medical history. The list of benefits ascribed to Maha Mudra in the Pradipka is extensive and, in parts, outlandish. Most curiously is the power to turn ‘unhealthy foods’ into nectar, allowing the practitioner to eat anything. I don’t recommend trying this at home!
At the top of this article I described some asanas as riddles. When learning the primary series most of us are challenged at some point by Padmasana (both the half and full versions). In cultures where sitting cross – legged is not commonplace beyond childhood, even modified versions of half lotus can be very uncomfortable. If approached without care or with too much ambition half lotus can even be injurious. One unusual feature of the primary series is that it sometimes presents us with a ‘riddle’ and then – one or two postures down the line – the means to unravel it. This feature of the practice debunks that rather unfortunate myth that you need to “perfect” a posture before learning the next one. Janu Sirsasana has a lot to teach us about Padmasana. If the half or whole version has you feeling bent out of shape, spend some time with Janu Sirsasana. All three versions are helpful but A is the most accessible. It’s also handy because you can see your whole foot whilst learning it!
If you don’t practice these postures in your regular Mysore practice you might like to have a look at A but please don’t try B or C for the first time at home. They can be tricky.
Once again let’s assume we are talking about the first, right side for all these illustrations.
To get the heel where you want it, Janu Sirsasana A requires what I call a softly pointed foot. I say this because to the outside observer the overall shape looks a bit like “tree pose, sitting down”. But in tree pose the foot is pressed against the thigh. In Janu Sirsasana A it rests there. The sole needs to face upwards, so you can see the base of your heel. The easiest (and safest) way to explore this is to draw the knee of the right leg backwards. It’s a small movement but it opens the foot. When you add the forward bend, taking your upper body towards your left leg, notice what happens to your right thigh. It rotates inwardly a little. This rotation of the femur in your hip socket is a big part of creating a safe half lotus and Janu Sirsasana A is a very good way to explore it because it’s easier on the knees and ankles. To protect the knee as you bend forward, make sure your sit bones stay grounded. You can put your hands on the floor either side of the left leg and push them (downward dog style) to send your sit bones back towards the mat.
In B the right heel is under the perineum. To get it there, imagine you are about to repeat A. Once your heel is in place, put your hands either side of your hips and lift your bottom off the floor by pressing them down. Lower back down onto the heel. Now the foot can flex. Not a hard, rigid flex, just a soft movement. When you add the forward bend the action of your right leg is markedly different to A. The knee will shift forwards slightly and the thigh will rotate outwards. To explore this, walk your hands forward either side of the left leg rather than grabbing the foot. Remember that you need to turn all of your upper body towards the left side. Keep your sit bones grounded. Notice the pressure created by sitting on the heel and breathe into it. Squeeze the perineum to enhance Mula Bandha . That’s the most important aspect of the posture.
In C we want as many toes as possible pressed on the floor to get the heel up. This is not easy or comfortable for most people. One way to explore it is to prepare the right leg as if you were about to try half lotus. Make sure the right knee joint is fully closed and draw it back. If you can, get your right upper arm in front of it to keep nudging it back as you bring the right foot towards the left thigh. Now point the foot downwards and “land” your toes, with the sole and the heel pressing against the left thigh. Roll onto your left sit bone as much as possible. The right leg will “float” which is fine, don’t try to push the knee down. Don’t bend towards for this excersise. Just keep rolling gently into your left sit bone with your hands on the floor and you might notice that your right thigh moves inwards, more overtly than in B. It also seems to lengthen slightly. This is the third action of the foot, hip and thigh which helps us understand half lotus.
All three variations of Janu Sirsasana tone and strengthen the gluteal muscles which is another reason to take our time with them. These glutes were made for walking (see what I did there?) and most of us don’t walk enough. Our modern, sedentary life has led to chronically under – active gluteus muscles. In some cases this leads to referred pain in the lower back, especially if the gluteus medius is underused. Luckily all the glutes get a great workout in much of our practice and in Janu Sirsasana the gluteus medius gets a much needed stretch. Don’t rush it!
Last but not least: a quick word about modifications and injuries. If knee pain is present the best way to modify Janu Sirsasana is to stick with A on the painful side. I.e do A three times. Keep the knee joint a little open if closing it causes pain. You can do this by having the foot further down the leg as opposed to up against the groin. Or by rolling up a small towel and placing it behind the knee before closing it. Reduce the forward bend in all three variations if that is when things start to become too intense. This modification is vital if you have pain in the hamstrings or lower back.
further reading and resources
There are pdf downloads of the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā available here.
Krishnamacharia’s translation is the fifth one down!
An image of Krisnmacaria practicing Maha Mudra here