Pose of the Month: Janu Sirsasana
Approached consciously and purposefully, Janu Sirsasana strengthens our ability to “let go” and surrender into our divine experience, and is often a space of emotional clearing and/or processing. Ideally explored at the end of a practice, it supports the release of all tensions and energetic blocks that have been touched upon during asana practice. Due to the pranic movement of energy in the pose, the exhale deepens and we are drawn more inward.
We hold our deep unconscious fears in the base of the spine. Fear of loss, fear of death, fear of the unknown, and our inability to process these fears or bring them into a conscious level results in a great deal of tension and resistance from the physical space of the base of the spine to the soles of the feet. When we sink into these spaces in our body, these fears often manifest themselves as anger, frustration and deep sadness. That is why in deep forward folds and twists, we often find an upwelling of emotion. Janu Sirsasana has components of both deep forward bending and twisting, therefore the resistance and reaction to what is being released is often very strong. In support of this energetic and pranic tendency in head to knee pose, the exhale will naturally lengthen, directing our energy down and out of our body, eliminating psychic waste and mental gunk.
If you have ever experienced the intensity of emotional release that is not uncommon in the practice of Janu Sirsasana, then you know how unexpected and overwhelming it can be. Not to worry though, this physical and emotional release is moving you toward sattwa; the experience of balance, purity and freedom. Through the gift of these moments of release, you are clearing a path to your inner self that is impervious to fear, anger and frustration. So, let it go. A dear friend and guide once told me that each tear is a gift, because for every tear you shed you are releasing samskaras (the roots of Karma), and you don’t have to work to let them go anymore. Often we are hindered on our path by obstacles and patterns that seem to come out of nowhere and persist through all manner of effort to release them. Through years of holding and resisting on an unconscious level, we create and recreate unhealthy experiences in our lives. But through the practices of conscious release, like in Janu Sirsasana, little by little, with conscious effort and compassionate work, we will clear the obstacles of fear and trepidation and find ourselves stepping more confidently and clearly on our path of understanding.
Forward bends can be challenging to do without creating strain in the low back, due to muscles that are commonly tight such as the hamstrings and the adductors. In Janu Sirsasana, the group of muscles on the back of the thigh that run from the knee to the sit bones, known as the hamstrings, are the focus of the stretch. When these muscles are tight they posteriorly tilt the pelvis (the top of the pelvis is tilted back and the lower back is flattened) which anteriorly compresses the lumbar vertebrae and leads to back strain and pain.
Sitting forward bends are some of the most challenging asanas because you are locking your pelvis on the floor, which causes the strain and stretch to go right to the low back. Because of this, it is important to create freedom of movement in the pelvis, sitting on a folded blanket if necessary. To begin this posture you want to make sure your pelvis is tilted forward (the top of the pelvis is tilted forward, the tailbone going back and sit bones pushing away from you), so that you have a small arch in your low back. This pelvic position will help you find the stretch in your hamstrings instead of your lower back. As you begin to come into this posture it is important to pull your sternum forward, keeping the arch in your low back. You can pull forward by grasping onto your shins, your foot or onto a belt. After getting the maximum elongation of your back and hamstrings you can begin to melt forward rounding your back. If you have a back injury, you may want to keep your back straight until you are healed. Some people feel discomfort in the straight knee which can be helped by putting a small towel roll under your knee to make sure you are not hyperextending this joint. Some people find more of a challenge in the bent knee. This is usually from tightness of the adductors (the muscles on the inner thigh). You can support this leg with a block or blanket under the knee to make sure that as you lean forward you do not feel any strain in your knee joint.
In sitting forward bends, changing the position of the legs will change where and how you are stretching the muscles. Janu Sirsasana focuses the stretch on one hamstring at a time on the straight leg and one short adductor at a time on the bent knee. In contrast, other forward folds work the physical body differently. Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold) is expressed with both legs straight. This means that you are stretching both hamstrings simultaneously, and will therefore be limited by the tighter side in the amount of forward fold you can achieve.. Janu Sirsasana allows you to meet each hamstring at its most flexible point to get maximum elongation of both sides. Baddha Konasana, focuses on the short adductors because the knees are bent and in Upavista Konasana focuses on the inner hamstrings and long adductors because of the wide angle of the legs and straightened knees. All of these postures are important to get elongation in the different parts of all of the muscles involved. A balanced physical practice incorporates stretching in all planes of motion and in each part of the muscle.
Read previous Pose of the Month (POTM) posts at: http://www.yogabasics.com/connect/potm