Standing head to knee pose is hard. It isn’t hard because it’s gymnastically difficult or requires the flexibility of a rubber band. It’s hard because your ego gets up and stands naked in front of you, and you have to gently teach yourself to live without it.
It is possible to do the pose fairly quickly; you hold your foot and kick with it. We all have that ego. The one that knows it will look good if it pushes to the full expression of the posture. The one that says oh yeah, I’ve got this. The one that says I don’t want to look like a ‘beginner’.
But here is the truth: you cannot change where you are unless you fully accept where you are. You do not get the benefits of the posture if you skip the beginnings. You sacrifice happiness – all the health benefits, all the personal endurance and emotional clout, all the stuff that changes your life – by going for the fleeting pleasure of looking good for a millisecond.
Here is the rest of the truth: you get every ounce of the happiness benefits in the first baby step of the pose, if you enter it patiently. Standing with all of the weight on one leg, locking the knee, lifting the opposite knee to parallel.
Listen to that ego, though, and the blessings of the pose drain away.
It’s what looks most simple, sometimes, that is hardest. It’s what looks like standing still, like nothing at all, where the whole body and mind are firing with a subtle change that will leave echos and light trails behind it. Standing head to knee pose is a catalyst of concentration, strength, trying over. But first, it’s a posture of patience.
Once upon a time in my way back beginning of yoga world, I was strong and fairly flexible and I could do most of the postures, I thought, pretty danged well. But I was not patient. Nor was I listening. And I spent months steamrolling my way from pose to pose. One day I realized, though, that I wasn’t doing the pose at all. In the true pose, your back rounds, your belly curls in, your whole spine extends. Your weight is spread like a square across the four corners of your standing foot. Your extended leg rotates in, the toes point back at your face, and your hips fall into another square of alignment.
My back was strait. I used arm muscle strength to pull myself down, rather than core strength to hold myself up and curl over my center. I hyper extended my standing knee, teetering in a few seconds of balance and hanging onto my foot, my foot pushing into my toes in some kind of monkey grasp to better hang on, and my breathing basically stopped. I clung, and then I felt proud of myself.
It’s not that you fail at a yoga posture. With a decent teacher, which most are, you can’t really do the thing too poorly without them calling you back to a better space. I felt, realizing how off I was, that I had wasted a lot of time. This isn’t really true: I was at the earlier, pre-early steps. I had to do it wrong for a while to know I was wrong. I had to be in a regular practice, feel out some safety and regularity in the room, the teachers, the atmosphere, before it got safe enough for me to let go of that ego, and start from nowhere.
I started, again.
Shift all of your weight to your standing foot. Find that square of balance, all four corners of your feet, the ball and heel equally supporting you, your weight rising like a true plane, smooth lumber, solid grace, from that steady floor. Find the same square in your hips – the standing one may want to pop out. Most of us have funny hip habits, leaning too far in, out, the pelvic girdle shifted forward or back. You won’t even notice this, you won’t even know, until you start from nowhere.
The sacrum spreads, the hips open and ground at the same time, your frame squares off.
(Hear my dialogue, Mr. Bikram? Lock the knee. Lock the knee. Lock. The. Knee.)
The challenge of standing head to knee creates a space for you to build concentration, endurance, and the ability to keep trying. Learning the subtleties of the pose cues you to greater attention, awareness, appreciation for the complexity of your own body. The skill leaves the mat with you, making you a person who notices more, can take in subtleties, notice minor distinctions, find relations. A person who knows the value of patience.
Yoga works to balance the two hemispheres of the brain, crossing the thick barrier between them. This feels an awake calm, stimulation and soothing all at once, quicker, clearer thoughts and improved focus. The balance gives us ability to let go of thoughts that aren’t currently relevant or necessary. The quality of our attention, of our conscious presence, changes. Standing head to knee pushes that quality to the forefront of the standing series.
Oddly, the challenge, the set backs, the humility learned here turn into a kind of lightheartedness. A return to play. A retreat from dour seriousness.
The quality of concentration we learn in the pose harmonizes our physical and intellectual (and emotional) behaviors. There is an element of control, of push, of fight, but there is also a subtle river letting go and release, the patience of standing back: we learn to balance between the two, to call on each according to need, to use the two forces in concert, rather than in self-defeating ways. In practicing on one foot, then the other, we learn the differences. All this is a learning of when strength is a virtue, and when restraint.
Here is the truth: with years of practice, more than enough strength and flexibility, and a pretty good knowledge of the steps of the pose, it is still best for me to practice patience. To realize, as soon as this pose begins, that my ego has stripped down, stood up, and stands hollering naked in the middle of the room.
I can feel, now, muscles and tendons and joints (sometimes I swear I feel the moving of my veins, the oxygen, the fluids, the hormonal swing), that I didn’t know existed when I began. I know how the muscles feel in the full pose, how the knee locks, where there is length and where there is curl.
But if I practice patience, I can create those same feelings, in the first baby step of the pose. Before my knee is lifted, while I’m still fully upright. The final expression is present from the first step. The ego part would flaunt all that emotional gain, all those physical details, for the bare gain of looking like a hot shot. Standing head to knee is the practice of ignoring the ego, tapping into all the other things that are there.
Surprising. Most of us never were aware there was anything, aside from that ego.
Dandayamana Janushirasana is a map to the ocean of things outside that quibbling ego.
I feel my lower back widen and lengthen. I feel the hips groove to a place that isn’t normal for me, but is actual alignment. I can feel the muscles of my core take over the whole weight and responsibility of supporting me, and I can feel them pull in, massaging the organs and stuff inside, flushing me clean. From the very, very beginning step.
The Physical Benefits of Standing Head to Knee
- Improves flexibility and extension of the sciatic nerve
- Contraction of quadriceps, trapezium, biceps, latissimus dorsi, and abdominal muscles
- Compression of pancreas, gall bladder, spleen, uterus and ovaries, thyroid
- extension of kidneys
- bringing the heart toward the floor mimics inversion, puts pressure on the muscle, exercising the organ by increasing the heart rate
- builds strength throughout the body
- improves flexibility and eases symptoms of issues related to the sciatic nerve (sciatica, disc herniation, degenerative disc disease, lumbar spinal stenosis)
- strengthens the tendons
- prevents wear and tear of the knee joint and cartilage by strengthening the soft tissue around the knee
- helps clear and prevent problems of digestion
- improves balance
- by compressing the pancreas, helps to regulate sugar levels
- improves tone of core, back, arms, and legs
- massages, flushes, and floods the reproductive organs with fresh oxygen and nutrients, which some say improves your sex life (hmm)
- decreases and prevents varicose veins by extending, flushing, and exercising the long vein running from heart to leg (great saphenous vein)