It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in late April. I’ve just led a group of students into janu sirsasana, or head to knee pose. This pose is an asymmetrical seated forward fold, done with one leg extended and one leg folded in. As usual, I’ve called this pose by its Sanskrit name, avoiding any mention of its corresponding English name. I know from experience that the words “head to knee pose” are enough to trigger a palpable tension in the room. For most of my students, suggesting that their head should touch their knee in this position is not only unreasonable, it’s quite possibly harmful.
The harm comes when students confuse the name of a pose with its goal.
The goal of a yoga pose is to reap the benefits it brings. In the case of janu sirsasana, those benefits include: stretching the posterior side of the body, improving digestion, and calming the nervous system, all of which are attainable without ever touching head to knee. Typically, the benefits of a yoga pose are ones we can carry off the mat. It would be funny to suggest that a benefit of janu sirsasana includes an improved ability to get one’s head to one’s knee in janu sirsasana, because this isn’t something we can carry off the mat. Yogasana (the physical practice of yoga) was developed as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Yogis needed a way to keep the body supple and healthy so they could sit comfortably for long periods of meditation. The names of poses developed as names often do: as placeholders or convenient shorthand, with the understanding that the essence of the pose can’t be summarized in one or two words.
So when we take a pose like janu sirsasana and approach it as though getting one’s head to one’s knee is the most essential part, what happens?
Back in my Wednesday afternoon hatha class, I look around at my students. In more than half the class, I observe how a combination of tight hamstrings and hips have created a posterior tilt to the pelvis, rounding out the lower back and limiting the forward fold. Of these students, a few seem to have accepted where they are in the pose; their faces are relaxed, their hands are resting lightly on their legs. Many others, however, are visibly straining. I see fingers gripping legs and feet, breath becoming shallow, faces grimacing with the effort of pulling against the natural mechanics of the body.
How do I explain that yoga happens on the inside?
How do I convince my students that they can enjoy all the benefits of janu sirsasana even if their head is nowhere near their knee? I repeat my instructions for using the breath: “inhale lengthen the spine, exhale soften into the pose”. I soon shorten these to “exhale, soften”, and then “soften, soften”.
I repeat the word “soften” like a mantra, quietly, patiently, lovingly.
In this moment it’s all I want for my students, just to soften. It occurs to me that it’s no longer just about softening the body. The tension I see on these faces goes so much deeper than muscle and bone. Soften, soften. Soften the expectations. Soften the reaching. Soften the desire for things to be different than they are. Soften the dissatisfaction. Soften the perfectionism. Soften the feelings of not-enough-ness. Soften any notion of “I’ll be happy when…”. Soften into the relentlessness of your life. Soften, soften.
It’s a lesson I learn daily from my own tight hamstrings, from my own reaching hands. Every time I get on my mat my body teaches what my heart needs to learn: soften my inner critic, soften my judgemental nature, soften my need to control things.
Yoga is an inside story, and no matter how far your head is from touching your knee, if you can’t soften right where you are, you will suffer.
Photo by Erin Bidlake