Why do janu sirsasana A?
Janu sirsasana A pose translates as “head to the knee” pose. It’s a common seated posture in many styles of yoga from Hatha to Iyengar to Ashtanga. And importantly, it’s a great posture for developing more open hips for poses like half lotus, but it puts much less stress on the knees.
The main anatomical movement that shows up in janu sirsasana A is external rotation of the hip. That external hip rotation is happening on the side with the bent knee. As we fold forward toward the straight leg in this posture, we lengthen the hamstrings and calf on the straight leg side. And, as with any forward bend, we are also lengthening the tissues along the back of our torso as we fold forward.
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I’d suggest that the primary intention in janu sirsasana A is to open the hips. External rotation of the hips is one of the core movements or range of motion that we need in order to safely and comfortably do common yoga postures. If you have struggled with half-lotus or lotus positions, the range of motion that is likely preventing you from going further is limited external hip rotation.
In that case, a pose like janu sirsasana which opens those same muscles around the hip, but puts less pressure on the knees, is a great one for preparing the hips to eventually do half lotus or lotus more comfortably. Although it can be easy to put most of our focus on the stretch sensation in our hamstrings if they are tight, I’d encourage you to take the opportunity with this pose to work the external hip rotation. Pay attention to the subtle sensations around the hip of the bent leg side and see what you notice.
Generally, most people find that janu sirsasana A is a pretty accessible pose. So there isn’t a lot to say with respect to techniques for this posture. If your hips are really tight, you may find that your knee is floating up in the air, rather than resting on the ground in this pose. In that case, you may want to slide a thin block or towel underneath your knee. Allowing your knee to rest on something can help you turn off some of the tension around that hip, just by not having to hold your knee up. And that can help you lengthen those muscles around the hip because you’re starting with as little tension as possible before you forward fold.
To square the hips or not to square the hips?
The other technique question about janu sirsasana usually comes up around whether or not to square your hips to the front of your mat. Some teachers prefer the square-the-hips-to-the-front version and other teachers prefer the version where you rotate the pelvis more in the direction of the leg with the bent knee. The answer to this question is really a matter of what tissues you want to lengthen.
Neither version of the pose is right or wrong, per se. But they are different. The version where both hips point forward really is a forward bend. The second version, with the rotated pelvis, is more of a twist when you fold forward. Both versions will lengthen the muscles around the hip that is in external rotation. But because of the position of the pelvis in relation to your legs, I would expect the version with both hips facing front to give you more stretch around that externally rotated hip than the other version.
The main caution with janu sirsasana A is around the knee joint. If it causes pressure or pain in your knee when you flex the knee joint enough to allow the heel of your foot to sit near your pubic bone, then the simple modification is to just not bring the foot in as far. Flex the knee joint only as much as is accessible in your body. As you continue to practice the pose over time and tissues around the hip open, then you may find that you can bring the foot in a little closer. Regardless of whether you bring the foot all the way into your body or not, you’ll still be stretching those muscles around your hip.
If you do feel pinching at your knee, pay attention to how much your pelvis is moving over the head of the femur in the bent leg. When the movement stops at the hip joint, the movement then proceeds to the knee joint. It might be that you need to stop folding forward sooner than you think if you’re feeling any pinching in your knee. And, should you have a pinching sensation in the knee, this is where it’s also helpful to move your foot further away from your pubic bone and allow more space at the knee joint.
And of course, since this is also a forward bending posture, I’ll remind you not to overdo it on the hamstrings in this pose either. If you start to feel tension or pain at the sit bone, back out of the forward bend a little bit. Move slowly as you fold forward and stop at the point where most of the stretch sensation is in the belly of the hamstring muscles.