An anatomical breakdown of supta kurmasana
In the Ashtanga primary series, kurmasana and supta kurmasana are often considered the “peak” of the arc of postures in this sequence. We usually do kurmasana and supta kurmasana as a pair. If we are thinking about one of the main intentions of primary series as opening the muscles around the hips and lengthening the back side of the body, then kurmasana and supta kurmasana are a pretty good test of how we’re doing because they require depth in both of these actions. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in kurmasana and supta kurmasana.
Remember, as we break down supta kurmasana, that there are two versions of supta kurmasana. There is the version where you cross your legs in front of your head and the version where you put your legs behind your head, sometimes referred to as raja supta kurmasana. These two different versions require different techniques and are appropriate for different levels of practitioner. I’ll discuss both versions in this article.
Kurmasana is essentially a very deep forward bend. We are flexing at the hip joint to bring our torso, not just to our legs, but through our legs! This is basically our end of possible range of motion for flexion at the hip joint. In essence, the hamstrings will be the primary muscular restriction to getting our torso through our legs. If we build on kurmasana to do supta kurmasana, then we are adding external rotation at both hip joints to our deep flexion at the hips, to cross our legs in front of or behind our head in the full expression of the posture. This movement requires both the deep gluteal muscles (gluteus minimus and medius), as well as the deep six lateral rotators, to be open enough to allow the depth of rotation required, especially if we are talking about putting our legs behind our head.
If we are reaching around to bind our hands behind our back in supta kurmasana, then we are internally rotating at both shoulder joints to bring our hands behind our back. In addition, the shoulder blades move in downward rotation, and then the clavicles have to accommodate the bones of the shoulder girdle as they move. The tighter the muscles of the shoulder girdle are, especially the rotator cuff muscles, the more compensation the clavicle will have to do.
We have two primary anatomical intentions, as I see it, in kurmasana and supta kurmasana: forward bending and external hip rotation. Thankfully we have most of the primary series postures to prepare us for kurmasana and supta kurmasana, because they do ask us to access deep ranges of motion.
From a postural and energetic point of view, supta kurmasana is sometimes referred to as a gateway pose. Energetically, kurmasana and supta kurmasana are designed to stimulate the kanda, which is the nerve plexus that sushumna and all nadis arise out of. In that sense, supta kurmasana, more than any other posture in my own experience, can bring about fear, reactivity, and general anxiousness for students who are new to it. This doesn’t mean that everyone deals with this, but among poses that could “bring stuff up” for someone, supta kurmasana is high on that list of postures.
Let’s break down the two basic anatomical intentions and take a look at where in the primary series we are working each of these actions.
We have many opportunities to work on forward bending throughout the primary series. If we go all the way back to sun salutations we are flexing the hip joints and lengthening the back of the body every time we fold forward to jump back, and after jumping forward. We then move into standing postures, where our first posture is padangusthasana or standing forward bend. We have four wide-legged standing forward bends when we do prasarita padottanasana A, B, C, and D, all of which are quite similar to kurmasana. We also have two standing balance postures, utthita hasta padangusthasana and ardha baddha padmottanasana, which both have forward bending aspects as part of the pose. And that’s just the standing poses!
When we move into seated postures, we have paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana (seated half-bound lotus), triang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana, three variations of janu sirsasana, and then marichyasana A and B which all have a forward bending aspect to the pose. So, by the time we are exploring kurmasana and supta kurmasana, we should be well-practiced at forward bending.
Waiting for tissues to open
That said however, if we have considerable tightness along the back of the body when we begin a yoga practice, particularly through the hamstrings, it may take months or years before we are open enough to move into the full expression of kurmasana and/or supta kurmasana. This is true even if we are doing all of those postures in primary series which come before kurmasana and prepare us for deep forward bending. While we do have many opportunities to work on forward bending in primary series, some patience to allow things to open sufficiently over time may also be necessary before moving into kurmasana and/or supta kurmasana.
External rotation of the hips
Much like forward bending, we have many opportunities in primary series to work on external rotation of the hips. We start our work to open up the hips in standing poses like triangle, side angle, ardha baddha padmottanasana, and warriors 1 and 2. We continue and deepen the work of external hip rotation when we get to the floor with poses like ardha baddha paschimottanasana, three variations of janu sirsasana, marichyasana B, and marichyasana D. So again, we have many opportunities to work on our access to external rotation of the hips before we arrive at supta kurmasana. But, as with the forward bending aspect of supta kurmasana, we need deep external rotation of the hips to access the full expression of the pose. And that may take some time to acquire, depending on how tight our hips are when we begin a yoga practice.
Technique – kurmasana
Let’s discuss kurmasana first, with respect to technique. I often bring back techniques that are initially used in bhujapidasana when teaching kurmasana. As in bhujapidasana, you’ll need to bring the torso through the legs from a standing position. When you first get your shoulders in as deep as they are going to get, you’ll want to squeeze the thighs inward (adduction).
From there, even with the knees bent, sit back onto your upper arms, just as you did in bhujapidasana. This allows the knees to bend more and it allows the shoulders to stay in deeper than they might if you had straight legs. After you’ve sat back onto the back of the arms, maintain the adduction as you bend the elbows and bring your butt and heels down to the floor. Don’t straighten the legs yet.
While you are still squeezing the legs in, with the butt and heels on the floor, turn the hands and arms back. Then, gently press your hands into the floor from the armpit and slowly start to straighten the knees. Straighten the knees as much as you can without overdoing it. Pressure from tight hamstrings in this position can translate into pressure in your lower back. Just doing this much can be challenging and can take some years of practice before it’s readily accessible.
If getting the legs around the shoulders is a challenge, be especially mindful that your legs are not putting pressure on your elbows in the posture. If it feels like pressure from your arms is trying to bend your elbows backward, adjust the position of your legs to be either above or below the elbow joint.
Technique – supta kurmasana
For the Ashtangi, it is typically taught that in supta kurmasana you should bind your hands behind your back before doing anything with your legs in supta kurmasana. This is the method as taught by Pattabhi Jois (Yoga Mala p 91 says only: “…bring the hands behind the back and take hold of the wrist… next, cross the legs over each other…”).
The part that is most often misunderstood is that the idea of binding the hands behind the back first is only for when you are crossing your legs over one another with your head on the floor. The idea of binding the hands first is not meant for the version of supta kurmasana that has you putting your feet all the way behind your head. This is an important distinction, particularly from the teaching perspective with respect to how you adjust students or help them get into this posture. I’ve said plenty about this in my Hands-On Adjustment Workshop.
My technique for supta kurmasana
Therefore, my technique for working supta kurmasana may be different than what you’ve heard or what you’re used to. I’m going to suggest that you work the leg-behind-head aspect of the pose first and then work to bind the hands second. There are a couple reasons why. One is that, unless you have very long legs and a very thin torso, you will almost certainly need your hands to put your legs behind your head. How are you going to work the legs behind your head without your hands? The second reason is that, by binding the hands and then trying to wiggle the feet behind our head, we reduce our access for getting into the hip joints. Unless our hips are super open, we will need all the openness in the hip joints that is available to us to bring the legs behind the head.
So let’s start by working in the direction of the leg-behind-head aspect of this pose. If you are working this pose on your own without a teacher, you’ll have to sit up to work this part of the pose. There are two anatomical movements that are of equal importance. One is the obvious hamstring openness and the second is the external rotation of the hip joint. The two of these movements come together when the leg is behind the head.
Work the hips as much as the hamstrings
Students often focus on stretching the hamstring and trying to take the leg back. The part they often miss out on is bending the knee and taking the knee and leg out to the side as much or more than going back. This emphasizes the movement of the hip joint of the leg that you are trying to put behind your head.
What often happens at this point is that the first leg won’t stay in place and tries to pop back out from behind the head. In order to keep this first foot behind your head, you want to slowly engage the hamstrings of the leg that is behind the head. This flexes the knee and applies pressure in a way that will keep that first leg in place so your hands can eventually become free to work the second leg.
It takes some time, patience, and willingness to explore how this posture is going to work in your individual body. Once your first leg can more or less stay, then start working with the other leg in the same way. Once both legs are in place, you can let go with the hands, use the hands to walk yourself down onto the floor, and then reach to bind the hands behind the back.
Issues, modifications, and avoiding injury
Students often ask the question: where should the foot/leg be when it is behind the head? There is not one answer to that question. It depends on proportions and it depends on how open your hips are. If your legs are very long, it may feel more like you are crossing shins than crossing ankles. You may have an easier time creating the shape of the posture without needing the same depth of openness in the hips as someone with very short legs. If your legs are very short, and your torso long, then your feet may cross behind your head and neck, and it may require more openness in the hip joints before they move farther down the neck.
What about neck pain?
Initially, as you are beginning to work with this posture, your hips may not be open enough to place the foot anywhere besides the neck. This can put pressure on the neck. An intention to lift up fully with the chest can help to take some of that pressure off of the neck. Over time, as things open more, you may be able to move the foot farther down the back and allow it to rest more on the upper shoulder area where it won’t put pressure on the neck.
Either way, if you are feeling neck pain, be mindful of that and change how you’re doing the pose. It may mean that your body is not yet sufficiently open to place the foot behind the head. In that case it might be a better choice to work on preparation postures for leg-behind-head for a while longer and return to supta kurmasana when things have opened up more.
What about pain or pressure at the collarbones or low back pain?
Similarly, if things in your body are not sufficiently open yet for this posture, pushing too hard to get into it can put excessive pressure into the sternoclavicular joints. Some intention to press the shoulder blades back against the legs can lessen this pressure at the collarbones. It’s also not uncommon for students to experience pressure or pain in the low back in the posture. Remember that if your hips are tight, the spine has to accommodate that restriction because the spine is attached to the pelvis. If the hips are tight they will cause the spine to be in deep flexion which can send pressure and/or pain into the low back. If you are feeling pain or overly compressed in this pose, you might need to back up and spend more time opening the hips before coming back to work this posture.
Preparation for leg-behind-head
As I said already, we have many opportunities in the primary series to work on opening our hips before we get to supta kurmasana and it still may take some time to create sufficient opening for this posture. However, there are also some preps that I find to be especially helpful for targeting the specific range of motion needed in supta kurmasana. One prep that I recommend is a pigeon pose with the front bent leg parallel to the front of the mat. This puts the stretch into the lateral gluteal muscles (gluteus minimus and gluteus medius) as well as the deep 6 lateral rotators. You can also do a similar action when sitting up by bringing the bent leg toward the body, while keeping the shin parallel to the floor.