Why would we want to put our leg behind our head?
Like lotus pose and handstand, leg behind head is one of those stereotypical poses that yogis often aspire to. It’s a challenging pose for just about everyone. Because it’s challenging, it provides a laboratory for exploring our ideas about our own limits and for stretching our ideas about what’s possible. But, leg behind head does have us working very near our end of range of motion, so it isn’t going to be appropriate for everyone at every stage of practice.
Leg behind head within systems of yoga
Leg behind head is a challenging pose and for that reason it doesn’t often show up in the average vinyasa class. Within the Ashtanga system that I practice however, there are leg behind poses that appear in each sequence. There is one asana in the primary series that can include the leg behind head action (supta kurmasana) if you do the leg behind head variation of it. There are three asanas with one or both legs behind the head in the intermediate series and five asanas with one or both legs behind the head in the third series of postures. So, those who practice and study within the Ashtanga system will eventually at least approach the idea of leg behind head.
Leg behind head is not only found within the Ashtanga practice, however. B.K.S. Iyengar describes a whole series of postures which incorporate the leg behind head action in his book, Light on Yoga. Likewise, Krishnamacharya certainly included the action of leg behind head as an option in his vinyasa krama sequences.
Anatomically, what is leg behind head?
The movement of leg behind head is composed of several fundamental actions that you’re probably familiar with. The first is flexion of the hip, just as we do in a forward bend. But, when we’re talking about taking our leg behind our head, we’re not folding to our legs, we’re lifting the leg and taking the torso forward and in front of the leg(s). The second action that is necessary is external hip rotation. Finally, there is also a bit of abduction at the hip joint which is needed to create the maximum space to fit the leg around the torso and some extension of the spine which is necessary to maintain the integrity of the shape.
Any pose that incorporates the leg behind head action is an interplay between hip flexion and hip external rotation. Because this requires a fairly extreme range of motion, any muscles that restrict either flexion or external rotation of the hip could impact our access to putting our leg behind our head. Restrictors can include the hamstrings, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and all of the deep six lateral rotators. There is also the possibility that restriction comes from the shape of the hip joint itself — in other words, skeletal shape.
But, the hip joint doesn’t live in a vacuum. Leg behind head is also a reflection of the relationship between the hips, sacroiliac joint (SI joint), and the spine, particularly the lumbar spine. Any tightness or imbalance up or down the chain of joints from the hips can show up in difficulty accessing leg behind head. For this reason, restrictors could also include gluteus maximus, the spinal extensors, the psoas, as well as the quadratus lumborum.
Having said that, because in this case we are working with the hip joint, the most typical issue with this interrelationship is when the hip joint itself is too tight. When it is tighter than the ideal, the lack of movement there generates force. That force is then sent up the chain through the SI joint and the lumbar spine. I have seen this many times and if you’re having issues as a result of leg behind head, you should definitely read my article the gluteal psoas relationship, which discusses the lumbar and paraspinal muscles.
It’s fairly easy to wrap our heads around moving our femur in the hip joint as we bring the leg in towards the torso to put it behind our head. But, one of the aspects that makes leg behind head a level up from many postures that also require external hip rotation is that we also need to move our pelvis around the head of the femur. That action deepens both the flexion and external rotation needed for leg behind head. This is true both when we sit up tall through the spine, to help keep the leg behind the head, and also if we do a version of eka pada sirsasana where we fold forward.
Stages of leg behind head
Rarely does anyone go straight to working on leg behind head. Instead, it’s important to establish a consistent base of practice and to work specifically to access the range of motion that’s necessary.
- Establish a base of hip flexion and external rotation in more fundamental postures. — If you’re struggling with the range of motion of your hips and hamstrings in postures like kurmasana, baddha konasana, utthita hasta padangusthasana, and forward bends in general, then you have more work to do before exploring deeper ranges of motion like leg behind head.
- When a base of external hip rotation and openness in the hamstrings is established, work with some preparation postures for leg behind head. The closer the approximation to leg behind head of the preparation shape that you’re working with, the more effectively you’ll be stretching the necessary tissues.
- One very effective preparation pose is pigeon pose done with the foreleg parallel to the front of the mat.
- If you can, bring your forearms to the floor in front of your shin.
- If you can do that, try twisting your torso toward the knee, as well as the other direction, to change the direction of tension going through your hip joint.
- Don’t go too low here. You may also have to add a block under your folded leg to avoid too much pressure into the hips and legs. You don’t want to inadvertently engage the very muscles that you’re trying to lengthen by keeping them contracted to stabilize you.
- Finally, you can continue working that range of motion, while also working the action of maintaining some intention of extension of the spine by sitting up and bringing the bent leg in toward the chest.
- Once you’ve established a base in the necessary range of motion and spent some time exploring some of the preparation postures, you can begin to work the action of taking the leg behind the head.
- Sit up and establish a base with a neutral pelvis. The pelvis will have some posterior tilt and the low back will round a bit when you are fully in the posture. But, if you start with a more neutral pelvis, you can help avoid sending too much pressure into the lower back and sacrum.
- Bend the knee and start to bring the leg in toward the chest, then emphasize the abduction and external rotation at the hip joint by sending the knee out to the side. This is often a piece that gets missed out when students start working leg behind head.
- Then, from there, bring the leg and foot closer to the chest.
- Finally, duck the head under the leg, but don’t pull the leg across the body too far. You don’t want your calf muscle on your head. You want the thinner bottom of the foreleg (closer to the ankle) as close to the base of the neck as possible.
- From there slowly sit up into the pose, and make sure if you do feel pressure, it’s in your hip. Have some intention of extending the spine and maintain activity in the pelvic floor so that you are supporting this deep range of motion.
What I’ve covered so far is just the basic format for leg behind head. Additional challenges arise when we add the leg behind head action of one leg to other actions in the body. There is no end to the creativity in creating complicated asanas. For example, one leg behind head is different than two legs behind head. With two legs behind head, not only does each leg have to go behind the head, there has to be enough openness to allow the second leg to fit behind the first leg! Any variation of leg behind head is a deep posture and when we add other actions, things only get more complicated.
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David summarizes research which evaluates physical effort needed to do common standing yoga postures and how that effort compares to walking.