For anyone who has ever practiced yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga, in particular, you may have come across Janu Sirsasana, also known as ‘Head to Knee’ pose. It is one of the most commonly practiced seated postures in any given yoga class. And so in this article, we’re going to focus all our attention on Janu Sirsasana.
Janu Sirsasana is also known as ‘Head to Knee’ pose because Janu means knee and Sirsa means head. In Janu Sirsasana we fold over our straight leg, whilst having the other knee bent at a 90-degree angle. This pose combines two functions, forward bending, and hip rotation.
Janu Sirsasana is one of the first seated poses in the Ashtanga yoga primary series. And more specifically, it has 3 variations which all work on a variety of hip angles and heel variations.
I’ve written a complete guide to the Ashtanga yoga poses of the Primary series, so be sure to check it out.
What are the Benefits of Janu Sirsasana?
Janu sirsasana has 3 main benefits. The first is the lengthening of the hamstrings of the straight leg as we fold forward. The second is that it helps with the external rotation of the hip of the bent leg. And the third is that the forward folding of Janu Sirsana can help calm the mind.
This pose can feel challenging for those with tight hamstrings, as they struggle to forward fold. As with most yoga poses, there are modifications and variations which I will discuss below.
And so a tendency is to round the back and bring the forehead to the knee. Instead, we aim to lengthen the spine and straighten the back so as to reduce tension in the lower back.
According to John Scott in his book Ashtanga Yoga, “This is the first seated asana to introduce a slight twist in the spine and you must take care to engage the bandhas to along correctly and protect your lower back”
What does Janu Sirsasana stretch?
Janu Sirsasana can stretch three parts of the body. The first is the hamstrings and the calf of the straight leg as we forward fold. The second is the groin of the bent leg. And lastly, Janu Sirsasana helps to stretch the lower back whilst introducing a slight twist to the spine.
Most beginners with tight hamstrings tend to bend the extended leg. And that is great as it may help to reduce the rounding of the spine.
However, by bending the extended leg we won’t effectively stretch the hamstrings and calf. And so another option for anyone who has limited flexibility is to keep the leg straight but not fold forward much, as that way we make sure we protect the lower back by not rounding as we forward fold.
How do you perform Janu Sirsasana?
Let’s now have a look at how I would best guide a student in and out of this pose. And so if you are a student or a teacher interested in finding out how to cue Janu Sirsasana, this guide will be able to help.
As this is an Ashtanga Yoga Pose, I will also include the corresponding breath count to enter and exit this pose.
As with all seated postures in Ashtanga Yoga, we start off at Sapta (seven). This is because we assume that we start of each posture from standing. And so from standing:
Vinyasa to enter Janu Sirsasana
Ekam 1: Inhale and raise your arms up
Dve 2: Exhale and fold forward
Trini 3: Inhale and lengthen
Catvari 4: Exhale and step or jump back to Chaturanga
Panca 5: Inhale and come into Upward facing dog
Sat 6: Exhale and come into Downward facing dog
How to do Janu Sirsasana
Sapta 7: Inhale and jump forward into Dandasana. From here bend your right leg and bring the sole of the right foot to the inner left thigh.
If possible, create a 90-degree angle between the right knee and the extended left leg.
Hold on to the left foot. If that is too much, use a strap or hold on to your shin.
Inhale and lengthen.
Astau 8: exhale and fold forward with your gaze to the toes of the left leg. As we stay here for 5 breaths, aim to lift your heart and allow your chest to be square over the straight leg.
Something you can work on here is to avoid hunching. In order to do this try to keep the forehead away from the knee. Instead, direct your heart and top of your head towards the left foot. This will help strengthen the back muscles.
How to exit Janu Sirsasana
Nava 9: Inhale and release the hands. Exhale here.
Daca 10: Inhale and lift up with crossed legs.
Ekadaca 11: Exhale and jump back into Chaturanga
Dvadaca 12: Inhale and come into Upward facing dog
Trayodaca 13: Exhale and come into Downward facing dog
Caturdaca 14: Repeat steps 7-13 on the other side.
Janu Sirsasana Modifications
As a general rule, the main modification for Janu Sirsasana is for those who have trouble folding forward. In this case, the most common modification is to use a yoga strap. This way we can enjoy the benefits of the pose, even if we can’t clasp the foot of the extended leg.
Janu Sirsasana modifications really do vary depending on each person’s body, their flexibility, and their injuries. And so to be able to offer beginner’s tips, I will point out what I commonly see:
In this case, I advise students to not come forward too much. Yes, this is a forward fold, however, if we have tight hamstrings, it is important to also protect the lower back.
And so in the case of tight hamstrings, it is perhaps best to not come too forward to a point where we bend the straight leg. Instead, stay upright, or to wherever the hamstring can stay straight. Alternatively, bend the extended leg and fold forward. However, keep in mind that this way you won’t be effectively working on stretching your tight hamstrings.
Another solution is to place a folded blanket under the hips. This helps to slightly tilt the pelvis forward and in turn, helps to minimize the rounding of the lower back while folding forward.
For anyone with sensitive knees, bending the knee and then folding forward may put too much pressure on the knee joint and cause pain. And so in this case, the best modification is to use a yoga block and place it under the injured knee.
Another modification is to place a blanket under the knee of the extended leg. This is especially important if there is any pain or discomfort on the back of the kee as we fold forward. And so by placing a blanket under the knee we help keep it slightly bent but protected.
Lower back pain
For anyone with lower back pain, or with a herniated disk, it is very important to keep the back straight. And so in this case, even if you are upright whilst performing the pose, that is perfectly ok as this way we are protecting our lower back.
Janu Sirsasana Variations
There are 4 main Janu Sirsasana variations. The first three are Janu Sirsasana a, b, and c which are all forward folds and use a variety of hip and heel placements. The fourth variation is Parivritta Janu Sirsasana, which involves a deep side stretch as we lean on to the extended leg.
1. Janu Sirsasana A
Janu Sirsasana A is the first version of this pose practiced in the Ahstanga yoga primary series. In Janu Sirsasana A we extend the left leg forward, then bring the right foot into the inner left thigh. We Inhale and lengthen and then exhale and fold forward and clasp the left foot if possible.
2. Janu Sirsasana B
Janu Sirsasana B is the second version of this pose practiced in the Ahstanga yoga primary series. We extend the left leg forward, and sit on the right heel, placing the heel at the perineal muscle. This version invites the spine to slightly twist and also helps to strengthen the ankle joint.
If this feels uncomfortable on the knee or ankle, a modification is to practice Janu Sirsasana A.
3. Janu Sirsasana C
Janu Sirsasana C is the most advanced version. Here we extend the left leg and rotate the right foot so that the ball of the foot is on the floor and the heel is pointing up, with the arch of the right foot resting on the inner left thigh. Hip rotation and Achilles tendon length may limit this pose.
Similar to Janu Sirsasana B, if this is too much on your knees or if you feel discomfort in your foot, then practice Janu SIrsasana A.
4. Parivritta Janu Sirsasana
Parivritta Janu Sirsasana is side stretch verion. Parivritta means revolved, Janu means knee and Sirsa means head. And so here we extend the leg to the side and allow the body to move over the extended leg by creating a rather intense side stretch.
Props for Janu Sirsasana
When trying to work on Janu Sirsasana, it is worthwhile investigating and working with pros to see how we can access the pose more efficiently, even just as an exploration.
A yoga strap can be used for those who have difficulty clapping the foot of the extended leg.
People with tight hamstrings can sit on a yoga blanket, so as to help tilt the pelvis forward. This may help move more deeply into the forward fold.
Alternatively, a yoga planet can be rolled up and placed under the knee of the extended leg. This is particularly important if there is any pain in the back of the knee as we fold forward with straight legs.
A yoga block can be placed under the knee of the bent leg, especially if there is any knee pain or knee sensitivity.
As with any posture, there are certain things to try to avoid.
- Try to avoid bringing your forehead to the knee of the straight leg. This is rather common for beginners, eager to fold forward. Instead, think about extending forward, rather than down.
- Keep in mind that you can still do Janu SIrsasana even if you can’t hold on the the foot of the extended leg. The bind alone does not make up the posture.
What does Janu mean in yoga?
Janu is a Sanskrit word and it means knee. A very common yoga pose practiced in Ashtanga yoga is Janu Sirsasana and this translates as Head to Knee pose.
What muscles do head to knee forward bend work?
Head to knee forward bend, also known as Janu Sirsasana, helps to lengthen the hamstrings and calf of the extended leg. It helps to open up groin of the bent leg by encouraging hip rotation. And lastly, it helps to lengthen the muscles of the lower back by asking the spine to slightly twist.
How does one feel after performing Janu Sirsasana?
After practicing Janu Sirsasana you may feel calmer, given that forward folds tend to help calm the mind and the nervous system. Additionally, you may feel a nice stretch along the back of the extended leg and you may feel a nice stretch along your lower back.