Head-to-knee forward bend, known as janu sirsasana in Sanskrit, is a seated forward fold that stretches the muscles of the calves, hamstrings, hips, and back. The pose involves an external rotation of one leg and a forward bend over the other for a pose that focuses the benefits of seated forward fold (paschimottanasana) on one leg at a time.
Head-to-knee forward bend massages the abdominal organs for healthy digestion and stimulates circulation to the stomach organs and spinal cord. The pose also engages the abdominal muscles to tone the stomach and trim belly fat.
Head-to-knee forward bend massages the abdominal and pelvic organs including the liver, pancreas, spleen, urinary tract, kidneys, and adrenal glands. This relieves gas, constipation, and indigestion for a healthy digestive tract. According to guru Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the pose also increases vitality and improves metabolism.
The forward fold also relaxes the nervous system, relieving stress and calming the mind. The pose can relieve headache and put an end to temporary insomnia. Head-to-knee forward bend is a submissive, restorative pose and, therefore, an ideal forward bend for restorative yoga sequences.
Do not attempt head-to-knee forward bend if you:
- have a slipped disk.
- have sciatica.
- have an abdominal hernia.
Always practice a forward fold, like head-to-knee forward bend, seated forward fold, or any of its variation after intense back bending poses, since forward folds and backbends are counter poses. Head-to-knee forward bend is beneficial after bow pose (dhanurasana), bridge pose (setu bandhasana sarvangasana), camel pose (ustrasana), or circle pose (chakrasana).
How to do the Janu Sirsasana
- Begin seated on the mat, with your legs extended in front of you in staff pose (dandasana). Flex your feet.
- Bend your left leg and draw your heel toward your body. When your foot is above your right knee (the higher the better), turn your left leg outward. Place the sole of your left foot against your right thigh. Press your left thigh down into the mat and drop your knee toward the floor.
- Plant your right hand outside your right thigh and press your left hand against your left thigh to turn your torso gently to the right. Square your hips over your right leg.
- Inhale. Straighten and lengthen your spine to extend it upward. Press the bottom corners of your shoulder blades toward your heart center to bring your shoulders down and back. Splay the toes of your right foot to keep it active throughout the pose.
- Exhale and bend over your right leg from the hips. As you bend, maintain the spinal extension and draw the lower belly in to make room for your torso against your upper thigh.
- Look at your toes. Draw your chest forward toward your shin, rather than down toward your knee. This action will help prevent your back from rounding. The bend should always come from the hips, not from the waist.
- Inhale. Reach your left hand forward and, if possible, take hold of the inside of your right foot.
- Exhale. Press your left thigh deeper into the mat to turn your torso further to the right.
- Inhale. Reach your right hand forward and, if possible, take hold of the outside of your right foot.
- Breath and hold the pose. With every inhale recommit to the spinal extension, with every exhale recommit to the bend.
- Inhale. Bring the fingertips of both hands to the mat and gradually push yourself up into staff pose. Lift from the hips and keep your spine extended. Exhale. Repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Modifications and Props
Reach your feet with a strap. If it isn’t possible to take hold of your feet in steps seven and eight (above) with your hands, use a strap instead. In step four, loop a strap around the foot of your extended leg. When you bend forward, take hold of the strap with one, then both, of your hands instead of taking hold of the foot directly.
For a gentler pose, elevate the pelvis. In step one (above), place a folded blanket under your buttocks. Elevating the pelvis will increase mobility in the groin, making it easier to drop the thigh of the bent leg toward the mat. If you tend to round your back in the pose, or if your knees hover high above the mat, try elevating your pelvis.
Support your knee with a folded blanket. If your bent knee hovers above the mat, the pose can cause backache. Place a folded blanket under your knee in step two (above), to protect your back.
Intensify the pose by drawing your heel further in. For a more dramatic external rotation that lengthens the hip flexor and hip rotator muscles, draw your heel closer to your buttocks in step two (above).
Revolved Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose (Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana). This more difficult variation of head-to-knee forward bend involves an abdominal twist that stretches the abdominal muscles and massages the abdominal organs. Do steps one and two (above). Then place the fingertips of your hands on the mat and rotate to the left. Exhale. Bending forward, drop your right shoulder inside your right leg. Inhale. Lay your right arm on the mat, palm facing up. Exhale. Bend your right elbow back and take hold of your right foot with your right hand. Inhale. Raise your left arm up. Exhale. Bend your left arm over your head, reaching for your right foot. Breath and hold the pose. Exhale and come out. Repeat on the opposite side.
Half Lotus Stretching Pose (Ardha Padma Paschimottanasana). This variation intensifies the external rotation of the bent leg by drawing from half lotus pose (ardha padmasana). In step two (above), tuck the top of your left foot into the crease of your right foot for half lotus pose. Maintain this positioning throughout the pose.
Seated Forward Fold Pose (Paschimottanasana). This variation is a forward fold over both legs. Begin in staff pose. Inhale. Straighten and lengthen your spine to extend it upward. Exhale. Bend over your legs from the hips. As you bend, maintain the spinal extension and draw the lower belly in to make room for your torso against your upper thigh. Breath and hold the pose. Exhale. Gradually lift, from the hips, back into staff pose.
Legs Spread Back Stretch (Pada Prasar Paschimottanasana). This dynamic forward folding variation stretches the hip adductors with a gentle split. Begin in staff pose. Swing your left leg out to the side to come into a wide-legged split. Turn toward your right leg. Inhale. Straighten and lengthen your spine to extend it upward. Exhale. Bend over your right leg from the hips. Breath and hold. Inhale and come up. Turn toward the center. Exhale. Forward bend. Breath and hold. Inhale. Turn toward your left leg. Forward bend. Breath and hold. Inhale and come up.
Triceps surae. The triceps surae consist of the gastrocnemius, in the back of the calf, and the soleus, in the front of the calf. These muscles stabilize the ankles and provide the power when walking and jumping. Head-to-knee forward bend stretches the gastrocnemius for more flexible, more resilient calf muscles.
Hamstrings. The hamstrings are the three long muscles that run along the back of the thigh. They extend the hip, flex the knee, and rotate the lower leg. Head-to-knee forward bend stretches the hamstring muscles, adding flexibility.
Glutes. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. Head-to-knee forward bend stretches the gluteus maximus and the outsides of the gluteus minimus.
Hip flexor muscles. The hip flexors are a large group of muscles located deep in the thighs, hips, and buttocks. They connect the leg, pelvis, and abdomen and allow you to lift your upper leg towards your body or bend your body over your upper leg. Sitting for long periods of time weakens the hip flexors, making it difficult to lift the upper legs and to bend over. In head-to-knee forward bend, the hip flexors lengthen.
Hip rotator muscles. The hip rotator, or lateral rotator, muscle group includes six small muscles in the hip that control external rotation of the legs. Short hip rotator muscles contribute to poor pelvic alignment. In head-to-knee forward bend, one leg is externally rotated. This rotation, and the stretch to the hip rotators it provides, contributes to good pelvic alignment and improved range of motion for kicks, jumps, and splits.
Quadratus lumborum. The quadratus lumborum is located deep in the abdominal wall. When it is short and weak, the muscle is often attributed to lower back pain. Reaching actively in head-to-knee forward bend stretches the quadratus lumborum.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Head-to-knee forward bend lengthens the deep back muscles of the erector spinae.