Here is a new article that I recently wrote for the British Spectrum, where it appeared in this Autumn edition.
This article deals with the benefits, individual limitations, risks, possible warm-ups and proper execution of leg-behind-head postures, chiefly Ekapada Shirshasana. In some ways both the name Ekapada Shirshasana as also the English leg-behind-head are misnomers because the leg has to be placed much further down the neck, ideally below the T1 vertebra for the postures to be safe and effective.
I will discuss here only the benefits that I actually felt by practicing these postures over a long time. Leg-behind-head postures are the ideal counter-postures to deep backbends. If you regularly practice postures such as Kapotasana or standing up from Urdhva Dhanurasana then ideally you would counter them by including Leg-behind-head postures into your repertoire. Regular deep back bending will stretch the anterior muscles of your body but also the connective tissue, potentially including the ligaments such as the anterior longitudinal ligament. This needs to be counteracted by postures that work into the opposite direction.
Over stretching the front of the body over the long-term through deep back bending can also lead to a loss of stability, which could become detrimental even without impact such as a fall or car accident. The increase in back bending flexibility should be accompanied by an increase in stability. This is exactly what Leg-behind-head postures do at the spine and maybe it would be better if we look at them as complementary to back bending rather that counter-postures.
Deep back bending taught me to be more open, non-judgemental, accommodating, embracing and less rigid in situations in which I otherwise wouldn’t have been. It does so by dissolving the protective character-armour around the heart.
What back bending did not teach me at all was to stand up and to be unyielding in situations where I needed to, as an example, stand-up against social injustice or environmental devastation. If you picture for example Durvasasana, a posture where you stand upright on one leg with the other leg behind your head you can imagine how much you have to make yourself upright against a compressive force. This respectively confers skills when it comes to oppressive situations. The two are linked because according to yoga, the body is the crystallized strata of the mind and the mind the vaporized or gaseous aspect of the body. The two are not truly separate things but more reflections of each other.
Leg-behind-head postures also make your chest strong and increase your breath volume which is great later on for pranayama. They actually strengthen the diaphragm because you have to bear down with it to elongate the lumbar cavity (which increases the lumber intervertebral disc spaces, an important safety precaution). They also strengthen your back-extensor muscles which also makes them a great preparation for arm-balances.
Unfortunately, it’s a myth that everybody can do leg-behind-head postures if only they practice long and hard enough. There is a huge variety in how people’s hip joints are formed, the length and shape of the neck of the femur, the carrying angle of the femur and whether the hip joint is retroverted or anteverted. If all the mentioned parameters in your case are supportive then leg-behind-head will be an absolute breeze. If, however, all these parameters are against you then unless you invest seriously into surgery (I’m joking but you get the point) you haven’t got a chance to put your leg behind your head. It’s important that you understand that because I’ve seen people suffer for years because they thought if only they practiced harder, they could get there. They couldn’t!
If your anatomical parameters mentioned above do not support your leg-behind-head or if you are not sufficiently prepared or not warmed up enough you could create arthritis in your cervical discs or of course in an extreme case rupture one of them. You can also produce headaches or a permanent forward-head posture (which in itself creates tension and headaches). Further down your spine you could cause a lumbar disc prolapse and finally you could destabilise or jam your sacroiliac joints. I feel I have to explain this to prevent a gung-ho attitude of just shoving the leg there, which often does more bad than good. You can prevent demerit by proceeding cautiously and prudently.
The stronger your abs are the safer will you be in leg-behind-head. For that reason, I always recommend my students to develop abs like Tarzan. Best ways to achieve that is to really burn your abs in Navasana (the posture where everyone chickens out) and to keep trying to get your feet off the floor when jumping through and jumping back (the second posture where everyone chickens out). Once our abs are strong enough we can now go into the warm-up phase. Unless your hip joints are very flexible already it is good practice to prepare yourself through warm-ups. They may be discarded once you have established the necessary strength and flexibility.
The problem with this is if people don’t have the underlying support of the deep abs they will compensate by using other muscles and this is what leads to compensation patterns. If you don’t have stability your body is hard-wired to not allow you to work ‘hard’, so you won’t get stronger. It doesn’t necessarily mean that working the posture hard will lead to strengthening the muscle you hope to target if the support strength is not there.
- warm-up, prone:
Assume the position shown in photo 1 but initially don’t go as deep into it as depicted. The foot of the forward leg needs to be under the opposing armpit for it to be effective as a leg-behind-head warm-up. If the knee is more bent it will become a lotus warm-up and not contribute to your leg-behind-head flexibility. Now gently lean forward, and let both hips evenly and squarely draw down towards the floor. Make sure that your hips stay square by also drawing the hip of the forward leg down towards the foot of the straight leg.
Make sure that you don’t feel pain on the outside of your knee as this could indicate knee-instability. The main thing that you need to be careful with here is to nurture the sacroiliac joint of the front leg. As the name says it’s were the sacrum meets the ilium, i.e. under the upper part of your gluteus maximus. You need to divert stretch away from this area and into the actual hip joint. You need to feel a rotating sensation here which should be increased by actively externally rotating the femur in the hip joint. Be sensitive and proceed slowly. Better to do the posture daily for a few minutes over a long time than trying to push through quickly. Now perform the warm-up on the other side.
- warm-up, supine a:
This is a passive warm-up, usable once you have performed the previous one for some time without achieving the desired results. Lie on your back and bend up your left leg, placing the foot on the floor. I found that if you perform this posture with a straight left leg it is for beginners too taxing to keep the hips square, an essential ingredient. Bring now your right foot up towards your forehead and place a sandbag of approximately 10 to 20 lbs on your right foot. Balance it there with one or two hands if necessary. This can be a comfortable reading posture if you manage to hold a book, while balancing the sandbag. I read most of the Ramayana in this position. Feel the opening of your hip joint, do the posture to capacity and then repeat on the other side.
- warm-up supine b:
This third warm-up takes it now a fair bit further. It does for the first time require that you put your leg behind your head but because you are lying down, gravity will work with you and that makes it a whole lot easier on your low back. Lying on your back, draw both feet towards your head, keeping them bent at approximately 100 degrees. Point now the right foot and draw it behind your head, using your left arm. Extend your left leg and hip-flex as much as possible. Make sure that your abs are engaged and your hips are square.
Exhaling, flex your neck and draw your foot as far down your back as possible. The further down you get it the less pressure is on your neck and correspondingly less stress on your cervical discs. Inhaling, gently extend now your neck and upper thorax and draw your head down towards the floor. Repeat this sequence several times, on each exhale flexing the trunk and drawing the leg further down your neck and back and on each inhalation extending your back, which opens the hip joint further. Once you’ve entered as deeply into the pose as possible hold this point for several breaths. Then repeat the warm-up on the left side.
This warm-up is much more strength based and creates a more realistic simulation of performing the full posture. It does not only open your hip joint but also increases core strength. It is safe to say that unless you are extremely flexible leg-behind-head’s core strength aspect is as important as it’s hip flexibility aspect.
I suggest to do these three warm-ups until the shin is sitting in the lordotic curve of your cervical spine and does not press against the back of your head. Better even would it be if the shin presses against the upper thoracic vertebrae. However, such extreme levels of flexibility cannot be expected if you are new to these postures.
Execution of full posture: knee behind shoulder
Once you feel appropriately warmed up and endowed with the necessary abdominal and core strength, sit down with your left leg straight and your right leg bent up and resting on your right arm. During the following avoid as much as possible tilting the pelvis posteriorly because doing so would flex the low back and the more you do this the more stress you place on the lumbar discs as well as the sacroiliac joints. Instead of that focus on movement in the hip joint.
Guiding your right foot with your left hand, laterally rotate your femur and draw your knee behind your shoulder.
Leg – behind – head
As we previously did in the third warm-up (only there supine), now bend your head and upper thorax forward and lift your leg behind your head using your left arm. At the same time draw your leg as far down your back as possible. Be realistic and remember what was earlier said about risks and safety. Inhaling, now return your head, neck and upper chest as much as you can to an upright position. This can only be safely performed if the leg sits somewhere in the lordotic curve of the neck. If it presses against the back of the head there will be too much stress on the cervical discs. Arch back now and concentrate on generating lateral rotation in your hip joint. Keep assisting by drawing your right foot backwards with your left hand. When you feel that the hip joint moving and rotating you have now gained some more space to draw your leg further down the back. Exhaling flex your trunk and neck and at the same time draw your right leg further down your back. Use several sequential attempts if necessary. When you feel that the leg does not move any further, inhale, raise your chest and perform back-extension as much as possible. You can repeat this sequence as often as you feel is necessary to get the leg as far down your back as possible.
The final position would ideally see your leg carried by your thoracic spine, meaning the shin crosses the spine on or below the T1 vertebra. If this is achieved the posture becomes quite comfortable, a bit like as if you would carry a heavy backpack. Note that at this point it is not your neck but your shoulders that carry most of the weight of your leg.
Sit now as upright as you can and open your chest fully. Feel the weight of the leg pressing against your spine. Check the position of the low back. Most likely the natural lordosis of the low back has been changed to a slight kyphosis. Your low back should either be straight or only slightly kyphotic to move into the next stage, which is letting go of the right foot.
Tuck in with your lower abdominals as much as you can, inhale and bear down with your diaphragm. These actions combined will elongate the shape of the abdominal cavity and create more space for you lumber discs, which helps to protect them from disruption.
Reduce the backward pull performed by your left arm and feel the weight of the leg on your back or neck respectively. Sit as tall as possible and once you feel confident let your back take over all weight from your left arm. It is important that you do not attempt this feat if your leg still presses against the back of your head. Your neck is not designed to withstand such a forward force if it is applied so high up (the length of the lever measured from the T1 vertebra will amplify the force) and if you would attempt that regularly you would induce a permanent forward head position. That’s the kind of body position that we often see in people who spend too much time on their handheld devices or in front of computer screens, particularly when the eye-sight is so bad that they need to move the head forward to see better.
Once you are confident that your back can carry the weight of your leg you may now place your hands in prayer position on your chest. Keeping the right foot pointed often aids in protecting the knee. Keep engaging the hamstrings on the right to continue the action of drawing the leg down the back. Only extremely flexible people can revert that action and work on straightening the leg (active release technique). If you are highly proficient in this posture this will actually get you even deeper into it, i.e. further open the hip joint.
Gently drawing the chin backwards can also help in arresting the leg more firmly in place. Sit as tall as possible and flex your left foot and draw the left heel into the floor for stability. Stay to capacity and then take the leg out of position using your left hand. Now repeat all these steps on the left.
There are further variations of this posture during which you first bend forward into a Pashimottanasana-like position with one leg behind your head and finally by placing your hands on the floor and lifting your straight leg up into Chakorasana and then jumping back into the plank. Attempt these versions only after you can comfortably perform the steps discussed so far. If you progress cautiously to each consecutive step only once you have become proficient in the previous one leg-behind-head postures will give you long-term benefits without demerits. Enjoy!