Deepening a yoga practice can earn you some show-off moves like apparently effortless arm balances and landing your toes on top of your head. This is the realm of the advanced move, where improved strength and flexibility protect your spine as you bend into a curve that stretches and strengthens muscles from hips to shoulders. Touching your toes to your head is easier to do backward than forward.
Extremely good flexibility allows you to lay the front of your torso along your thighs in a forward bend like Big Toe pose. But your head will probably stop just short of your feet because folding in half so tightly requires very supple hamstrings, a strong stretched spine, limber hip flexors and a torso-to-crown length roughly proportional to the length of your legs. A Standing Split lets you go deeper into the bend and bring the top of your head down to the top of your supporting foot as the opposite leg points to the ceiling. You may not connect your toes with your head, but both forward bends deliver benefits like lowering stress and anxiety, improving digestion, stimulating abdominal organs, stretching thighs and calves and relieving insomnia.
Back into It
Backbends are how you rest your toes on the crown of your head or even your forehead. Backbends are energizing and lift your mood but they should be approached with caution. The hours you may spend at a desk every day tense your shoulders, compress your spine and tighten your hip flexors and quads. Gradually countering that stiffness stretches and strengthens the muscles that must support and stabilize an extreme backbend to help you maintain proper alignment and protect your spine. Sivananda yoga teaches advanced variations of classic asanas after the basic poses are mastered. Poses like Full Cobra, Full Bow, Pigeon and Scorpion require a very flexible spine, relaxed groin muscles and hip flexors and good balance.
Breathe into Your Back
Your lower back will let you know when you are overreaching in your quest to land your toes on your head. If it clenches, instead of quitting the bend, try breathing into it and relieving the pressure on your lower back. Inhale as you lift and open your chest, gently moving your shoulders back and down. Contract your abs on the exhale to flatten the arch of your spine and stretch the backward curve over the entire torso evenly. Don't force the backbend at the risk of injury. Accept that you'll get there when you get there and concentrate on lengthening your torso and opening your chest as you breathe. Focus on balance rather than bend in Scorpion pose. Support yourself strongly on your forearms in Headstand, breathing evenly as you bend your knees and lower your feet, allowing your back to curve and raising your head.
One-Legged King Pigeon pose demands complex positioning that stretches one hip while flexing and turning out the other. That leg placement is challenging as you try to keep your pelvis squared and balance stable. The overhead arm reach, in which your hand grasps your foot as you bring it to your head, requires the chest and shoulders to be open and the rib cage lifted to avoid compressing the spine. A full One-Legged King Pigeon is an advanced pose that stretches the front of the torso from ankles to throat, strengthens the back and improves posture -- but the level of difficulty calls for careful preparation. Work up to a safe execution, with toes resting easily on your head, by practicing Downward- and Upward-Facing Dog, Camel, Cobra, Bridge, Hero, Upward Bow and the less-demanding versions of King Pigeon pose, which do not require a fully arched backbend.
- Yoga Journal: Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose)
- Yoga Journal: Compassionate Backbends
- Yoga Journal: Big Toe Pose
- Yoga Journal: Standing Split
- Sivananda Yoga Europe: Advanced Exercises
- University of Wisconsin LaCrosse Lantern: Alumna Takes Yoga Skills to International Stage
- Yoga Journal: One-Legged King Pigeon Pose II, Preparatory Poses
- Photo Credit Kraig Scarbinsky/Digital Vision/Getty Images