Friday, April 08, 2005

"Janu" Flexion

I turned the tube on yesterday and watched as President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton knelt--or genuflected--at the bier of Pope John Paul II. It struck me that in all their years in the public eye, I doubt I've ever seen any of them, let alone all of them, kneeling.

When you bend a knee, you lower yourself. Not very "Presidential." At least that's what I think I'd hear if I were listening to one their political handlers.

Well, here's one situation in which they thought it would be inappropriate to not bend a knee. Interesting, don't you agree?

I like the word genuflect. It helps me remember the Sanskrit word root janu. Janu means knee. Genu is Latin for knee. Flect refers to flexion. To genuflect is to bend your knee.

As far as I know, there's only one asana that has the word root janu in it: janu sirsasana, head-to-knee pose. (Sirsa is head, in Sanskrit.) It's odd that the knee in question in janu sirsasana is not flexed. You can see in the pic below that the leg she's got her head on isn't flexed at all.

janu sirsanasana, head to knee pose

There are a bunch of other yoga poses that do have a knee flexed (think warrior poses and lunges, for example). But none of them has janu in its name.

As if twisting your spine isn't enough, here's a little mind-bender to think through: maybe the knee in question in janu sirsasana isn't then one with her sirsa (head) on it. Maybe the pose is named after the bent knee. (Janu sirsasana is about genuflection, after all!)

In which case, the name is not translated 'head-to-knee pose,' but 'head-of-the-knee pose,' to remind you that your attention is drawn to the straight leg in janu sirsasana, when ideally you should focus on the bent leg.

Focusing on the proper action of the bent leg increases stability in the pose. Where there's more stability, the spine and pelvis move more freely and the muscle fibers of the low back are more evenly stretched. Your forward bend is deeper. You come out of the pose feeling good, not pummeled.

...which brings me back to our great American leaders honoring Karol Józef Wojtyla, actor, athlete, Parkinson's sufferer, gun-shot victim, stone-cutter. They've shown us that by respecting others, we elevate and dignify ourselves.

Don't just read about it. Get up. Experience it. Experience yoga!

Kevin Perry

p.s., janu sirsasana is a forward bend, It's a twist. It's assymetric. It can really get at some of the low back stiffness you might have--and free up those hamstrings, too. It's a fine pose for beginners and experienced yogis. But I'd work closely with a well-trained teacher if I had a recent back injury, chronic back pain, or any knee soreness.

p.p.s., do your hamstrings hurt in this or any other forward bend? Your daily yoga tip is reciprocal inhibition. Your body is hard wired so that using one muscle automatically inhibits the use of the opposing muscle. So, contract your quadriceps and your hamstrings will release.

p.p.p.s., it's pronounced JAH-noo sheer-SAH-sun.

p.p.p.p.s., I don't believe everything I read, but one source I looked at today said that the word genuine also shares the Latin word root genu, for knee. It comes from the ancient custom of a father acknowledging the paternity of a newborn by placing it on his knee.

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