Pigeon postures are common in our yoga practice. They are usually employed for release in the hips, piriformis, gluteal muscles and some adductors (inner thigh). A short list includes: sleeping pigeon (figure four legs on back), double pigeon (aka Agnistimbasana/firelog), seated or standing pigeon, flying pigeon (Eka Pada Galavasana), king/royal pigeon prep (Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana prep), swan (aka yin’s version of royal pigeon), and many more varieties. Selecting the best pigeon posture for your practice is a key ingredient in optional flexibility and joint longevity.
Trimurti: Recently my father passed away due to advanced liver cancer. He was in hospice for a short time. (Namaste to Hilo Hawaii and their hospice care.) This got me thinking about how to be brave in life for big challenges and little ones. For some of us, we follow along in a class and do everything exactly as it is offered because we think we are supposed to. But in the great trilogies of the world and even the exquisite sound of AUM, there is not one, but three ways of the world – the Big 3. In Yoga philosophy, the trimurti are: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. We are presented with these three in many places in our lives, but for many of us, we may forget about these important three in our asana practice.
For King Pigeon preparation, caution is necessary to keep from harming the knees. This may occur because we think it is ok to feel some twinges at the knee each time we practice pigeon or afterwards. We may load our weight over the shin and knee to get ‘deeper’ into the stretch. We may believe we are creating a splendid posture in our body. Yet we are doing so while allowing another part of our body, the knees, to feel dis-ease. But this is a misdirected use of the Big 3. We really should be preserving our knees, destroying our ego’s need to do a posture that may be dishonoring other parts of our body, and creating life and light in our practice (through stirra-steadiness and sukkah-ease and joy).
To increase flexibility around the gluteal and hip joint, pigeon postures are often employed. Flexing the ankle helps ‘lock’ in the shin/knee joint and can help safeguard the knee. The knee is a ‘hinge joint’ that only goes two directions much a like a door on a hinge goes in and out. (There is some degree of rotation, but it is small and not something we want to encourage in our hip mobility stretches.) For most postures with external rotation, flexing the ankle prior to entering the pose and keeping the intent there throughout the stretch aims to keep the stretch in the hip without compromising the knee. Thus, in Agnistimbasana (firelog/2 legged), both ankles are flexed; in sleeping pigeon on the back, the top leg ankle is flexed. The tricky part arises in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (aka 1 legged king pigeon prep).
In 1 legged King Pigeon prep, the pelvis, knee and ankle joint are loaded more due to the weight of the torso, arms, gravity and firmness of the ground. How can you set up to unload the knee and gain more hip flexibility? To set up, the front knee is aligned or wider than the same hip. To support the front knee in an upright position:
- If shin/knee is not in 90-degree position, which is where many of us practice, then prior to setting down the foot, be active in the ankle and foot through a ‘floint’ (point ankle, but flex toes so ankle is not sickling). There is some individual precision here. The ankle should be active and then even in length on the outer/inner (lateral/medial) knee so that neither side is getting compressed.
- The pelvis is usually centered. The front leg hip may be on a blanket for supporting this centering as well as to avoid letting the front knee or shin float off of floor.
- If front shin is at 90 degrees (parallel to short end of mat), then ankle is flexed prior to setting down shin.
- If holding this version and front hip is off ground, then it would be wise to start with a slightly tilted pelvis and aim for hip stretching without the back leg straight, with the back leg more passive and to the side; or add in support under the front hip. Note that if the hips are not ready for this, then the shin may be floating off floor placing greater pressure on the outer/inner knee.
- In both options, stay upright for some time before folding over front leg. Folding over the front leg can add more load to the knee, so keep checking in. Sensation on these stretches are meant for the hip region. Any pulling, compressing, or twinging at the knee may lead to an overuse injury later.
One of the best ways to gain flexibility in the hip is the sleeping pigeon (and at wall) version where you have more control over the range of motion in the hip. Because you are on your back you no longer need to be so concerned about the torso weight and pelvis alignment, and without the floor under the shin/knee, there is more space to explore a range of motions. We still want to be aware of the knee here too, but you will find the ball and socket joint of the hip can move more freely in air than on land.
Take time to pick and choose the best pigeon for your entire body. Sacrificing one part for the sake of another is out of alignment with the trimurti and ahimsa (non-harming/compassion) for ourselves.
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