*This article was originally posted on the now defunct bentoutofshape.com in 2012. It has been re-posted here with no changes or edits*
For those of you who have been to my class, you probably know that one surefire way to get a long-winded rant out of me is to ask what I think about pigeon pose (or let me catch you doing it before class...). In an effort to spare my students from further lectures, I'm going to see if I can get it all out of my system in one go....
Let's first be clear about what pose it is we are discussing. There are many, many different poses within the "pigeon family" and there is quite a variety of difficulty between these poses. Pigeon in Sanskrit is Kapota. Therefore, "pigeon pose" is called Kapotasana. This is not the pigeon that most of you would be familiar with. It is arguably the apex (often experienced as the most challenging) backbend in the second series of Ashtanga yoga.
Kapotasana is a symmetrical (both sides doing the same thing) backbend and shoulder opener. With the amount of openness demanded of the shoulder girdle, thoracic spine and groins, it is safe to call this a relatively advanced pose. Of course this is NOT the posture that most people mean when they say pigeon, and it is not the one I want to discuss today.
The next version I want to draw your attention to as we look at the evolution of this asana family, is called king pigeon (Raja Kapotasana). It is closely related to that first Kapotasana pose; and when you imagine it flipped upside down, you can see the similarities. The main differences are that the shoulder girdle is challenged in a different way, the floor is providing significantly less support, and more groin length and hamstring stability is demanded. This pose is even more advanced then the last (it's in the 4th series of Ashtanga) and therefore rarely included in most yoga classes, but it is still not the pigeon I have a problem with.
Now we are getting closer. This photo depicts a one-legged version of the previous king pigeon pose, creatively named one-legged king pigeon (Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana). With this pose we have moved into the world of asymmetrical backbends. In these types of poses you have one leg in a backbend, and the other moving in the opposite direction. Asymmetrical poses are by definition more challenging than their symmetrical counterparts. The actions in the pelvis are much more complicated, and an even greater range of motion in the back groin is required. When you look at the previous versions of pigeon, it is quite obvious that the focus in the hips is on extension, and lengthening of the groins and thighs. The same is true for the one-legged version. The front leg is just for balance. Let me say that again.
The front leg is just for balance.
Ok sure, if you are a yoga dork like me you might point out that the external rotation of the front hip makes the internal rotation of the back leg more challenging and thus demands even more groin length. So it's not JUST for balance, but the point I want to drive home is that pigeon is not a stretch for the front hip. All of the variations of pigeon are backbends and about the groin. This pose, the most advanced I've shown you so far is not practiced until your hips are quite open, and consequently the front leg position is no longer a challenging rotation.
Then we get to this...
It's still one-legged king pigeon, but a variation. It was intended as a transition position while getting into the full pose (i.e., you set the front leg up before bending the back knee and reaching over your head to grab the foot). The pose hasn't changed, it's still one-legged king pigeon, which is a groin opener for the back leg, and not a pose to open the hip of the front leg. The catch is that this version is pretty easy to attempt, so in a group class setting, students who are not ready to bend the back knee might keep their foot down and think that it is a pose in and of itself. Because it’s accessible to less experienced students, increased numbers of yoga students are attempting what they think is the pose and those with restricted hip rotation feel a strong sensation in the front rotating hip. They will make the very reasonable assumption that this sensation is the intent of the pose, and then all of a sudden we have a groin opening backbend turned into a hip rotating gluteus stretch.
Then to make matters even worse, many students take this pose, which has always been a deep backbend, and turn it into a forward bend.
My teacher likes to call this pose "dead pigeon." By removing the backbend from the spine, you make it even less about the real target, the back groin, and give yourself a much stronger sensation in the front hip. The real trouble comes when students who only have practiced this version of the pose become teachers. They will teach it as pigeon pose, and direct students to work on it as a gluteus stretch. Dead pigeon, much to my and other senior teachers’ dismay, has since crept into almost all styles of yoga and almost all classes.
I can hear you asking "so what?" It feels great in the front hip and gives you the sensation of a deep stretch (and the associated endorphin release). How can that be a bad thing? The issue here is what is happening behind the scene in your pelvis.
*Quick anatomy lesson*
This is your pelvis. Well, not yours exactly, but someone's. You can see the spine coming out of the top of the bowl-shaped pelvis and the two thighbones coming out of the sides. The pelvis is really two bones, a right side and a left side with a triangular shaped bone in between called the sacrum. The place where your sacrum and pelvis meet is a joint called the sacral-iliac joint, S/I joint for short. You have two S/I joints, one to either side of the bottom of the spine, and many people who complain of lower back pain are in-fact feeling the S/I joints complaining. It is becoming far too common to see problems in this area of the body in yoga students, and much of the blame can be laid on the incorrect practice of pigeon pose.
There is some movement available between the two sides of the pelvis. This mobility has to be there or women would never be able to give birth, and we would all find walking to be pretty tough. When one of your legs lifts up, the pelvis on that side tilts back a bit to help. When your leg moves back behind you, that side of the pelvis tilts forward. When you do a symmetrical backbend, both of your legs are doing the same thing and moving into extension; therefore, both sides of your pelvis are being pulled in the same direction and moving together. When you move on to the much more advanced asymmetrical backbends, you have one leg moving in extension, and the other in flexion. Remember how I mentioned asymmetrical poses are more advanced? This is because you are taking your pelvis in two different directions, and that adds a whole new level of complication to an already challenging pose. In "dead pigeon" the pelvis on the side of the front hip is being forced to tilt back by the tight gluteus, and the pelvis of the back leg is being forced to tilt forward by the tight groin. The tighter the hips are, the stronger this pose will be felt which leads the more novice student to think that he/she needs the pose, and yet that greater tightness will force the pelvis even more in opposing directions. Your poor sacrum is caught in the middle.
The S/I joints can handle a few degrees of movement, but the force that “dead pigeon” applies takes them beyond their range and eventually the tissue around one of the joints will be over-stretched and destabilized. The other joint then locks up, and now you have S/I joint dysfunction.
All of this is assuming the pelvis is squared (both sides the same distance) to the front of the mat. Take the hips out of that alignment (which is the case for most bodies) and the problems are compounded even more. Because this pulling on the joints creates a repetitive strain injury, it happens slowly over time, and there may be no issue at all for months or even years. Without an experienced teacher to guide you, it would be challenging to connect your back pain with a pose you might have been doing a very long time. The point to take from this is that just because it doesn't hurt, does not mean that everything is all right. To make matters worse, some students who fixate on the mistaken assumption that they should be getting more and more sensation in the front hip will try to find ways to make the hip rotate even more.
What you see here is someone who has moved the shin of her front leg into a much more forward position. She opens the knee joint, taking away any stability it had, and then uses it as a lever to rotate more in the hip. This student is not only putting her S/I joints in danger, but she is also going to stretch the ligaments out in her knees pretty quickly, and before long will suffer some pretty serious knee trauma.
The risk to the body of “dead pigeon” can be mitigated slightly through the correct use of props, but even that has its own element of risk. The student might think that the props are making the pose safe for the lower back when really they are just reducing the risk slightly. Also worth mentioning is that a very advanced student might be able to work internally to make the pose safe, but after 12 years of practice, that degree of inner awareness is still beyond me.
All of this highlights the importance of studying with a senior yoga teacher who practices under the guidance of a master teacher. It's so easy for small mistakes in regular practice to compound over time until something that you think is helping you is, in fact, causing you harm.
When you realize what you are looking at, there is nothing more sad then a yoga room full of dead pigeons--long rows of road kill.
Until next time, keep practicing!
"We are all beginners; it just takes some of us longer to realize it."
-- Chuck Miller