Saturday, September 12, 2015

Don't Let The Pigeon Wreck Your Knees!

In my day job I am an occupational therapist and work with kids with autism.  At a school this week they read 'Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus'.  That is a really cool book in case you have not read it.

Lots of yogis and everyday 'stretching people' adore what is often called pigeon pose (segue to this post!).

Personally, I have not done it the way most people do it for years.  So I could not put a picture of me in it.  Instead, I drew the pigeon in it.

Despite my substandard artistic abilities, I think I have managed to capture the basic gist of the way it is performed, including a sort of grimace of pleasurable pain that most people seem to get from it.  You can google it and find other people doing it if you are still unsure

As a teacher I basically stopped teaching this pose like this when I moved towards a more 'organic' practice that involved ridding myself of things like yoga mats, props, pillows, cushions etc, etc, etc.

Mainly because so many people needed 'bolstering' to even get into the posture without feeling strain in their knees.

When I started practicing more 'active movements' rather than passive postures I found an alternative that uses the same joint positions but without the weight of the entire body pressing down on the knees.

This more active variation is also 'self-limiting' in the sense that you can really only make it to the next step if you are able to do the step before and there is less change of forcing yourself into the posture, whereas the squawking pigeon (as I have renamed the pose above) is easier to force yourself into.

Below is the active variation.

Did your pigeon face just go like this?

I didn't say it was easy, did I?

But don't worry.  I have made a video to help you step by step into this variation.

You do not proceed to the next step until you feel comfortable in the preceding step.  You will find even the first step is a great one to do if you hold it for a little while.

Video (eka pada galavasana)
This posture features in our current sequence.  The outdoor yogis have made it through a Canberra winter and, as you can see, I am out enjoying the sunshine as I practice.

If you practice this (and remember it is intended for my students who come to class so we can talk about things and sense things as it is always best to learn from a physical teacher and not the internet) then there should be no strain.  Move slowly and mindfully.  Only go to the next step if you feel comfortable.

Hips forward, thigh rolls out
Stand comfortably.  Take one toe tip forward.  I stay on the toe tip so most weight is on the other leg. Hips move forward.  It looks like I am leaning back.  This will help in a moment when you might try to raise the leg.  Keep the standing leg outer hip moving to the centre of your body so you do not sink into it.

Raise knee, thigh rolls out, foot pulls back to shin
With the toe tip barely touching and the hips moving forward you should find it easier to raise the leg.  Raise it if you can and then roll the thigh out.  If you cannot raise it then keep toe tip down and roll the thigh out and just stay there until you find the balance possible. 
Pull your toes and foot back towards your shin.  This is really important if you are going to come into the balance later.   This is the active standing version of pigeon!  Pretty tricky isn't it!  From there you could 'rest' by putting your ankle on your lower thigh.  You have to play around a bit with a comfortable position. 
Hips forward, reach up high
All postures should help us lengthen the spine without squashing.  In the next steps you move the hips forward (rather than stick your butt back).  Sticking your butt back tends to shorten or squash in the lower back. 

From there I reach up high to really wriggle up and lengthen the spine.  Feel long and tall.  

Come forward
To come forward I get the feeling that I am still trying to move hips forward and lengthen my spine.  I also keep the feeling that I am moving the standing leg hip in towards the centre so it is not swinging out to the side.  In fact, I sort of feel as though I am drawing both hips together.  If you allow your hip to swing out to the side you will lose the 'pigeon' hip opening feeling. I suggest you do not lose this in a 'quest' or attachment to the full variation of the posture.  Instead wait patiently until you are ready to go further.  

At a certain point my bottom does go back and I fold forward but the feeling is that I am trying to move the hips forward and keep lower back long and front of groin open.  

Elbows bend, press down to ground and then together
This action around the shoulder joint and elbows is really important if you are going to balance.  I bend the elbows so they point to the ground, then try to press the elbows together while trying to keep them about shoulder width apart. You should feel that your neck got a bit freer and your back body widened without squashing the chest.
Arms press to shins and shins press to arms, hips press forward
You cannot see to well all of the stuff that is going on at this point.  I am making the effort of pressing my arms into my shin while at the same time trying to press my shin in my arm.  The foot is hooking around the arm.  At the same time I feel as though my hips are pressing forward so the whole body is pressing into the arms while the arms press back. 

I lower forwards towards the ground.  My heel has to raise to allow me to lower.  I keep the connection of shin and arms.  If you lose it you need to reestablish it if you get down with the same actions.
 Lean forward
This is now just a matter of balancing and shifting your weight while maintaining previous actions.  I lean forward.  My back heel starts to raise until the foot lifts.  Common errors I see people make at this stage are that their foot is too close and heel on the ground, perhaps because they have put their hands on the ground too close to their foot.  Either wriggle your foot back or come down so you have to raise the heel off the ground already.

Heel to bottom
Once the foot floats off you can do an active lift, drawing heel to bottom.
Knee up
This bit is tricky.  You need to have kept the effort of pushing hips forward and pushing shin forward into arm to be able to liberate that back leg.  If you do not do those actions you will feel like you are sinking into the arms rather than lifting out of them.

Straighten leg
Straighten that leg.  Keep the thigh rolling in (so it feels like your knee is pointing more towards the centre of your body).

You should feel firm but calm.  Your tummy will be firm but in a way you can breathe into it.  You should be able to talk to people passing by, smile, and feel like you are doing something but comfortable and not straining!

If you have practiced mindfully you should be a happy flying pigeon!

Enjoy your practice.  Be active if you can.  It feels less like stretching and tensing and more like lengthening and 'doing something'.  You will move better and happier.

Looking forward to sharing this type of thing in my outdoor classes in Canberra and my upcoming retreat in Sri Lanka.  

Hope to see you soon.

Much metta,

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