We all know yoga isn’t just about the poses (it’s about Instagram likes – duh!), but let’s face it: Poses are fun. I love hearing practitioners’ opinions of certain shapes and how those relationships change over time.
A student and I were recently talking after class about sequencing, and she pointed out that I don’t typically teach Pigeon. This launched a discussion about our shared love/hate relationship with Pigeon and Crow, and an ongoing joke about those dreaded bird poses.
Crow, Pigeon, Eagle, Crane, Peacock, Bird of Paradise – there are quite a few yoga poses named after birds, but I’ll address the first 3. Why do I love/hate them? And how has my perspective changed over time? Let’s dive in.
Ah, Pigeon. My dear frenemy. On a good day, you are restful, rejuvenating, and a welcome place where I can send some big breaths into my tight runners’ hips. On others, you are a true test of my patience and mental fortitude.
To be clear, I’m referring to Half Pigeon, a “hip opener” that externally rotates the hips and lengthens the hip flexors. I used to love this pose when I was practicing yoga near daily. Over the past few years, I’ve been running a lot more and my relationship with Pigeon has changed. I went from eagerly laying nearly flat on my mat when the teacher cued this pose, to groaning (silently of course) and preparing to dig deep for the next few minutes.
In addition to running more, I’ve also burnt out on this pose in the past. I used to think every yoga teacher was just tossing in a Pigeon at the end of class for no reason, and felt frustrated because I’d see it coming and start dreading the wind-down portion of class, which should really be the sweetest time.
As any yogi will know, poses that really challenge us physically and mentally like Pigeon can incite a lot of inner dialogue/babble. On an ‘off’ day, my mind in Pigeon looks something like this:
Pigeon again? Great. Must we??
Why is this is so much harder than it used to be?
Have we been here for 20 minutes? It feels like 20 minutes. Did the teacher leave? They totally left and forgot about us poor lil pigeons.
What am I going to have for dinner?
What is going on with my left hip?
Why is this pose called pigeon? Maybe because it’s everywhere and no one likes it?
That last thought in particular stuck with me after a recent class. The English translation of Sanskrit words (or made-up modern pose names) sometimes make a lot of logical sense to me. Cat and Cow really reflect the classic shape of the animal evoked. But pigeon? I’ve never seen a pigeon do anything remotely cool with their hips.
Turns out this name is likely tied to the traditional full expressions of this pose – big back bends where the chest is puffed up and lifted (like a pigeon! Oooooooh). That mystery is now solved, but it doesn’t make this shape any less challenging for me (or my students).
I was long taught that Crow should be the first arm balance you learn as a yogi, and that it’s a great way to prepare students for “more challenging” arm balances. While I think there is a lot of validity to this and love teaching this pose, I sometimes hate practicing it. This is partially due to having overdone Crow when I first became enthusiastic about yoga, and due to my inability to shoot back from this shape.
I used to love Crow, and practiced regularly – straight arms (sometimes called Crane – more birds!), bent elbows, knees high on my triceps vs. outer arms, lifting one knee off, etc. I thought I was ready to try shooting back from crow, which just seemed like such a fun way to exit the pose. The first few times I tried, nothing happened. This didn’t surprise me at all since this is often the way with new shapes and transitions, so I kept trying. But this just didn’t seem to be happening for me. My legs always felt so heavy and my mind went blank. I’d hang out in Crow, feel strong, run through the cues to prep myself to shoot back, and then….*crickets*. Stuck.
This was endlessly frustrating to me and while I’m not usually someone who makes a shape or transition their goal, I do have a serious competitive streak. I hated that a mental roadblock was holding me back from something my body was surely capable of, despite the weight of my long, fairly muscular legs on my not-as-muscular arms.
My solution? Quit!
Just kidding (…kind of). I did decide to give crow a rest, and suddenly realized that this transition just wasn’t very important to me and that forcing it was not the right move. I experience great ease and joy in so many, arguably more challenging arm balances and transitions, and I just avoided Crow altogether as it had become all work and no play.
Tangled. That’s how I feel in Eagle half the time. Like a drawer full of old cables or neglected necklaces that got wrapped up over time and are now impossible to separate. Which foot is my right foot? Impossible to say at this point. The arm component of this pose always feels wonderful in my shoulders, but wrapping my legs around each other and sitting low often feels like I’m trying to squeeze the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. (There’s an analogy that I’m pretty sure hasn’t been applied to Eagle before).
While we’re talking pose names, apparently the Sanskrit name for this pose (garudasana) actually means something closer to “devourer.” Can’t imagine why they didn’t run with that name.
Flipping My Perspective
Like all teachers, I’m also a student of yoga and my experiences, preferences, and annoyances as a student impact my choices as a teacher. Part of my frustration with Pigeon and Crow is that I was simply sick of them as a student. I always saw them coming, and got a bit annoyed at the predictability and what seemed like lack of creativity. I decided to take them out of my own classes for a bit in order to push myself to find new ways to introduce arm balances and hip openers.
After taking a break from these poses and slowly reintroducing them into my practice and teaching, I started to better recognize their value and that I could incorporate them in a way that feels authentic, creative, and safe.
Here are a few of my takeaways:
Follow your instincts and listen to your body
Was that just two yoga clichés in one sentence?! Why yes, yes it was. But sometimes “cliché” is synonymous with “truthbomb.” For example, I don’t attribute my recent feelings about pigeon to not wanting to work hard, but rather to my instinct that this wasn’t serving my body when my hips and surrounding muscles were super tight. I was drawn to different hip-focused poses, particularly the externally rotated Lizard variation (see below – do I need to do a reptile pose post now?). I experience a ton of sensation, but no pain in Lizard and it just straight-up feels better most days. It’s probably best not to write off poses completely, but paying attention to your body and what is serving you is the best way to keep yourself safe and supported.
“Simple” poses = not so simple
Take Eagle, for example. When this pose is tossed into a class, I feel just plain tangled. However, I’ve had teachers carefully and slowly take us into Eagle, during which I’ve had some ah-ha moments. This posture might not look incredibly challenging, but there’s a lot going on and it sometimes takes a closer look to appreciate that.
Pigeon: It’s not for everyone all the time
In addition to struggling personally with Pigeon, I avoided teaching it for a while because I teach mostly athletes, and felt like every student was just gritting their teeth and holding their breath and trying not to yelp during this pose. Here are my personal thoughts:
- Start your practice with different hip openers. Try to incorporate Figure 4 and/or an externally rotated Lizard variation before attempting pigeon.
- Ease into it. Incorporate this pose slowly, and make sure your body is warm before you give it a try. Several months (or more) of regular Figure 4 might be necessary before you even think about giving Pigeon a try.
- Use props! This is one of those things I feel I will be saying forever: Props are not a sign that you’re a novice, weak, or incapable. They’re tools to help you experience the positive effects of a pose and minimize discomfort, pain, and poor alignment. Teachers never judge students who use props, so don’t judge yourself for rolling up a blanket, and sliding it under your hips in Pigeon. I also love a block under the forehead and maybe one under the chest. Pigeon is usually held longer than most poses, so set yourself up and give yourself time to breathe here! Props can change a pose from being painful and invaluable to your body and mind, to being supported, manageable, and maybe enjoyable.
- If it’s broke, fix it. As in, if you’re hurting in this pose, there’s no need to suffer through it. If you feel any pain in the knee or too much intense or sharp sensation in the hip, back out and take supine Figure 4 instead.
Consistency is important
While tuning in is important, if you decide that you do want to learn more about a pose and feel stronger in it, consistency is key. This is why a lot of poses appear in many classes! It’s not typically the case that teachers are lazy or lacking creativity; Some poses are just foundational and provide a great base for many other postures. Crow is considered a foundational pose for arm balances, and you have to spend a lot of time in Half Pigeon before you can take on King Pigeon. Plus, sometimes it’s a good thing to get frustrated by repetition or impatient with progress. Those are the moments that help us grow and teach us more about dedication, adjusting expectations, and shifting our attitude.
Now, for your thoughts. Do you love Pigeon? Hate it? Love/hate it? Tell me more about how you work through, pass on, or otherwise grapple with challenging shapes!