Yoga is for everyone!
As promised last week, I will offer for your consideration an analysis of one common Yoga pose that I almost never teach in a group class the way it is classically taught - Pigeon Pose, or Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana. It is a beautiful and challenging shape that incorporates both a back bend and a hip opener, which is a classic combination in Yoga. I don't have a qualm with the back bend element here, it is actually helpful to fight the daily slump. Besides, there are numerous variations of the Pigeon Pose, but unfortunately, most of them put pressure on the knee joint and to boot are unsafe for those of us with instability of the sacroilliac joint.
Based on my experience trying to teach this in group classes, usually more than half the people in the group are unable to do it and I end up fussing too much with blankets and blocks to help people achieve it, which in my view defeats the purpose of Yoga by scattering the mind outward instead of drawing it inward. Those few that can do it, do it poorly, and the pose has a well-deserved rap for damaging people's knees. I myself have come close to mastering the full expression of the pose, but no cigar, so to speak. It remains out of reach for me.
If you need a prop, such as a block, a folded blanket, or a strap, to achieve the pose, then maybe you are not ready for it. Examine its function and find a different pose that fulfills the same function, but one you can do without assistance.
Hip openers are the most popular poses in Yoga. Due to our lifestyle and the amount of sitting we do, we often feel tension in the hips and pelvis. Sciatica is a common complaint, and since Pigeon Pose stretches the hip flexors of the back leg (the long muscles that run along the front of your thigh and pelvis, along with Psoas and Rectus Femoris), and Piriformis and other hip rotators of the front leg, it is perfectly poised to bring relief to "tight hips."
The pose creates an intense external rotation of the front leg and at the same time internal rotation of the back leg. However, before you can get at all of those muscles, you need to get into the pose, and that often proves a grueling and frustrating business.
For many people the ego trip it takes to contort the body into the shape is the draw. It is possible to become addicted to "achieving" poses and Pigeon Pose, because it "releases" tension in the pelvis, can also bring with it an emotional release, which can be addictive as well. It is like scratching an itch. The thing with this particular itch, is that as you improve over time and can go deeper and deeper into the shape, you always are going to reach a point where you can go no further, and it will feel "tight." Even in extreme variations of the pose it feels "tight."
However, in these extreme variations bones grind against bones, causing damage to the cartilage, ligaments, inflammation, and possibly early arthritis. And that "tight" feeling is misleading, it is just the nervous system letting us know that it is a no-go beyond a certain point. By insisting to go deeper past normal range of movement we risk overstretching important support structures in the pelvis - the SI, or sacroilliac joint. Once overstretched, they never go back to their original length. I don't practice the pose much anymore, but I am still able to sink my hips into it with ease, because there has been a permanent change to the length of my ligaments.
Women, who are naturally flexible, and women who are flexible even for a female, are particularly vulnerable to the emotional attractions of this pose. Our Second Chakra, located in the pelvis, governs our emotional world, and suppressed feelings stored there, especially shame and guilt. When released in the pose, the feeling can be intense, like a purge. It feels so good, it hurts. However, once purged, the same place will become clogged again with the same emotions, because the pose does not address the root cause - lack of emotional resilience on one hand, and sedentary lifestyle on the other. (That is a whole other story!)
When a muscle is holding tension, it is often not "tight" in the sense that it is physically shorter than normal, rather it is locked in a kind of tense contraction. And stretching it in that state is a very bad idea! It is easy to injure a muscle that is locked short, and possibly quite dehydrated and weak. What we need to do first is to restore its tone and strength by contracting it - that will deliver much-needed circulation and nourishment to it so it becomes more pliable. Then we can gently stretch it. Below are a few variations on a Pigeon that stretch without it being load-bearing.
You can flip the pose upside-down and gently support the knee joint with your hands at an angle that feels meaningful as far as sensations go, but not stressful in any way on the joint. Maintaining neutral pelvis will intensify sensations in the hip without compromising the knee.
Stretch after you have put your hips through a full range of strengthening movements, poses that include adduction, abduction, flexion, extension and rotation, like in the video practice below.
Try an interesting shape by taking a twist with your right ankle across the top of the left knee. Bring the foot all the way to the floor and gently support the right knee with your left hand so it points up to the ceiling. Reach the right arm overhead. Stay for a few breaths and switch sides.
By the way, my Hip Hip Horray video on Youtube channel is the most popular video of all time so far precisely because "hips" is such a holy grail for Yoga practitioners, it strikes a cord. I sequenced it to deliver a balance of flexibility and strength, so it would be appropriate for anyone. Hip Hip Hooray!