Your standing poses are marvels of strength and stability. You’re steady as a rock in warrior III and eagle pose. You can walk or jog tirelessly for miles. But all that ability and training, wonderful as it is, can have a downside of tightening your hip-fexors, piriformis muscles, and glutes. So, here's the question: Can you just sit? I don’t mean in a chair; can you sink gracefully to the floor or a cushion, fold your legs under you, and sit cross-legged with ease and stability? If this simple action creates a sense of gripping discomfort in your hips, you might find that pigeon is just the pose you need.
Pigeons are legendary for their ability to settle in, plunk down, and stay put. Brooding over their eggs or perched on your windowsill, they seem quite content to just sit and coo.
People, not so much. Our bodies aren't really designed to spend long periods of time on car seats, couches, or office chairs. Yet we spend a great deal of time sitting with our legs and feet below our hearts, our bodies folded at the hips, and our weight well back behind our sit bones. This means that our backs are likely to be rounded and our chests collapsed.
Our bodies aren't really designed to spend long periods of time on car seats, couches, or office chairs.
Eka pada raja kapotasana (one-leg king pigeon pose), with its many variations, is a staple “hip opener” in yoga classes. It provides an antidote to many of the actions of prolonged chair-sitting. This pose stretches the muscles of the hip flexors (including the psoas) and deep glutes; it can also release a tight piriformis, which is often a factor in sciatic nerve pain. The regular, safe practice of this pose (sometimes just called “kapotasana” or “pigeon pose” for short) is a great way to keep yourself mobile as you age and to support your seated meditation practice. However, many people find it difficult. Below are some preparatory actions to help you sit and coo contentedly.
The following variation focuses on the actions of the front leg. Known as reclining pigeon, it is performed reclining. One of the great advantages to this position is that it puts minimal pressure on the knees.
Lie on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. On an exhale, bring your right knee to your chest. Hold the back of your right thigh and pull the knee toward you for a few breaths. Drop your back ribs to the floor and breathe. These actions help to release your right psoas muscle because the psoas stops contracting at 90 degrees; you’ve now put it in a position that lets it relax. It also helps because the psoas connects your low back to your legs. When you hold your knees to your chest, your arms temporarily take over that connecting work and give the other muscles a break.
Now flex your right foot. Activate your feet and toes, pressing the root of your big toe away from your face and drawing the root of the little toe toward your face. Maintaining those actions, begin to rotate your right thigh externally, and aim to bring your right shin parallel to the ceiling. Hold the outside of your right foot with your left hand. Support the right knee with your right hand, holding behind the knee. Keep the sides of your waist soft. Pause here and observe. Experiment with the angle of your knee, first bringing the shin and foot down toward your body and then moving the shin and foot up toward the ceiling. What do you feel in the back of the right leg? As you raise your foot and shin, do you begin to feel a stretch across the piriformis (which runs across your right buttock)?
While still supporting the knee, carefully begin to open your thigh crease by moving the right knee away from your face. This should increase the piriformis stretch. Does it create any pain or tension in the inner corner of your right knee? If it does, find the angle where the knee is not stressed before continuing.
Now lift your left foot from the floor, flex the foot, and bring your left knee toward your chest. Keeping the right foot flexed, place the outer edge of your right ankle above your left knee. Let go of your right foot and knee, slide your right hand in between your body and your inner left thigh to catch the back of your left thigh; bring the left hand to the outer side of your left thigh. (This is harder to say than to do!) Hold the back of your left thigh with both hands. Keeping the right foot flexed, draw your left knee toward you with both of your hands; at the same time, move the right knee away from your face.
Where is your right foot now in relation to your left leg? Is the ankle just above your left knee, so that your right knee forms a 90-degree angle? Or does your right foot want to snuggle into your left hip crease, decreasing the angle of the right knee? If your hips are tight, it will be a challenge to maintain a right angle in your top leg without stressing the knee joint. Be nice to your knee! Figure out the right position for you while you are reclining with no weight on the knee. Draw an imaginary line from your sit bones to the backs of your knees. Extend your tailbone away from your face. Nestle your back ribs into the floor.
Repeat on the left side (which may feel very different). Then return both feet to the floor, roll to your side, and sit up.
This is essentially the same pose, this time with a different relationship to gravity, and bringing the back leg into play. There are various ways to enter the pose, but I find this one helps me best to know how quickly and how deeply I enter the pose.
Kneel on all fours. Step your right foot up between your hands. Turn your right thigh out, bring the outer (little-toe) edge of your right foot to the mat, and walk your right foot across the midline of the mat toward your left knee. If you were comfortable in the previous pose with your shin parallel to the ceiling, you can probably place your shin parallel to the front of the mat, creating a right angle with your right knee. If your foot was close to you in the reclining pose, or if moving toward a right angle stresses your knee, draw your foot back toward your body. To further protect your knee, press out through the ball of the big toe and draw the pinky toe toward the shin.
Place your hands on either side of your hips, either on the floor or on blocks, and extend your left leg behind you. Tuck your left toes and lift your left knee off of the floor; walk the foot back until your leg is fully extended, and stretch out through your left heel. Then lower your left knee back down to the floor, untuck your toes, and rest the top of your left foot on the mat. Look over your shoulder to be sure your left foot is not sickled (where the big toe points inward, and the weight/pressure shifts to the pinky-toe side of the foot) but pointing straight back.
Relax your shoulders and lift your ribs. Are your lower ribs jamming forward? Release them back, just as you moved your back ribs to the floor when you did the pose lying down. You can also try coming up onto your fingertips or placing your hands on blocks (if they're not there already), or moving your hands/blocks more forward, and see if these actions help you to soften your lower ribs back as you lift them off your hips.
How is your front knee? You may want to reduce the angle of your front knee by bringing your right foot even closer to your body. You can also support the front leg with a blanket or bolster; ask your teacher to help you with modifications.
Are your hips level? At least when supported by a prop? Reach both sit bones down toward the floor. See if your left hip crease is fully in touch with the floor. It may not touch, and that’s fine, but you do want it to descend; consider placing a folded blanket or bolster at the top of your left thigh to increase awareness of the descending action and the stretch it creates. Here you are bringing the psoas into play. Notice that your front hip is externally rotated while your back hip is not. Notice that the stretch you feel in your front leg is across the glutes and piriformis. Slide your ribs up and lift your chest. Imagine that you could comfortably stay here forever, cooing like a contented pigeon.
Then, draw your back leg forward, return to all fours, and switch sides. Notice how different the two sides feel.
Return to all fours once more, then roll onto your back, drawing both knees to your chest for a few breaths before rolling back up to seated position.
Shiva was, and is, the eternal lord of yogis. His wife Parvati was, and is, the first yoga student. Shiva is immortal; Parvati was born as a mortal woman, but she became immortal. A legend in the Shiva Purana tells the story:
One day it occurred to Parvati to ask about her husband's necklace of skulls. “Beloved,” he said, “each one represents one of your lives. In every life we find each other, again and again. Our love is immortal!” “Our love is immortal,” said Parvati, “and you are immortal; but I am not. Why must I grow old and die before finding you each time? Please, teach me the secret of immortality so we will never, ever be separated again.”
Shiva agreed. However, he said he would share the mantra of immortality only in utmost privacy, where no other creature could hear. So they journeyed deep into the Himalayas to a remote cave in Kashmir, which today is called Amarnath after the eternal lord (amar nath). As they drew near, Shiva left behind all his companions—his bull Nandi, his son Ganesha, his snakes, the moon, and all living things. With a magic fire, he burned everything around the cave to ensure privacy. Inside, he spread his deerskin, and he and Parvati sat on it, facing one another as guru and disciple. Shiva recited the mantra, then entered into deep samadhi, “spiritual absorption.” Parvati, exhausted, fell asleep. But two pigeon eggs lay hidden under the deerskin; as Shiva spoke, the two eggs hatched, and the birds, too, heard the mantra. They began to coo. Hearing them, Shiva thought at first that Parvati was making that sound. When she opened her eyes he asked accusingly, “Were you asleep?” “Of course not,” said Parvati indignantly, “I concentrate better with my eyes closed.” “What's that sound, then, like someone snoring gently?” Pigeons!
For all of Shiva's efforts to assure that no living being but Parvati learned the mantra of immortality, those two pigeons did. And even today in Kashmir, pilgrims to the cave of Amarnath—the “eternal lord”—see them and hear them cooing, repeating Shiva's name.
Will practicing kapotasana make you immortal? Probably not. But it can help to keep you supple and active beyond the age when many people's joints begin to stiffen and their mobility decreases. Open hips improve posture and relieve tension in the low back. And they are sexy! Picture someone with an easy, confident way of walking or dancing: so much comes from the hips.
The benefits are not only physical. Energetically, many of us hold grief, fears, and control issues in our hips. To create emotional comfort, release resentments, or ease the “stuck” thought patterns of worry, try adding pigeon pose to your practice.
The pigeons in our story weren't seeking immortality, or Shiva's blessing, or anything else: they just happened to be in an extraordinarily privileged and fortunate position. Having learned the mantra from the Lord's own lips, though, they never left the cave where they had encountered him.
How might your life be different if you “lucked into” such a gift? Has your life brought you any unexpected spiritual teaching or experience? Have you ever found yourself in an extraordinarily fortunate position through no effort of your own? How did you respond? Think of a time you received some profound teaching in a special place, maybe a residential workshop. Can you relate to the pigeons’ desire never to leave that place, or to return whenever possible?