Yoga Injuries: Sleeping/Half Pigeon Part II: Community Dogma & Alternatives

Hello again everyone!  Welcome to Part II of my Yoga Injuries series specifically focusing on Sleeping/Half Pigeon.  In case you missed it Part I was where I connected all the dots which led to the conclusion that folding forward in Pigeon pose destabilized your hip and allowed the weight of your torso to further grind your femoral head in your acetabulum, which over time could lead to hip arthritis.  I recommend checking it out and forming your own opinion, please never ever do something because “Dr. Garrett said so,” use that beautiful brain of yours!

Here’s a quick without-the-anatomy-dogma recap in case you think you’re dreaming and sleeping pigeon is still wonderful, or are too lazy to read Part I:

As we fold into Sleeping Pigeon, we shut off the brakes of our hip (the muscles that are supposed to keep it safe), then we relax which gives a momentary feeling of “feel good stretching” whilst the weight of our torso allows the top of our thigh bone to slam into the cartilage of the hip socket.  In the long term, this repeated slamming wears down the shock absorbing cartilage of the hip-joint resulting in nasty hip pain and even a dreaded trip to the hip surgeon.

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Your face when you take your next class and see people folding forward.

What’s funny about that .gif is that you can very well be making that face, because the main alternative is staying upright! More on that later though, let’s start off with looking at how this unstable Pigeon pose meandered its way into our yoga community…

Community Dogma: The History (or lack there of) of Sleeping Pigeon 

As it turns out, Sleeping Pigeon pose is entirely a Western Yoga construct.  Go ahead and check any of the main yoga books.  Light on Yoga, Ray Long’s Yoga Anatomy books, etc there’s no mention or image of a Sleeping Pigeon.  Leslie Kaminoff’s Yoga Anatomy (which has a King Pigeon on the cover!) has an, albeit, brief mention of a folded forward pigeon.  Everywhere you look Pigeon pose is taught and broken down as a backbend!

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Mind BLOWN.  I always considered it a “hip opener” prior to this research.  Plus if the anatomy books have no mention of it, I feel like that’s kind of troubling no?

The Anatomy of a True Pigeon: It’s a backbend because the pelvis is flexed forward, or facing downward.  So when you stay upright in the torso, it’s naturally a back bend.  If you fold, but stay more on your elbows, your spine is in a neutral(ish) position.  When you collapse to the mat, boom forward fold because the spine is now hinged over the pelvis.  It’s nuts, see it for yourself:
backbendpigeon.jpg

You can see that her pelvis is facing down towards her front foot.  When you look at her spine her Lumbar (low back) area is in extension, or a backbend.

So how did we in the West stray from what was originally taught?  The answer is simple, we LOVE sitting. (As my fellow yoga teacher, friend, mentor and all around best person ever Charlotte Munn says “we’re also not young slender Indian boys hand selected by Gurus to practice yoga”)

You know what they say about chairs right?

sitting

Ok, maybe that’s more like Dr. Perry, who by the way has one of the best blogs on the planet.  Check out how chairs are slowly sucking out your soul by killing your butt.

We here in the West have inhibited (or underused/weak) butts and backs.  I’ll forgo a source here and encourage you to do a quick Google search on back pain, or even just watch 5 minutes of live TV and you’ll see a commercial for back pain meds.  Because we’re so sedentary in our normal lives, it feels soooooooo much better to fold forward than stay upright in Pigeon, all because our butt is on a constant vacation.  Get that guy to stop slacking and do his job!  You’ll find that your back will feel amazing and you’ll have a fine looking behind for it 😉

Don’t believe me? Pop into the above upright version of the pose right now.

  • From Downward Dog inhale your Right leg high, exhale plant your front leg in a comfortable figure 4(ish) position.
  • Walk your hands to your hips and lift up from your pelvis and chest.  You can accomplish this by driving your front shin into the mat and engaging your butt and thighs.
  • Stay here or really feel this pose and now add your arms to the sky (think mountain pose arms).

Did your back begin to spasm?  Did you feel your butt begin to fire?  I’d wager to say most of the people who tried this experienced the above (I did my first few times), obviously everyone’s different so there’s a chance you felt fine and maybe even a little more empowered.

Side bar: you can place a block under the back leg under your hip, to help support this pose.  Traditionally we’re taught to place it under the front leg, but try this, it allows you to support the lift and the back leg a little better. (Tip provided by Jules Mitchell’s Biomechanics Webinar)

While you sit there pondering all the horrible things your chair is doing to your butt like this poor guy, let’s look at some more anatomy.  Specifically that of the true pose: Pigeon, or Kapotasana.ponderingcomputerman.jpg

Hmmm sitting kills my ass eh?  Maybe that’s why I can’t pop it like it’s hot.

Pigeon Anatomy:

The main alternative to Sleeping Pigeon, is the active/upright/backbend version that’s been covered above.  I’ll try not to bore you with the details here.  First, let’s pop the hood and take a look at what’s going on in the body in this pose:

Pigeonposeanatomy

Quick thank you to the wonderful being that is Google for having an upright anatomical view provided on the first page by searching “Pigeon Pose anatomy”

Check it out: even though the muscles are covering it, you can see that the pelvis is naturally flexed forward in this pose.  All the muscles of front inner hip and back glute and hamstring are active.  All the beautiful muscles of the back & spine are active as well.  Even the muscles of the front and back of neck are experiencing some beautiful activation!

The intention and purpose of this pose is much different too.  Since we’re now engaging the Deep Butt/Butt-tator Cuff/Stabilizers (if you don’t know or remember what those are check out Part I) of the hip there are some pretty profound things this pose can do.  One of which is make sure your hips are extra safe and engaged for deeper backbends.  More on this in Part III!

Now let’s look at “Sleeping Pigeon:”

sleepingpigeonanatomy

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*Shudders*

It’s like someone turned all the lights off except for a tiny little night-light, there’s barely anything active here!  One can argue that the legs are experiencing the same thing, but stay tuned once we start getting a little deeper, you’ll see that this is not necessarily true…

Wonderful Hip Opener? More like dirty Hip LIAR

We associate the motion of flexion, abduction, and external rotation (fancy anatomy talk for figure 4 leg) of the hip as “hip opening.”  Structurally this is true, it’s an open position.  But that motion for most, if not all, of us is pretty easy.  It’s internal rotation of our hips that tends to be the thing that we lack.  So if our intention is to truly “open the hips” via a stretch/release, then we need to shift our focus on unlocking the motion that’s restricted, internal rotation.

One of the important actions of this pose (that’s often overlooked) is internal rotation of the back hip.  If we fold forward this action becomes much more difficult.  If we switch the focus to the back leg and stay upright, this internal rotation “spiral your inner thigh” action is much easier, and pretty beneficial as internal rotation tends to be the first motion your hip loses.

Sit down (tsk tsk tsk I know you still are despite what you read above) and try this:

  • Parallel your thighs and sit flat in your seat.
  • Lift one of your feet out to the side, try to keep your knee still.
  • Switch, and do the other side.

Looks like:

IRhip.jpg

You may notice a “limiting/restricted feeling” in one of your hips.  I’ll even wager to say it was your left.  Why? Because in addition to being a doctor and yoga teacher I’m a Psychic haha.  Seriously though, probably because of how we drive with our right foot on the pedal, right side dominance, always going right side first, etc.

We live in an external rotation of the hip type of world, we rarely use internal rotation, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not extremely important.  Think about how easy it is to “figure 4” your leg and how much you hate poses like Warrior I, Revolved Triangle, Hero’s pose.  Those are all internal hip rotation poses.

I attended a Mulligan’s mobilization workshop a few times back when I was in school.  The teacher taught that internal rotation was the first movement a hip loses, and that when you restore and improve internal rotation, all the other motions of the hip benefit.  Don’t believe me, try it for yourself in your own body and I’m pretty sure you’ll be amazed by the results.

We have one last thing to address when it comes to “Sleeping Pigeon” and it’s the thing everyone’s addicted to: that profound relaxing sensation.

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Now that you’ll be staying upright you’ll notice a lot of people just flop down like this cat *shudders*

The Surrender

One of the other main reasons why we take Sleeping Pigeon is because it signifies the transition between the harder, more active, standing posture section of class into the more relaxing floor posture based relaxing part of class.  As my fellow teacher, David Miller, put it’s the time where the personality Type A’s in class get to have a moment to be Type B’s.  I’m all for that, but as it turns out Sleeping Pigeon is mimicking the relaxing sensation of a forward fold.

When you fold your back muscles relax via reciprocal inhibition (when the front body contracts, the back body has to relax in order to allow this).  This is huge because your back muscles are big time postural.  They’re constantly signalling your brain as to where your spine is in space, (#fancywordoftheday = proprioception).  As you fold and relax, these signal less and the muscles of your back relax, hence that big time relaxing internalization feeling you get when you forward fold.

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Whew! Information overload.

Now that all the intricate details are out on the table, we can start discussing alternatives.

Healthy Hip Alternatives:

The question to now ask yourself my Yoga teacher readers:

Knowing that the folded version of Pigeon is dangerous because you’re dumping into destabilized hips, why put it in your class?

Let’s breakdown why we put Sleeping Pigeon in our classes further:

  • Is it to prepare the hips for backbends? (That’s why it’s in our CorePower sequence before Camel pose)
    • Okay then why not teach the Active backbend version to better engage the stabilizers of the hip, resulting in a safer more engaged backbend?
  • Is it to signal the transition into relaxation?
    • Okay then why not take a normal forward fold, or something that doesn’t place the hips in an unstable dangerous position?
      • My new favorite is Deer Pose, as there’s a stretch for both legs, one in internal rotation, the other in external, combo’d with a delicious forward fold.  Plus you can recline after folding and get an amazing hip flexor stretch in there too.
  • Are you trying to mimic the position of Sleeping Pigeon because you’re scared your class will behead you if you take out the “open hip/figure 4” with forward fold feeling we’re all addicted to? 
    • Double Pigeon/Fire Log Pose it up then! (Most people say that they like that one a lot). Or Supine Figure 4 with your back on the mat.

In case no one has ever told you, it’s okay to take it out of your class and replace it with something that fits your intention and sequence. Especially now that you know the true intentions and dangers behind this pose.

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As for my Yoga student readers:

  • You’re allowed to modify a pose to your needs, even if it goes against what the teacher is teaching.  Example: instead of folding forward with the class, why not stay upright?
    • Scared people will think you’re a weirdo?
      • A: News flash you’re doing yoga, you’re already a weirdo.
      • B. Remember, the first rule of self-love is to let go of what everyone thinks about you
  • If you want to relax here, try Figure 4 on your back, or maintain a neutral pelvis by supporting your back leg with a block, right at the hip, and coming down to your forearms, rather than your whole torso folding forward.
  • Double Pigeon/Fire Log and Deer Pose work really well too!

Most importantly, if your teacher tells you to fold and tries to smack you with a strap until you do,

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Nuh-uh girlfriend!  Show them this article after class!

Conclusion:

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Pure and simple, this information is a mind blowing game changer

That’s all the facts that I have.

  • Part I showed how folding in a Pigeon pose, or Sleeping Pigeon, can be potentially damaging your hips.
  • Here in Part II we discussed how a lot of the history and intentions behind Pigeon pose have been misconstrued by our yoga community.  And now you have a bunch of much safer, and way more delicious feeling alternatives!

In Part III I’ll be detailing a little more on the potential of this active Pigeon when it comes to sequencing in your class, or just implementing in your own practice.  I’ll also break down a few of the alternatives, elaborate some things a little further, and share with you some of the mad scientist experiments me and my fellow instructors have been doing with active Pigeon.  It’s the functional approach to all this new information stewing in your noggin.

Please remember to give this article a share, as it may save a hip!  #getwokenotbroke I’ll see you soon 🙂

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In love & light,

Dr. YG

2 thoughts on “Yoga Injuries: Sleeping/Half Pigeon Part II: Community Dogma & Alternatives

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