Congrats! You made it to Part III, the final installation of this rather lengthy journey detailing the hidden dangers of one of our favorite poses, Sleeping Pigeon. Even though your brain may feel taxed, know that your hips will forever thank you for it.
First, here’s a quick recap of the main points on Part I and Part II. Which if you’re just joining us now, you’re like the person who got the last Harry Potter book just to skip to page 596 and spoil where Dumbledore died. Moment of humble honesty: nobody likes that person; yoga teaches us that it’s about the journey, rather than the destination. Plus, it would bring me great disdain and sorrow for you to do something “Because Dr. Garrett said so.”
Please be the beautiful human that you are, capable of forming your own thoughts and your own opinions.
- Part I showed the anatomy on how folding in a Pigeon pose, or Sleeping Pigeon, can be potentially damaging your hips in the long run.
- In Part II we discussed how a lot of the history and intentions behind Pigeon pose have been misconstrued by our yoga community. How “Sleeping Pigeon” spawned from chairs sucking out our souls from of our inhibited butts. (more like Sleeping Butt Pigeon m’right?) Plus, there were some alternatives given based on what your intention was for featuring Sleeping Pigeon in your class or own practice.
After all that info above there have been 3 kinds of reactions from the information:
Person 1: My glass-case-of-emotion’ers, distraught and filled with sorrow (to which I’d like to jokingly add, you no longer should fold into Sleeping Pigeon to address this issue in your tissue)
Person 2: My Sleeping-Pigeon-does-what’ers; who are still hoping that this is all some elaborate and belated April Fools. ***Spoiler alert: It’s all real, very very real***
Person 3: My angry-computer-throwers, either angered by the lies and dangers of Sleeping Pigeon, or the fact I spoiled that Dumbledore dies in the beginning of this article (It’s 2016, c’mon how did you last this long!?)
And then there’s me, sitting back, enjoying the chaos that ensued like:
Just kidding, this info wrecked me emotionally when I first started researching all this. I used to love Sleeping Pigeon too. Trust me, I went through each of the 3 stages of grief detailed by the 3 .gifs above. Now I’m just happy to have the resources and the outlet to share all this and hopefully save you and future Yogis a trip to the surgeon.
No matter where you’re at in your stage of grief over Pigeon. We’re all left with the same question:
Sooooooo now what?
That’s what Part III is all about baby, functional applications to Part I and II. Let’s start off detailing some of the really cool stuff you can do with Active Pigeon. Then address in a little more detail some of the alternatives. And then wrap it all up with some encouragement to experiment! Can I get a “Yay scientific method!?”
Or stand up out of your soul sucking chair and do the Bill Nye Science Shake
Unlocking the potential of Active Pigeon
Now that we know that flopping down into Sleeping Pigeon is potentially damaging our hips in the long-term. We’re faced with the main upright backbend alternative, the way it was traditionally taught until our Western butts and backs decided it was too much effort. While yes, this requires much more work, it’s a freaking powerful pose. Just look at all those active muscles again!
I swear this pose gets sexier every time I look at it (and not because it has boobs, get your mind out of the gutter, ya nasty)
Active Pigeon Modifications:
As detailed in Part II, this is a pretty big backbend. It’s great to start people upright, achieving a lift in their hips with the hands right there for support. Remember, if it’s too much it’s okay to stay on your hands, or elbows because the spine is still neutral. If you have blocks, then a block under the back leg can be really beneficial here.
You can see that the black is placed under my back thigh, right underneath my hip. This helps support the lift in the pelvis in the back leg. (Photo cred: Sarah Rae)
- You can also cue to untuck the back foot and lift the back leg (like a Lizard pose, and how it’s demonstrated above)
- Add the arms to the sky for a big time spinal backbend (Like the picture to above to your right, think mountain pose arms, pinkie fingers spiral in)
Potential #1: Hip Stability
Now that we know that this active version engages the Deep Butt hip stabilizers we can answer the question,
Where could we use hip stability in yoga?
Hip stability is HUGE in balancing, especially in standing postures! A more stable hip means less wobbling and shakiness and more control in our standing and single leg balancing postures. I’m reminded of this quote by this question:
“Every pose is a balancing pose”
Knowing this, guess what? What if you tried something super blasphemous and put Active Pigeon right after your Sun A?
Powerful mistake? or Divine intention?
Think about it, Sun B is where we start getting into our standing postures. All of which are technically balancing, especially when you start separating the legs. We then, usually, incorporate balancing one leg type stuff after this. If you’ve granted your students hip stability via muscular engagement early on, think about how much more successful they will be when it comes to this!
I’ll add here my own observations: I recently tried this in my class. I was teaching Half Moon and Revolved Half Moon as a peak postures. I committed yoga blasphemy by taking the class into Active Pigeon right after a Sun A. First thing I noted, when we went through the first round of Sun B (which is much slower, and poses are held for about 3-5 breaths) my students were much less wobbly than a normal first round Sun B. Later, when I introduced and had them float into Half Moon, it was insane, the best Half Moon’s I’ve ever seen. Everyone, even my first time beginner, looked so stable and the shakiness that usually knocked people out of the pose was no longer there. I should note, for those that don’t know, that I teach Power Yoga, which is breath to movement vinyasa style. After these results from here on out, I don’t see any reason why Pigeon won’t be right after my Sun A, or some other hip stabilizing pose. (I smell another article in the near future)
Potential #2: Safer Backbending
At my work, CorePower Yoga, we sequence Pigeon right before our major backbends, like Camel pose, to prepare them for backbending. So on to our next thought experiment,
With the hips more engaged, and stable after an active Pigeon what do you think may happen in a big backbend afterwards?
Well first off Active Pigeon itself, in addition to engaging our hip stabilizers, is a backbend (remember from Part II, the pelvis is flexed forward). So by just staying upright you get a natural backbend. Secondly, awareness and engagement of the muscles of the hips will keep people from overarching their backs, because their butts are engaged! This helps protect the lumbar spine from overarching and maintains a beautiful arch shape, rather than a triangular angle shape that we so commonly see in people who backbend improperly.
Sure random first picture internet lady, your backdrop looks gorgeous, but your spine isn’t supposed to angle that way. Check out the beautiful arch on the second picture lady.
When it comes to backbending, think Roman arches. Those structures have withstood everything time could throw at them because arches can withhold a lot of force. The Divine being that you believe in (be it God, Buddha, Science, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, etc) that created you did a wonderful job in creating arches in your spine, and the rest of the weight-bearing structures in your body, like your foot.
Try to respect your beautiful body by keeping your butt engaged,
and remember arches > angles
I see what you did there 😉
So there you have it, balancing and backbends all benefit from an Active Pigeon. Let’s be honest,
What wouldn’t benefit from some hip stability granted by an Active Pigeon in yoga?
So now what happens if you decide to scrap the whole damn thing and take Pigeon entirely out? Which you are totally allowed to do. Or what happens if you decided to engage in some blasphemy of your own and placed it towards the beginning and now you lost your go to transition into sleepy time? Let’s find out!
Alternatives to Pigeon Pose
Recall in Part II towards the end when I covered the different intentions to Sleeping Pigeon, and how even, dangerous anatomy aside, just intention wise there were better alternatives. Here I’ll be covering that delicious forward fold feeling, coupled with “Hip opening” alternatives. And by hip opening I mean structure, Figure 4 (flexion, abduction, external rotation) of the hip. Remember from Part II, to truly “open the hips” via stretch we need internal rotation, as that’s the motion that tends to be the most restricted in the hips.
Curse you vague and confusing yoga terms like open!
Deer Pose (Aka the best pose ever)
This one comes from Yin Yoga and it”s seriously one of the best poses ever. Not only do we get that structurally open figure 4 external rotation feeling in one of our legs. WE GET THE ADDED BONUS OF INTERNAL ROTATION in the other. 2 types of opening, all for the price of one great feel! Check it out:
Check out that sexy man in Deer Pose. Both feet are flexed, one is next to your knee, the other is either out to the side (as demonstrated) or you can take the back leg like Hero’s Pose and keep the front of the foot flat on the mat.
You may notice that the hip with the foot behind it may try to lift, that’s the restricted internal rotation. Work with what feels right to you and try to keep your hips flat on the mat as best you can (it’s okay if it lifts a little).
Plus, you can fold 3 ways here. You can fold more over your legs similar to the above image, the difference being you can rest your elbows on your thighs, or even bring them to the mat. Try to hinge and keep a flat back, rather than completely round your spine way down.
Option 2: Out to the side, and Option 3: you can recline into a wondrous hip flexor stretch. Also note that the neck can be neutral. Here I’m demonstrating a Fish-Deer Hybrid Pose (Everyone can benefit from a good SCM stretch)
Xzibit loves Deer Pose
Here’s another alternative. In this one both legs are externally rotated and in figure 4 positions. It’s another great pose to supplement as you can control the forward fold. Plus both hips are involved and not seperated, like Pigeon, so weight is being evenly distributed. Plus the spine and pelvis tend to move in unison with this one (provided you hinge rather than round your back). I wish I had an anatomy picture to accompany it so you can see it for yourself, but alas it appears that one doesn’t exist via Google image search. You’ll have to deal with my body in lieu of that:
Both feet are flexed and idealistically you have a foot over a knee, a knee over a foot. You can place a block if their’s a gap between your knee and foot. Here you can control the descent in the fold, plus the spine is neutral. You’ll have to imagine it from the side, but my back is flat and I’m hinging, rather than rounding, from my pelvis.
Supine Figure 4
This is the alternative we’ve always given to our yogis, should Pigeon be too rough on their knees. It’s a nice soft pose and gives a good ol’ glute stretch.
Both feet are flexed. The spine is neutral with the back flat on the mat. And my Figure 4 (Left leg) is getting a delicious butt stretch.
You can even add a twist to it and plant your Figure 4 foot on the mat to change the stretch.
You may want to take a block under the Figure 4 foot. Here my spine is also flat on the mat, and the twist is all in my lumbar, pelvis, and hips.
Pigeon & The Knees
Since we’re on the topic and this question cropped up after Part I, let’s talk about knees in Active Pigeon really quick. By lifting the pelvis up we have to engage the thighs, which drive the front shin and back thigh/foot into the mat. Now one may think this may place the knees in an unsafe, at the mercy of more force and gravity position, but really what ends up happening is that they are MORE SAFE.
Yup, let’s touch on knee stablizers real quick with just a hint of clinical knowledge spiced in.
There’s two types of stabilization to the knee, static and dynamic (static – passive, not moving; dynamic – active, moving).
Static are the passive structures they help when the body isn’t active. They are:
- Ligaments (MCL, LCL, PCL, ACL)
- Menisci (medial and lateral) and the joint capsule.
- IT band is also considered a passive stabilizer, as it is also a fibrous band.
Muscles are the dynamic stabilizers, they help stabilize the knee when the body is moving. They go by location:
- Front (Anterior): Quadriceps – generally control patellar tracking and knee extension. They provide stability to both the inner (medial) and outer (lateral) edges of the front knee.
- Back (Posterior): Hamstrings – rotation and flexion of the knee plus medial and lateral stability to the inner and outer back knee
- Honorable mentions:
- TFL: becomes the IT band and helps with lateral stability of the knee
- Popliteus: Unlocks the knee which allows it to move
- Biceps Femoris: dynamic (movement) stabilizer of Fibula & outside, lateral, edge of the knee
- Gastrocnemius – helps with knee flexion and gives dynamic support when the knee is in the air
- Honorable mentions:
**There’s obviously more to this, if it tickles your pickle click this knee stabilizer link from above to learn the nuancy stuff.
All of these, aside from your Gastroc (calf muscle), are thigh muscles. Active Pigeon is a dynamic posture, therefore the muscles are engaged which, hypothetically, places the knee in a safe place because muscles are absorbing the forces on the knee (and hip). I say hypothetically because everyone is different: muscular imbalances, normal variants, degeneration, etc can make this whole thing wonky.
Sleeping Butt Pigeon is much more passive because we tend to relax here, which places the stresses into the passive structures like the joint capsule and ligaments of the knee (and hip).
Could this pose get any more dangerous for our bodies!?
Clinical Side Bar: We have a saying in the chiropractic/movement therapy world:
“Unless the knee takes a direct blow, pain in the knee is almost never the knee alone. Always check the hip (70% of the time the true cause is here) or the ankle (30% of the time the true cause there).”
Most of the time, in my experience, it’s both. The whole leg from the big toe to the hip and beyond should behave as a whole dynamic chain. The knee gets a bad rap because its the first guy to start compensating for loss of motion in the ankle and/or hip. Check out how that kinetic chain should work:
Stability = designed to limit motion; Mobility = designed to move a lot
Once one of the mobile areas loses it’s mobility, the stable areas start to over-move to compensate for that loss in motion. Good Doc’s and Yogi’s treat/address the cause, not the site of pain.
Useful kinda boring-ish stuff to know, but that’s extra credit at this point. Plus you can always benefit from learning how the human body works. Yay biomechanics!
Ok that’s enough clinical science. Let’s wrap this bad boy up.
Justin’s excited for the conclusion, I’m sure you are too
Alright folks, that’s it. Quite a lot if you really take some time to reflect back on all that we’ve learned. I had to bombard you though, there’s a lot of undoing as this pose is all too common in our community. I believe I’ve filled my intention though. As unbiased as humanly possible I gave you the facts with a few hilarious interludes. Now that you have everything, please meditate and play around with it. The best part about information is that you can take it and eat it up or toss it out (kind of like leftover Chinese food).
I would like to add the disclaimer that this is all based on current evidence based anatomy, biomechanics, and science, which as we all know science can change. Should something in the future come out which says something like “Sleeping Pigeon is the best thing ever for your hips and it cures cancer!” I’ll be the first to admit my wrongs and rescind my articles, then give you the most current evidence based facts.
Now go out and have some fun with this info. Throw in Pigeon after Sun A! Hell, you can even start class in it if you really want to stir things up.
The most important thing, no matter what you do with this information, is that you keep your body and your students SAFE.
A few final take homes:
- Even if you choose to fold in the future, that’s you and I respect you for it as hopefully now you’re simply more aware of your body and how it works. Just PLEASE DO NOT LET A TEACHER ADJUST YOU HERE. I’ll come right out and say it, a deepener assist in this pose can only mean more trouble in the future, and trust me the teacher who hasn’t read this LOVES adjusting this pose because it’s easy and gives you a momentary feel good.
- Teachers, in my experiences and experiments (along with my fellow instructors) have found that if you give the option to fold, your class will flop right down at the first opportunity. Even if you went and did everything right in Active Pigeon, they potentially undo everything by flopping down. I don’t even give the option to fold in my classes anymore. Plus, knowing all the stuff in Part II, why would you? What is your intention to fold? (Another bit of Charlotte Munn wisdom: “Don’t let your class bully you”)
- Also, try not to explain in detail why you’ve changed up their world with an Active Pigeon and bring a cloud of doom into your class. You can say “Hey class we’re doing things in Pigeon different today to stabilize/prep our hip for (insert pose here)” After class is when you can drop the Pigeon poop (I wanted to say bomb, but poop seemed more apt)
- Even though it seems like sad news right now, this knowledge is quite empowering. When you teach it and move your yoga community into awareness on Pigeon, they will thank you immensly for it.
Take in a big inhale as you lock this info in, and exhale out all the old stale stuff.
Go out there and have fun with this! You have a whole new concept of hip stability to play with and OH EM GEE is it an exciting thing to try and utilize. Stay tuned too as this blog is only starting. I’ll be updating with weekly content, full of nutrition, yoga, anatomy, biomechanics, neuroscience, cats, memes, interviews with yogis/teachers & docs, etc (honestly it’s going to be whatever tantalizes my brain, which hopefully will engage and juicy up yours). Email me requests and questions too! I’d love to cater to what your brain is interested in.
Just to tantalize you, next week I think we’ll look into the neuroscience of laughter, smiling, and touching *excited giggle* So sign up for the email alerts down below! Add me on Instagram @ dr.yogi_gare (or click the link below). And let’s learn some cool stuff together!
Remember a share of this series can save a yogis hip!
Oh! Follow my new yoga injuries awareness movement: #getwokenotbroke (sorry not sorry grammar nazis).
Until next time,
From my heart to yours,