Making peace with pigeon, my nemesis pose
I’ve written about nemesis poses before. You know what those are: the poses you absolutely hate. Of course those are the ones that have the most to teach you, so the generally accepted rule is that your nemesis pose is the one you should practice more often.
But… how do you know the difference between a nemesis pose that you should practice more often, and the pose that you should stop practicing altogether?
Recently I was in a yoga class, and the instructor led us into pigeon pose (Eka Pada Kapotasana). And in a flash I knew that it was time for me to stop trying with pigeon. It was time to let that pose go and release it from my practice. Let me tell you how I got there.
I love the hip opening, but not the foot cramps
I’ve been practicing pigeon for years. When I first started going to heated vinyasa classes, I thought the only way to practice pigeon was to lie flat over the front leg. So I did. The instructor usually held us there for several minutes. I loved pigeon—it felt great. Once I learned how to open and stretch my hips, my whole body moved more easily. I started to crave that stretch. When I began teaching, I included pigeon in almost every class.
While I loved pigeon pose, it brought some problems. Mainly foot cramps. But only when my right leg was in front. My right foot would start tingle, and I’d try to ignore it. Then the sudden stabbing pain of foot cramps jerked me out of the pose. Over time it got so bad that I couldn’t relax in pigeon on the right side, because I was scared I’d get a foot cramp. Then I decided it was all in my head—if I didn’t anticipate the foot cramp, then it wouldn’t happen! Maybe I needed to drink more water, or eat more bananas (for their potassium)? Maybe I needed to release fear: I’m not afraid of a foot cramp. Well, that didn’t really work.
Another problem with pigeon was my uneven hips. Everyone has one side that’s more cooperative than the other, and I’m no different. This pose was much easier on the left side than on the right. So I spent a few years exploring this. Did it have to do with my masculine side not being as strong as my feminine side? Did I have “issues” with my father that were showing up as tight hips? What if I tried other hip openers, like lizard—would that help “release” the stuck energy?
A few years later I relented and started using props for pigeon. I loved using the small bolster, which provided just the right amount of height, but without the rigidity of a block. Then I started putting my forehead on a block, and not folding all the way to the floor.
As you can see, I spent years exploring this pose. Through it all, I still wanted that forward fold. But the anxiety over will-it-or-won’t-it foot cramp interfered too much.
A flash of insight
Then out of nowhere, I had a flash of insight. In class one day, I knew I was done with pigeon. After years of trying to force it, I let it go. Just like that. In an instant, I knew that my body was never going to relent. I would always struggle in pigeon. I would always worry about foot cramps. I would never be able to achieve ease and peace with the pose, at least not the way I was practicing it—which was just exactly the same way I learned it: fold flat to the floor.
So I let it go. And it was easy. It was freeing. Refreshing, even. Now when the instructor cues pigeon, I use a prop for my hips on both sides, not just the right. I stay seated upright—no more folding forward. Sometimes I even bend my back knee and let it slide out to the side! Gasp—that’s so different from the extend your back leg back straight, do not let your foot curl inward! Hips squared!
I have discovered the pleasure of king pigeon and its many variations, moving from quadriceps stretch to heart opener. In king pigeon or proud pigeon, I don’t get foot cramps. I’m enjoying pigeon again!
So was this a lesson in how to make peace with a nemesis pose, or a lesson in letting go of an unachievable pose?
Both. I don’t dread or force the pose anymore. I don’t try to play mind games with myself. I practice pigeon in the way that is right for my body, at this time in my life. I honor my stubborn right hip (that will never be as flexible as the left) and I (finally!) heed the message those foot cramps were sending.
How about you? Have you made peace with a yoga pose?