A yoga love story: my long term relationship with pigeon
Like many complicated and passionate couples, pigeon and I didn't care for each other when we first met. In fact, I hated pigeon. It was my least favorite pose and I couldn't understand why anyone would ever request pigeon! I was in agony doing pigeon pose: sweating, gripping, and irritated by all the people who looked like they were enjoying themselves.
I'll admit it took awhile but eventually I warmed up to pigeon. Things evolved and it became less agonizing. And after awhile I got kind of "good" at it. Then, one thing led to another and I fell in love. We were inseparable. I practiced pigeon often, holding a deep pose indefinitely. I loved how grounded it made me feel and how open my hips felt. Isn't young love so sweet? We were blissfully together for a few years before things started to unravel.
On a summer night about 6 years ago, I felt pain in the back of my left hip. It wouldn't go away and something just didn't feel right. It ached at night and the pain would wake me up, especially when I slept on my side. Getting in and out of the car was painful. Around the same time, there was also something strange going on in my triangle and half moon poses. When I went into these poses there was significant movement in the back of my pelvis and an audible "click, click, click". I saw a chiropractor who told me I had sacroiliac (SI) joint instability. He could put my SI joint back in place during treatments but as soon as I left the office and slid into my car it would shift back out of position. And that movement and clicking I heard and felt in triangle and half moon - well, that was my sacrum and left ilium banging around about as they shifted out of place.
Pigeon had not only stretched the the tight muscles in my hips, it also stretched the ligaments that stabilized my pelvis. Muscles will return to their resting length after stretching, but ligaments don't snap back. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to admit that pigeon could be contributing to my pain. I felt betrayed. How could something that felt so good have a negative consequence?! Our tearful breakup was the sad realization that I could no longer fall into poses that I loved, freely and with abandon.
In the lonely days that followed, I wondered more about what had changed in my pelvis and low back. Curiosity overshadowed my negative feelings and triggered an interest in learning more about low back pain, SI joint instability, and what I could do to fix it. I've been studying this area for the past 5 years and I have a much more honest and compassionate relationship with my body and my yoga practice as a result. The upside of all of this is that sometimes an injury can help you advance your practice in ways you had not imagined.
Hypermobility occurs when the ligaments in joints are too loose. Affected joints include elbows, knees, shoulders, cervical spine, hips, and SI joints. In some us, coming into our fullest expressions of certain yoga poses requires our joints to move beyond healthy, functional ranges of motion. Exploiting this range of motion over and over again can lead to some serious problems. Hypermobile people often feel the NEED to stretch, but shouldn't do it mindlessly. The body responds to the laxity in the ligaments around certain joints by tightening large muscle groups around the joint. Thus, the muscles feel tight and we want to stretch them. But more deep stretching can just irritate the problem.
Thankfully, most people can safely practice pigeon and other deep poses without over-stretching ligaments, but in the yoga community we do have a significant number of hyper-mobile people. So my message is this, listen to your what your body is telling you. When something changes, don't pretend you don't hear it. Yoga is not all stretching. We need to balance flexibility with strength and for each us that scale is different. Pigeon and I have made up although we realize we're not a perfect fit. Like old flames, we have fond memories and a soft spot for one another. In order to remain friends we compromise and make accommodations for our relationship. I practice pigeon occasionally, using props, muscular engagement, and a slow pace of coming in and out of the pose to listen for signals from my body. Usually, I can resist the urge to push in ways that create conflict. And when I don't, pigeon sends me flowers and a get well card.
Deirdre is a 500 RYT with an interest in therapeutic yoga. She's leading the workshop "Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga for Low Back Pain" on March 23rd at 3Sisters. If you are interested, check our workshops page here: