[Microblog] There is No "Right Way" To Do A Yoga Pose

hovering-pigeon.jpg

When I think about yoga alignment, the approach I take these days is that there is no one "right" way to practice any yoga pose. The right way to align a yoga pose really depends on who is practicing the pose and what their individual goals are. Our goals can also change every time we practice a pose, and that's actually great. Otherwise we just practice the same thing the same way all the time and never provide new input into our tissues or our nervous system.

In this "hovering" variation of pigeon pose, my goal is to create *strength* in my hips in a pigeon-like joint arrangement. This is good stuff that will create tissue health and neurological control in my hips - something that nearly all of us can use more of. Consider changing up your pigeon pose regularly and all your other poses too - as long as they align with your specific goal in the moment, then that is "right" way for you to practice the pose.

Three Alternatives to Pigeon Pose & A Brief Discussion About Stretching

(**Update February 2018: I have backed off the position I take in "Reason #2" of this blog post. Although passive, folded-forward pigeon pose doesn't offer much in terms of positive change for our tissues, I don't think it's as innately precarious for our joints as I used to (injuries generally happen from fast, strong, quick forces - not from a simple low-load stretch done for a bit.) So while I don't personally practice passive pigeon very often because I'd just prefer to do things that are more effective and more efficient for making change in my body - like the 3 great alternatives I feature in this post - I DO occasionally include it as an option in my classes again, and I don't fearmonger about the pose anymore today. Just FYI!)

I know I might be in the minority amongst yoga teachers, but even though yoga students tend to looove their pigeon pose, I have consciously chosen to forgo this pose in my classes for the past several years now. While I do teach variations of pigeon pose like reclined pigeon and standing pigeon chair, I don't generally teach the traditional version of this pose in which you lie in a passive, unsupported forward fold over the front leg.

 

WHY I SKIP PIGEON POSE - REASON #1

I have two main reasons for skipping pigeon pose in my classes. The first is that it doesn't offer much in the way of positive change for the tissues of the body. We generally tend to think of pigeon pose as a stretch designed to increase the flexibility of the hips. But we've actually learned quite a bit more from scientific research in recent years about how stretching works (although there is still a ton that we don't know!), and thanks to my brilliant mentor Jules Mitchell, much of this new information is making its way to the yoga community.

One of the biggest realizations that I've learned about stretching is that flexibility is a much more complex topic than we've generally learned from our yoga teacher trainings, workshops, books, and other studies. The prevailing approach to flexibility in most yoga classes (and in much of the health/fitness world in general) is that if someone lacks range of motion in a joint, the solution is to stretch the muscles and fascia that cross the joint to lengthen them out. Then we get longer tissues and voila! - we can stretch further in that direction. By this reasoning, the solution to the ubiquitous "tight hips" that many people claim to have is to simply stretch one's hips out in pigeon pose for a long time at the end of every yoga class - a practice that we yogis are quite familiar with!

But the assumption that in order to solve all inflexibility issues, tissues simply need to be stretched out does not take into account the many other likely factors that could be causing the inflexibility - factors that passive stretching does not actually address. It reminds me of pain science and how easy it is to attribute pain simply to structural factors like tissue damage, poor alignment, or dysfunctional movement patterns, when the bigger picture of pain is truly so much more complex than this. The brain's decision to output a pain experience is multifactorial and completely unique to each individual - and in the case of persistent pain, is actually rarely due to a single structural reason like tissue damage.

Similarly, if someone experiences what they would call "tight" hips ("tight" of course being a vague, subjective word with no single definition for all bodies), the possible reasons for this tightness are many and varied, from a restriction in the capsule of the joint itself (which would not be addressed by passive stretching) to issues in how the brain is coordinating muscle activity (more of a motor control/neuromotor issue that is also not solved by passive stretching). Therefore, when we as a yoga community assume that the solution to all inflexibility issues is to stretch our tissues out in poses like pigeon pose, we are missing a much larger picture of how flexibility, performance, and joint function works.

This image of pigeon pose that I found online makes me feel weird. :)

This image of pigeon pose that I found online makes me feel weird. :)

WHY I SKIP PIGEON POSE - REASON #2

With all of that said, this isn't the only reason that I choose to skip pigeon pose in my classes. Even though passive stretching is not the universal solution to inflexibility issues that we yogis tend to believe it is, it still has some nice benefits, and I certainly include some passive poses in my classes. But pigeon pose also happens to incorporate some precarious joint positioning for the front knee and hip with the added weight of the torso and upper body lying on top of them, which isn't necessarily beneficial for these joints. Although there are ways to modify the pose to support these joints in a healthy way, these options are rarely offered or taught in detail in most yoga classes. And even if they were, most yoga studios don't have enough props to support every student the way they would need to be set up for optimal loading of the front knee and hip.
 

THREE ALTERNATIVES TO PIGEON POSE

And so, without further ado, I present to you... three alternatives to pigeon pose! These are three excellent ways that a pose like pigeon pose can be practiced, but with the added benefit of positive change for the tissues of the hip and a more efficient path toward increased flexibility. You'll notice that all three examples incorporate some degree of muscle activation (versus assuming the poses passively). This is because research has suggested that strengthening muscles through their full range will result in more flexibility gains faster than passive stretching alone. This is likely because when we actively contract our muscles during a stretch, this signals our nervous system that this range of motion is safe, and our nervous system will therefore be more likely to allow more range of motion in the future. Additionally, when we contract our muscles during a stretch, we load our connective tissues via muscular force, which increases their load-bearing capacity (i.e. their strength) over time. Strong connective tissues equals strong, efficient movement, functional joints, and decreased risk of injuries in the future.

Consider offering these options as an alternative to traditional pigeon pose in your yoga classes, or if you find yourself in a yoga class in which pigeon pose is taught, consider trying one of these "pigeon-ish" poses instead. (Just for the record, I don't think pigeon is an absolutely terrible pose, and I would certainly not "judge" a yoga teacher for including it in their class - pigeon is extremely ubiquitous in our yoga community and it sometimes feels like our students almost expect it. But once you learn a bit more about current stretching science and the connection between strength and flexibility, you might be inspired to change up what you offer to reflect these new understandings.)

If you decide to experiment with these pigeon alternatives, notice how it feels to strengthen your hips instead of passively stretch them in this classic pose, and enjoy the benefits that these new movements offer to your body and mind! (Also be sure to check out the further reading resources listed below these videos...)

**Related: Keeping Your Yoga Teaching Current Online Training

 
 
 

Further Reading & Exploration

Blog Post: Resistance Stretching with Charlie Reid & Jules Mitchell

Related Online Workshop by Jenni: Re-Imagining Hip Openers: A Yoga Anatomy Workshop

Related Online Class by Jenni: Hips-Focused Practice #2

Related Blog Post by Jenni: Stretching Is In Your Brain: A New Paradigm of Flexibility & Yoga

Let's Forget About "Hip-Openers" (Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of my hip-opening article! In Part 1 we looked at how classifying a small, specific group of yoga poses as "hip-openers" overlooks the anatomical fact that nearly all yoga poses are hip-openers, and if we treated them that way, our practice could offer us so much more. We'll now turn our biomechanical eye to how you can shift your alignment to truly open your hips in your practice!

How to Open Your Hips (Really)

Let's take pigeon pose. Single-leg pigeon pose is what most yogis picture when it comes to hip-opening (although we now know that there are a multitude of other poses which open the hips as well). This is a tricky pose because it requires a range of motion in the front hip that most people don’t actually have. In order to move into the shape, we often unknowingly destabilize other joints (especially the front knee), which is just a lame situation that no one wants. In order to effectively open our hip in this pose without putting other body parts at risk, most of us will have to prop our front thigh up very high - but few people actually do this. I think I’ll elaborate on this whole topic in a separate blog post, but for now, I’ll just offer that full lying face-down single-leg pigeon pose isn’t a great hip opener for most chair-sitting bodies (and it wasn’t a great hip-opener for me when this photo was taken awhile back - heh heh. :) ) For truly effective and non-joint-damaging hip-opening I’d recommend other stretches instead, like the awesome reclined pigeon pose (pictures below).

Reclined pigeon stretches a few muscles in the back of the hip, but let’s focus on just one of its main target muscles to keep things simple: the infamously tight piriformis.

As I wrote about in my hamstring stretching post (with cool rubber band photos to illustrate :) ), in order to stretch a muscle, the distance between the muscle’s attachment points must increase. Most people simply don’t understand how to truly move a muscle’s attachment points away from each other (I didn't fully comprehend this myself until I studied with my biomechanics teacher, guys!) and they therefore end up completely bypassing their intended stretch and stretching inappropriate tissue instead.

The pear-shaped piriformis attaches from the front of your sacrum, which is part of your pelvis, to a prominence on the femur called the greater trochanter. In order for this muscle to stretch, the pelvis and femur must move away from each other, which means that your pelvis must be un-tucked. If your pelvis stays tucked when you’re stretching your piriformis, your pelvis and femur have moved as a unit as opposed to moving away from each other, which means that a stretch didn't happen in the place you thought it did. I’m not exaggerating when I say that 99% of the yogis I see stretch their piriformis this way, which means they’re not stretching their hip at all. (Sad face! :( )

Here’s a quick review of a tucked vs. un-tucked pelvis.  In the un-tucked photo, note the presence of the natural inward curve of the lumbar spine/low back.

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The below photo demonstrates the way most yogis do reclined pigeon. Knowing what we know about how to spot an un-tucked vs. tucked pelvis, can you see that in this pose, the pelvis is tucked, and instead of the natural inward curve of the lumbar spine, you see a lumbar spine that is rounded outward? There is no piriformis stretch happening in this pose at all because this muscle's attachment points are not moving away from each other. Instead, the whole pelvis tipped backward, resulting in an unintended stretch to the low back and a piriformis that unhappily kept its same old short length.

In this photo, however, you can see that Anna has backed off the shape by not pulling her thigh in toward her chest, which has allowed her pelvis to remain un-tucked. Now all she needs to do is maintain the un-tuck and maybe move her pigeon leg knee away from her a bit to actually create a stretch in her hip.

Although the pose in this second photo might not look as “deep” as the first one, if you train your eyes to actually see what the bones are doing in a stretch, you should see that this arrangement is the only version in which the hip is actually stretching. (For the record, Anna is actually quite flexible, and she and a small percentage of flexi-types might be able to pull their thigh in a bit closer to their body and still keep an un-tucked pelvis, but no one should pull their thigh in as close as the first photo. To keep an aligned pelvis, your tailbone needs to stay firmly planted on the ground. Your thigh can pull in a bit as long as your tailbone keeps contact with the ground. Make sense?)

 

OTHER POSES

There are so many other poses which can open our hips, but to cover this topic in full is too big a job for this little old blog post. As I mentioned above, all hamstring stretches are hip-openers (including parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), and supta padangusthasana (reclined strap stretch)). All seated yoga poses are also hip-openers, all backbends are hip openers, all standing poses are hip-openers - the list is practically endless! Your whole yoga practice can become a hip-opening practice if you can see these poses for what they’re actually offering to your body.

 

Biomechanics and anatomy offer a profound understanding of the body and what our yoga practice is actually offering to us. As a progressive yoga teacher, my hope is to bring the clarity of this biomechanical perspective to the way we practice yoga so that we can move toward living in our bodies in a truly mindful way. I invite you to forget about “hip-openers” and to start thinking about aligning your body with integrity so that you can turn your whole yoga practice into the hip-opening experience that it’s meant to be!

 

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers

Let's Forget About "Hip-Openers" (Part 1)

Welcome to Part 1 of my 2-part hip-opening article! In Part 1, we'll examine the anatomy of tight hips and what it truly means to open them. In Part 2, we'll discuss some specific hip-opening alignment tips that most yogis are missing in their practice. Enjoy, and as always, just let me know if you have any questions/thoughts/feedback at all! :) 

Let's Forget About "Hip-Openers"

We talk a lot about “hip-openers” in yoga, but hip-opening is actually more complex than we often realize. Pigeon pose and its variations are usually considered the main group of poses which "open our hips", but surprisingly, most people unknowingly practice these poses in a way which bypasses the actual hip-opening they offer. The truth is that nearly all yoga poses are hip-openers, but we haven’t learned to think about them this way, and we therefore don’t align our joints to find this hip-opening potential that our bodies so desperately need.

Instead of thinking about the small group of poses we usually classify as “hip openers”, we should broaden our focus and learn to open our hips throughout our entire yoga practice.

 

Anatomy Lesson

We can all point to the general area of our body we have in mind when we talk about our “hips”. To be specific, though, we can say that the actual hip joint is located where your femur (thighbone) meets your pelvis (hip bone). And for the anatomy geeks in the room, let’s be technical and define the hip joint as the place where the head of the femur (the ball-like prominence at the top end of the bone) articulates with the acetabulum, a concave hemispherical socket located on the side of the pelvis. (Fun fact: did you know that “acetabulum” means “little vinegar cup” in Latin? And are you a new fan of anatomy trivia now? :) )

The hip is a joint, which means that it’s a moveable part of your body.  Motion at the hip takes place when the femur and pelvis move in relation to each other.  There are lots of movements available at the hip joint, including hip extension (moving the thigh behind you, as in shalabhasana), hip flexion (think diving forward from tadasana to uttanasana), hip abduction (moving your thigh out to the side, like your back leg in warrior 2), hip adduction (moving the thigh toward your midline - think eagle pose), and internal and external rotation.  Ideally all of these motions would be fluid and easy for you all of the time, but all too often, our hip joint movement is restricted in one or more planes (or all of them), resulting in hips we experience as “tight”.

 

What Does It Mean to Have Tight Hips?

(Update May 2016: Just for the record, this section of this blog post is pretty outdated now. "Tight" is a vague word that doesn't have one single meaning, but most often if someone experiences lack of range of motion of a joint, it's probably a more complex reason than simply that the muscles and fascia that cross the joint are restricting one's movement. Secondly, there isn't really any strong evidence that currently supports the idea that sitting shortens your hip flexors and hamstrings, or that it "turns off" your glutes (in fact, the very idea that muscles can be "turned off" in the first place is also pretty outdated now.) Just FYI!)
 

Even though we might casually talk about our joints as being “tight”, the truth is that your joint itself isn’t really the issue. It’s actually the muscles and fascia that cross your joint that restrict your movement. And how do these tissues become restricted? As my biomechanics teacher Katy Bowman says, “your body adapts to what you do most frequently”. And the one body position that we as a culture tend to assume most frequently is sitting with our hips and knees flexed at 90 degrees. Even if you don’t think you sit a lot, or if you have a job which requires you to stand, you’re probably forgetting all the other time you do spend sitting because it’s so ingrained in your daily lifestyle that you almost don’t even realize it.

In a nutshell, our over-use of the sitting posture familiarizes our brain with a position of shortened hip flexors (the muscles that cross the front of our hips) and hamstrings (the muscles that line the back of our thighs), as well as effectively “turns off” our otherwise powerful glutes, and basically just throws our whole hip package out of balance. The result is unhappy, "tight" hips which drive us into yoga classes in search of some much-needed opening.

 

 

 

 

Why is Having Tight Hips Uncool?

There are many reasons that our tight hips are uncool, and the general discomfort we experience from stiff-feeling, unyielding muscles is just the beginning. Most people don’t realize the incredibly huge role that our musculoskeletal system plays in our body’s overall health. But check this out: our blood vessels and lymphatic vessels are embedded inside our muscles. Blood carries the oxygen which feeds our cells, resulting in cellular regeneration, and lymph is our body’s waste-removal system. But blood and lymph can only flow well through muscles which are at their optimal, supple length. A tight muscle will resist the circulation of these vital fluids - picture a fist gripping a hose and how that would effect the flow of water running through that hose. Put another way, tight muscles work against the flow of your cardiovascular system (blood) and your immune system (which your lymphatic system supports). The result is increased blood pressure, decreased metabolism, waste accumulation in your tissues, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. If optimal health in our body is important to us, bringing suppleness and circulation back to our tight muscles must be a priority. Had you ever thought about your muscles from this bigger-picture, whole body health perspective?

Another reason that tight hips are no bueno is that when we want to get something done that requires hip motion, like picking something up off the floor, or pressing up into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel pose) in yoga, we will move from somewhere else more than we should because we can’t move from our hips as much as we should. Unfortunately, the alternative body part that is all too often over-used when our hips are tight is our vulnerable spine. Hello, spinal joint degeneration, herniated discs, impinged nerves, and back pain in general!

Understanding a bit more about our anatomy reveals to us that tight hips are actually about much more than the inconvenience you might experience when you can’t get into lotus position in yoga class.

 

What Does “Opening the Hips” Mean?

For much of my yoga-practicing career, I was under the impression that if you wanted to open your hips, you basically just needed to do pigeon pose a lot, and that pretty much summed up all you need to know about hip opening. :)

But hip-opening is about so much more than simply pigeon pose. There are a total of 22 muscles that cross the hip on all sides and at varying angles, including your hip flexors in the front, your hamstrings, glutes, and deep lateral rotators in the back, your inner thigh muscles (collectively called your “adductors”), and your outer thigh muscles (collectively called your “abductors”).

A “hip-opener” is technically any stretch that lengthens any of the 22 muscles that cross the hip. This means, for example, that all hamstring stretches are hip openers, all inner thigh stretches (think baddha konasana) are hip-openers, all standing poses (warriors, lunges, etc.) are hip-openers, many of yoga’s twists are hip-openers, and as counterintuitive as it may seem, all backbends are also hip-openers. (Crazy, huh?)

Can you see that once we have an anatomical definition for what hip-opening is, it’s difficult to name a yoga pose which is not a hip-opener? (Inversions aren’t really hip-openers, but I wish they were! :) ) Our whole yoga practice is basically just one big hip-opening opportunity.

However, most yogis are very (very!) good at compromising the work we need to do in order to stretch our hips in our poses. This is because we simply don’t understand how to position our joints (a.k.a. alignment) in a way that actually stretches our hips, and we end up leaving our mat without much change in our tight hips at all.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, guys! Check out Part 2 for some great tips on refining your practice with hip-opening in mind!

 

Related Online Workshop: Re-Imagining Hip-Openers