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Bird by Bird

Build up to this advanced Pigeon Pose with methodical, frequent practice, and maybe you'll fly!

By Barbara Benagh

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Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose IV) is a beautiful advanced-level asana. When you see someone doing this pose, you may think you will never be flexible enough to do it yourself. But this version of Pigeon favors almost no one: It demands deep flexibility throughout the entire body and equal amounts of strength to keep the joints stable—and most of us can only develop this potent combination through practice. When you observe a skillful Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV, you're witnessing the result of hours spent refining many different poses to prepare for this one.

So while it may be true that, even with practice, you will never get into this pose, it also may not be true. Only time will tell. Regardless of the outcome, you can gradually work toward Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV by mentally deconstructing the asana, analyzing its parts, and then creating a sequence of poses that includes the same movements you do in your "final" pose.

When you deconstruct and analyze Eka Pada IV, you'll see that the pose requires deep hip and spinal extension, supple shoulders, and a steady core. The poses in the sequence that follows place ample emphasis on those areas. To practice these poses, you'll need some props and a clear space against a wall. Have a strap, a block, and a bolster or two blankets nearby. If you lose your steady breath at any time, take it as a sign that you've gone too far. Steady breathing calms the nerves and brings introspection to your practice. Knowing when to back off is one of the greatest skills of all!

Before You Begin

To warm up, do poses that open your more resistant areas. For example, if the front of your hips is particularly stiff, emphasize poses that open that area, like lunges. In addition, you can try the following sequence. Begin by taking Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose). It's an excellent first pose, especially when you use a prop under each knee. You're starting out close to the earth, allowing your hips to warm up and your belly to relax. From there, alternate between Malasana (Garland Pose) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) three to four times, holding each pose about a minute; then do Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) on both sides, with your back knee on the mat and your arms stretched up by your ears. From there, hold Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for a couple of minutes.

Watch: A video of this Master Class sequence can be found online here.

Ayurchakrasana (Wheel of Life Pose)

This refined pose is a deeply difficult twist. While you attempt to keep your pelvis level and your lower back long and stable, you'll need to tap into your deep abdominal muscles—this is an action you'll repeat in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV.

Begin in Plank Pose. Take your right leg under your body and to the floor, placing your thigh parallel to the front of your mat. Keep your left leg extended behind you. Now lean forward on your hands and rotate your belly gently to the right so your navel faces the front of your mat. Expect this to be challenging, because you'll need a lot of torque to rotate your torso until it's centered. Pay attention to the muscular opposition you feel, and because the delicate lumbar and sacroiliac joints are involved, be extra careful not to force the action.

Take your time and allow a few breaths to relax your abdomen. Then do the movement again, keeping your pelvis fixed while you exhale and twist toward the right from your core. Relying on your core abdominals to deepen the action will help you build the stability your lower spine needs. But go easy on yourself.

Now, bend both legs 90 degrees. Keep the right thigh parallel to the head of your mat and your left knee directly behind its hip. Can you feel how bending the knee changes the dynamic between hips and spine? Your pelvis will now be more strongly fixed, and keeping your torso centered will require more effort. Remember to coordinate your movements with your breath, and resist forcing.

Bring your left forearm to the floor in line with the center of your torso, and then slide your left arm forward, seeking a stretch along the side of the body. As your flexibility increases, you will be able to stretch out on the floor and rest your head on your arm. Press your right palm into the floor and rotate your upper back toward the right.

Bring your attention to the sides of your waist. The right side can easily become compressed if the spine isn't centered. To adjust that pattern, let each exhalation encourage a shift toward the right that comes from the deep abdominal muscles and lifts the right ribs away from the waist. In Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV, it's also common to compress one side of the spine. Tap into the action you're learning here—of lifting and turning the deep abdominal muscles—to keep the torso centered and to avoid compressing the right lower spine.

If you are stiff, you may find that you can stay here comfortably for only a few breaths. As you become more flexible, you will feel more pleasant responses and space to explore. You'll naturally want to linger in the pose before transitioning smoothly back to Down Dog and practicing the twist to the left. After doing Ayurchakrasana on both sides, take Balasana (Child's Pose) for a minute and then Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)—all poses that increase spinal and hip extension—before repeating Downward Dog. A standing sequence that includes Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) and Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits) will reinforce the action required to square the hips and align the spine. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), which has a similar structural dynamic to the King Pigeon poses, is another great standing pose for this sequence.

Supine Chest Opener

Once you are warmed up and grounded, you'll do a passive backbend to shift your attention from active poses to one in which surrender is key. Lie over the bolster (you can use two blankets rolled into a cylinder if you don't have a bolster), positioning it under your upper back. Try to relax as you let your shoulders, arms, and head hang. This is easier said than done! Initially, your back muscles may contract in reaction to the strong backbend. If this happens, you can reduce the strain by placing a block under your head or reducing the size of the bolster.

Once you feel settled, take time to relax into the pose. Trust the support that the bolster provides, remembering to slow your breath and extend your exhalations as you ease your spine into this deep, supported backbend. Undoing resistance is a highly conscious process. Try to unravel tension and then recycle it into expansion. As your body and mind grow quiet, become acquainted with the inner movement that pulsates through you on the beat of each breath. Feel the rhythm of your breath in your back muscles, and over time you will soften and make more room to grow into the backbend.

You can deepen the arching action by stretching your arms overhead. Keep your arms shoulder-width apart and direct the backbend into your thoracic spine. Reaching overhead is a realistic preview of the upper-back and shoulder flexibility that is required for Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV. You will likely feel a very strong effort in your upper back and shoulders; try to keep your mind clear. Focus your attention on steadying your breath, allowing its movement to help you accept the backbend. The breath will help you release tension, find room to explore, and perhaps even feel some surrender in the backbend.

Stay with this for several minutes; then remove any props you have under your head, lift your hips, and slide your shoulders to the floor. Reposition the bolster under your hips and hug your knees for a moment to feel your warm and fluid back before practicing Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).

Eka Pada Supta Vajrasana (One-Legged Reclining Thunderbolt Pose)

If you're going to endeavor to do a deep backbending pose like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV, it's crucial that you open your hip flexors—keeping them mobile will prevent compression and discomfort in your lower back.

Eka Pada Supta Vajrasana is great for stretching tight thighs and hips. To begin, sit on a block placed at its lowest height. With your left toes pressing against the block, move your left knee to the left, so that it touches the left edge of your mat. This knee position will make the stretch somewhat easier for your quads and knees. Place your right foot flat on the floor and lean back on your hands. At each stage of this pose, it's important that your left knee maintain contact with the floor and that your inner thigh rotate toward the mat. If your left knee lifts, it's an indication that you're not yet open enough in your hip flexors, and you're putting your knee and lower back at risk for injury.

So, as you lean back on your hands, notice whether your left knee has lifted. If it has, or if your knee simply can't bend that deeply, come back up and do Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose) with the block under your sacrum and your legs extended straight. Backing off doesn't mean you shouldn't continue with the other poses in this sequence, but it does mean you should be realistic about how much further your body will go. Practicing the other preparatory poses in this article on a regular basis will be more effective than struggling in a pose you're not ready for.

If you are comfortable leaning back, lower yourself to your forearms. If your knee lifts, come back up onto your hands and stay with that stretch; if not, continue to lie back. You might be able to rest on the back of your head or even bring your shoulders to the floor. It all depends on whether you can keep your knee down and, of course, on how your knee and your lower back feel. It's OK to feel a stretch in your knees, but there should be no sense of strain or strong discomfort. It is better to lie back on props (folded blankets or a bolster under the back) than to risk strain.

Take the time to find the best position for yourself—propped or unpropped—one that will allow you to rest and savor the stretch. If your pose isn't sufficiently supported, you will instinctively tighten your hip flexors. In this pose you want the belly and hip flexors to do the opposite—to elongate and relax. When this happens, the pose can be surprisingly refreshing and calming. (Draping a blanket over your hips can enhance this feeling.) Tightening the quads or hip flexors will undermine any calming effect.

Once your knees and back feel well aligned, tune in to how you feel from side to side. Is one of your hips higher than the other? Use your deep abdominal muscles to shift the hipbones and situate them evenly on the block. Ideally, you will bear weight equally on both sides of the sacrum. Finally, just as you did in Ayurchakrasana, nudge your ribs away from your waist to lengthen your lower back, and then make a slight rightward shift to center the spine.

When you have found a position that works for you, close your eyes and slow your breathing. The resulting stretch can be sublime. Stay for several minutes, continuing to fine-tune your position. Although the pose is held, it is not static.

If you are lying back all the way on the floor, hold the back of your right leg or loop a strap around your foot and slowly extend the right leg. Don't be surprised if you can't straighten your knee. That doesn't matter; what's more important is that you don't force it. Maintain steady breathing, and keep your hips square on the block. Sense how this pose has elements of Hanumanasana (Monkey God Pose), which is named for the deity Hanuman's courageous leap. Visualize the action of leaping; then mimic it to keep the pose dynamic. Use exhalations to coax the leg straighter for a minute or so.

Changing sides can be awkward. I don't recommend trying to sit up; instead, slide toward your right and off the block before you sit up and set up for the second side.

Once you've done both sides, your hips and spine should feel open and your mind drawn inward. Start the second part of your practice by pressing up to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose) several times.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose I), variation

Practicing this variation of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I will allow you to adjust to the complex structure of this seated backbend before you take on the challenge of straightening the front leg.

Begin by sitting on the floor with your back to a wall and your right knee bent in front of you as it is in Pigeon Pose. Bend your left knee and scoot back until your shin is against the wall. If you cannot get your hips to the floor, place a block underneath both sitting bones.

Shift your belly to the right and lean forward on your hands. You may feel the same asymmetry in your hips you experienced earlier. If you do, lift your rib cage up and use your deep abdominal muscles to shift your lower spine to the right. If you feel any knee strain, you may need to place a second block underneath your right leg. With your hips square, begin to walk your hands in, maybe placing your hands on your right knee. Remember the deep surrender in the belly from Supta Vajrasana and recall it now to help you settle into the floor or block. Work with your breath, letting your inhalation expand your chest and your exhalation to draw up from your belly and into a backbend as you begin to press your shoulders back. Keep your left foot firmly anchored against the wall so that your shin extends straight up (pressing your toes into the wall may help). With your hips firmly on the floor or block, stretch your arms up by your ears.

Take a moment to observe how you feel. Are your hips firmly grounded, or are they being pulled off the floor? Is your breath steady? Notice how the action of your arms gives "juice" to the backbend. At the same time, continue to lengthen and extend the spine. All the structural elements of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV are in this pose, so becoming stable and fluid here is critical before advancing further. Try to work with this pose for a minute or so before changing sides. After doing both sides, rest for a minute in Balasana.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose IV)

You'll continue to use the wall for support as you move into the final pose. Before you begin, have a block or a rolled blanket nearby—you may need the extra support. Take a strap and loop it around your left foot with the buckle on the sole of the foot. Come to the wall and place your left shin straight up the wall, your right leg straightened out on the floor in front of you. Press your toes into the wall and keep the end of the strap within reach. Notice how bending the left knee stretches the quad muscles strongly.

If you can't rest your hips all the way to the floor, prop up your hips on a block. You may also need to lean forward to relieve compression in your lower back or retreat back to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, if you find that straightening your front leg is a bit too challenging. Remember, don't push yourself beyond your limits. Once you have found a position that feels firmly grounded, pause and take a moment to stabilize your breath and your mind. With your breath steady, make small adjustments to bring your hips as square toward the front of your mat as possible and to find balance between the two sides of your spine. Are you able to feel how actions from the previous poses are informing you now?

Once you have established your base, it's time to deepen your backbend. Draw your lower belly in and up to scoop the spine backward. Try to recall the way you worked over the bolster as you coax your back muscles into a deeper backbend. Allow your head to hang back unless this bothers your neck. Either way, continue to release tension in the base of your neck and between your shoulder blades.

The strap around your foot is going to help you add the icing to the cake of this pose: that big reach overhead to hold your left foot. With the strap snug, take the free end in your left hand, and with your palm turned in, pull the strap up until the arm is by the ear. Stay well grounded as you bring the right hand up to join the left. Stretch the strap taut and fully stretch your arms up and back to enrich the action of the backbend.

From there, slowly move your hands down the strap until your hands are as close to your foot as possible. If you can clasp your foot, hold the top of it and strongly lift the toes to help stabilize your grip. Slow your breathing to bring mental clarity and calm to the pose. After several breaths, release the pose by releasing the strap with grace, and press your hands into the ground to help you come out. Do the other side.

There's no rush to leave the wall. Having it there for support can make a world of difference. Developing the necessary flexibility in your shoulders for this pose can take years, so working with a strap can be very helpful. That said, when you feel reliably steady and clear working against the wall, you may try a freestanding Eka Pada Rajakapotasana IV.

Start in Hanumanasana with your right leg forward. Take a few breaths to align your pelvis and center your spine. Now, bend your left knee and reach back with your left hand, with your palm turned up and away from your foot. Hold on to your big toe as you swing your elbow close to your ribs, then forward and up by your ear. Spread your toes to help you secure your grasp. Pause at this point to focus your breath and your mind. Sink into the mat to ground the pose, then reach up and overhead with your right hand to hold your foot with both hands. The final action is to arch back and exhale as you place your head on your foot. To come out, simply release your grip and exhale to come up and change sides.

Since this pose requires the hips to be so extended, it can have a more quieting quality than most backbends: The deep stretch in the belly can trigger the relaxation response—a calming response in the nervous system. Conscious exhalations will enhance this response. You might find that practicing this asana a few times on each side is beneficial; the second or third time is usually more refined.

Let the pose go now without pride or frustration and allow your practice to continue its flow toward other poses and other experiences. Of course, the energy of this potent asana lingers; ideally, you will feel both quiet and invigorated.

Slow your breath to help you shift gears toward relaxation. Unwind from the strong practice first by lying on your back in Happy Baby Pose and pressing your sacrum into the floor. Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose) and Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose) and even Down Dog are all good counterposes. Save time for a lengthy Savasana (Corpse Pose) to end your practice.

Based in Boston, Barbara Benagh has shared her passion for hatha yoga for more than 35 years.

May 2010

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