Obviously, practice is a key element of yoga. But there's practice, and then there's practice. Some people's practice seems more productive than others'.
A number of ingredients go into determining just how effective your practice is going to be. One powerful influence is the level of intensity you maintain. In his Yoga Sutra,Patanjali says that practitioners can be differentiated by whether their practice is mild, medium, or intense. And in his commentaries on the Yoga Sutra, B.K.S. Iyengar declares, "In order to free the mind from fluctuations...the practitioner is advised to practice intensely all the yogic principles, from yama [restraint] to dhyana [meditation]."
In keeping with his emphasis on intensity, Mr. Iyengar used to conduct what he called "intensives" for his pupils. In 1991, for example, he taught an intensive on backbends for 50 of his senior teachers. For three weeks, we spent three to four hours each morning, five days a week, working on basic and advanced backbends, with emphasis on the latter. One of the poses we practiced was Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose).
To prepare for Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, in the two weeks preceding it, we did standing poses, Adho Mukha (Downward-Facing Dog), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose), Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana I and II (One-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), Chakra Bandhasana (Bound Wheel Pose), and numerous other back arches using a variety of props.
I list all these asanas in part to give you some idea of how you might ready yourself for Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, but also to emphasize that this is an advanced pose requiring rigorous preparation. It's true that a number of mild variations are often taught that are suitable for less experienced students, and some of the preparatory work in this article can be practiced by relative beginners. But I urge those of you who want to learn Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I to work on the asanas in the preceding list and gain some measure of proficiency in them before seriously taking on the full pose. You and your practice will fare much better.
Opening Hips, Shoulders & Spine
Part of the difficulty and complexity of the pose lies in the positioning of the legs. One hip is in an extended position, as is typical in backbending poses. The other hip, however, is in a flexed and externally rotated position, which is unusual in backbends. This creates difficulty in balancing and aligning the pelvis, and as a result, makes moving evenly in the spine, especially the sacrum, quite challenging.
Another challenge in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I is the opening of the chest and shoulders that enables you to reach overhead and hold your foot without collapsing and compressing your lumbar spine. In order to ready yourself for both of these challenges, here are a couple of preparatory exercises. Prior to practicing these preparations, build up some heat in the body and open the shoulders and hips with standing poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Vrksasana, and Pincha Mayurasana.
Then place a chair against the wall with the seat facing into the room and attach a strap to the chair back. Sit in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) in front of the chair seat, positioning your buttocks slightly under the chair and your upper back against the edge of the seat. Your back should feel a bit more arched than it normally does in Baddha Konasana. While placing your upper back against the chair seat, lengthen your spine upward and lift your side ribs so that the added arch will not create any compression. You can adjust where the chair contacts your back by raising the front legs of the chair or your buttocks with various props. The part of your back that contacts the chair can be anywhere from just below to near the top of your shoulder blades, depending on where you want to create movement and space.
Pull your feet in towards your body so that your heels are as close as possible to your perineum (the floor of your pelvis). Release your groins toward the floor and press your heels together, lengthening your inner thighs from the groins toward the knees. Take hold of the strap with both hands and stretch your arms straight up overhead. Lift your side ribs to stretch your arms higher. Then roll your triceps (the backs of your upper arms) slightly in toward your face and stretch them up out of your armpits. Maintaining the height of the torso, bend your elbows and walk your hands a few inches down the strap toward the chair back. Then pull against the strap, and again roll the triceps in and stretch them up so that your elbows are lifted toward the ceiling. To align your shoulders and open them fully, soften your deltoids (the muscles that cap your shoulder) and take care not to let your elbows spread wider than shoulder width.
Don't be in a hurry to walk your hands down the strap. The lift of the ribs and the arms is much more important, as that lift creates extension in the vertebrae and space in the shoulder joints. To the extent that you are able, keep walking your hands incrementally down the strap, pausing after each movement of your hands to lift the torso and arms as described. You may, at some point, be able to catch the chair back from above or below...or you may not. It doesn't matter. What matters is the lift of the ribs and arms. However deep you can go, hold this position for as long as you feel your groins, chest, and shoulders continue to open. All the while, relax your throat and breathe freely.
Baddha Konasana helps to externally open the hip joints in preparation for the movement of the front leg in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I. To open the hip joint in extension, as occurs in the back leg in the pose, practice the following preparation, which is also a preliminary position for the final pose.
Opening the Groins
Sit in dandasana (Staff Pose). Bend your right knee and draw your right thigh back and out to the side, and move your right foot toward your left groin, touching the heel to the groin if possible. (Your right knee should not point straight ahead, but should angle toward the right.) Then, leaning to the right a bit, bend your left knee and take your left leg out to the side and back and stretch it out straight behind you.
Your left foot should be directly in line with your left buttock, not angled to the left or right. Place your hands on the floor in front of you for support and balance and square your hips so the left and right hip are equidistant from the wall you're facing. Now press the top of your left foot into the floor and adjust your left leg so that the exact center of your front thigh, knee, shin, and foot face the floor. With your arms supporting you, lower your left and right hips toward the floor, staying centered on your front left thigh and keeping your hips squared. Stretch the front of your left thigh backward and release your right groin toward the floor to sit down with your buttocks as much as possible. As you descend your pelvis, press your hands into the floor and lift your chest. Ideally, your right buttock should sit on the floor and your left buttock should feel as though it is sitting on the topmost part of the back of your left thigh. That's apt to take some time and persistence.
Exhale when you have sat as deeply as you can, moving your tailbone strongly toward the floor and lifting your front hip bones upward. As they lift, lengthen your abdomen upward away from your groins and raise your chest forward and up with the help of your hands and arms. If you are unable to get much lift in the front of your pelvis because of tight groins and quadriceps (front thigh muscles), support the front thigh of the back leg with a rolled mat or blanket. If you have inadequate support from your hands because you are unable to lower your pelvis very much, place your hands on blocks. Hold this position for a minute or so. Then press your right lower leg and your hands into the floor to lift your pelvis; bend your left knee, and rolling onto your right buttock, stretch your left leg out in front. Extend your right leg next to your left leg in Dandasana and then repeat the pose on the other side.
Getting Squared Away
You probably noticed in the previous position how difficult it was to keep the back leg centered and aligned and the hips squared as you deepened the movements. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to maintain these actions for the safety and well-being of your spine. Shifts out of alignment in the legs and hips throw the spine and pelvis out of balance and invite compression, which can lead to pain and injury.
It is not always easy to know whether you are aligned or not. Your trusty chair against the wall, which has already served you well in the initial preparation, can help guide you to better alignment as you work on the actions of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I.
To begin, kneel on all fours with your knees a foot and a half in front of the chair. Raise your left foot toward your left buttock. Then move your left knee back toward the chair and place your left shin or front of the left foot against the front edge of the chair seat. Now slide your left knee farther back until the outer knee is just inside and in contact with the left front chair leg. Supporting yourself with your hands, move your right knee forward and out to the side a bit and move your right foot forward until your right heel is just in front of your left groin. Look down the outside of your left hip and align it with your left knee, which usually means shifting your hips to the left. At this point your left shin should be almost perpendicular to the floor, your left thigh exactly perpendicular to the wall, and your hips squared to the center of the room. Take time to establish this alignment precisely before continuing.
Maintaining your alignment, lower your buttocks toward the floor as you did in the previous position. As the buttocks descend, press into the floor with your hands and arms to help lift your front hip bones up and stretch your abdomen up out of the groins. Lower your pelvis evenly. Pay special attention to the sensations on each side of your sacrum and lumbar spine and adjust your descent to keep those structures balanced. If you are unable to sit on the floor, support the front of your upper left thigh and/or your right buttock with a blanket or mat so you'll be able to sit in a steady position without tilting your pelvis forward or compressing your lumbar spine.
Once you are sitting firmly, press your left shin into the chair seat and move your tailbone deeply toward the floor. Then, supporting yourself with your left hand on the floor, exhale, and reach up with your right hand and catch the strap. Level your hips and check the alignment of your left hip to make sure you haven't shifted to the right. Still pressing your left shin into the chair seat, pull the strap up toward the ceiling so it is taut. Then catch the strap with your left hand as well. Hold the strap tightly with both hands, and keeping the left shin against the chair seat, pull on the strap. As you pull upward, rotate your triceps toward your face, and stretch your elbows up toward the ceiling. As you reach up powerfully with your ribs and arms, dig your shoulder blades into your back ribs and stretch the top of your sternum up toward the ceiling. The two sides of your sacrum should feel even, and there should be no compression in your lumbar spine.
After practicing this position on both sides, repeat it with the strap looped snugly around your left foot instead of around the chair. As you are able, walk your hands incrementally down the strap. Each time you move your hands, stop, check your alignment, and use the pull on the strap to create more extension in the spine. Take care not to pull your shin away from the chair seat. In time you may be able to catch your foot with your hands, but don't sacrifice your extension and alignment to do so. Go on deepening the movements on this side as long as your body continues to open further into the pose. When you are ready to come out of the pose, don't let go with both hands at once. They are helping to lift and support your torso, and a sudden release may jar your spine. Instead, release the strap with your left hand and place your hand on the floor. Then let go with your right hand, put it on the floor, lift your hips, slide your legs out, and change sides.
Before trying the final version of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I, spend time on the preliminary actions we've just gone over. The better you understand and can perform them, the better your final pose will be. It's a little like painting a house. To do a good job, you spend the bulk of the time in getting the walls ready; the actual painting doesn't take that long. The detailed work of painting the trim can take a while, though. That, coupled with the time spent in preparation, makes the difference between an "okay" job and an excellent one. So let's trim the pose a bit.
Sit in Dandasana. Come into position with your right heel in front of your left groin and your left leg extended straight back behind you. Place your hands on the floor in front of you, and lift your hips slightly so that you can align your left leg with your left buttock and square your hips. Then lower your pelvis and sit on the floor on your right buttock, contacting the floor as high up on your left quadriceps as possible.
Roll your outer right hip toward the floor and simultaneously drop your right groin toward the floor. Roll your outer left thigh downward and adjust the center of your left thigh, knee, shin, and foot to face the floor. If necessary, support yourself with a blanket or a mat under your left thigh and/or your right buttock. Your hips should be level.
Take a moment here to elongate your spine by taking your tailbone toward the floor and lifting your front hip bones. If you were unable to walk your hands down to catch your foot in the preceding position at the chair, you should again loop a strap snugly around your foot. Bend your left knee and take hold of the strap with your right hand; then raise your left hand and hold the strap.
If you are able to hold your foot with your hands, there are two ways to catch the foot. The most direct and balanced method is to bend your left knee, reach overhead with your right hand and grip the left foot. If you are unable to reach your foot from overhead, stretch your right arm back with your palm facing outward (toward the right).
Grasp your left big toe with your thumb and forefinger, wrapping the thumb around the outside of the big toe and inserting your forefinger between the big and second toes. As you bring your arm overhead, your right elbow will describe an arc. Holding the toe firmly, bend your elbow and move your elbow first down, then forward, and finally up, until you can lift it overhead.
At this point, whether you are holding the strap, your big toe, or your foot with your right hand, pause for a couple of breaths and make any necessary adjustments to make sure your hips and legs are correctly aligned. Notice that I have said to catch the raised foot with the opposite hand first. Bending your left knee tends to contract the left side of your body. If you reach back with your left hand first, you are likely to exaggerate this contraction. Reaching back with the right hand first helps maintain the balance of the pelvis and the spine.
Holding whatever you can manage with your right hand—strap, toe, or foot—lift your torso and raise your left hand to catch the strap, your foot, or your right wrist. If you are using a strap, walk down the strap incrementally, lifting your chest and stretching your elbows upward. Practice this way until you can catch your foot (or until you die, whichever comes first). If you can reach your foot with your left hand, do so; then release the big toe with your right hand, catching the foot with both hands. If you are unable to reach your foot with your left hand while holding it with your right hand, you may be able to catch hold of your right wrist and inch your left hand along your right wrist and hand until you can grasp the foot.
Once you are holding the strap or your foot with both hands, make sure that your left thigh and knee are directly behind the left buttock. Roll your outer left thigh down, so that the very center of the front thigh is on the floor. As you pull against the strap or your foot, resist the tendency to pull your foot toward your body. Instead, move your shin back until your lower left leg is perpendicular to the floor, as it was in your work with the chair. With the base of the pose balanced, aligned, and grounded, exhale and take your tailbone toward the floor. Use that action to lift the front hip bones equally, even though the right groin descends and the left groin rises. As the abdomen rises along with the front hip bones, draw your navel back toward your spine and lift the back ribs out of the lumbar spine and the side ribs out of your waist. These actions are essential to keep from compressing your lumbar spine during such a deep bend.
To avoid compression in your shoulder joints, roll your triceps in toward your face and keep your elbows shoulder-width apart. From your outer shoulders, stretch your arms upward, reaching up out of your armpits with your triceps. Dig your shoulder blades into your back ribs and scoop your chest forward and up.
Maintain the extension of the spine created by these actions and, keeping your left shin perpendicular to the floor, take your head back toward your left foot.
As you move your head back, keep your neck completely relaxed. This is a tricky spot in performing Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I. Through practice, as your head comes closer to your foot, you may be tempted to strain or collapse to move that last inch or two. Be patient. Pay attention.
In one sense, you ought not try to touch your foot with your head at all. Rather, you simply extend and arch your back so fully that your foot just gets in the way.
Besides, once you are able to touch the crown of your head to your foot, you will just go on to grasp your ankle and touch your heel with your forehead, your nose, and on and on. There is no "final" pose.
When you have deepened the movements of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I as much as you can, release the foot or strap one hand at a time and change sides. Adho Mukha Svanasana, Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) will help relieve stiffness in your back and hamstrings after Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I. Hanumanasana (Pose of Hanuman, the Monkey God; a.k.a. the Splits) is also helpful, and you may be surprised at the depth you are able to achieve in it after Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I.
Patanjali declares that "the goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice." Intensity in your practice depends on the measure of energy, attention, depth, and desire you bring to it. It is not so much what you do, but how you do it. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I may be an advanced pose for you, or it may not.
For you, Urdhva Dhanurasana may be advanced, or even Tadasana (Mountain Pose). I. K. Taimni, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, says, "What may be considered as 'intense' by a yogi at one stage of evolution may appear to be 'moderate' to another who is more advanced and actuated by greater intensity of desire." Ultimately, because your whole life is your practice, the intensity you bring to your life determines the richness and fullness of each moment.
According to the wise teachings of yoga, if you live your life intensely, with energy, awareness, and love, you move inexorably toward the realization of the only "final" pose there is—the eternal Now.
John Schumacher is a certified senior Iyengar teacher and longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar. He directs the three studios of the Unity Woods Yoga Center, which serves over 2,000 students each week in the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.