Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
It always makes me laugh to think that such an absolutely gorgeous pose as Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One-footed King Pigeon Pose) is named after a street bird. I’ve watched these bobble-heads poke around, waiting for them to drop into a spontaneous backbend to no avail. It must only happen at that exclusive late-night “pigeons only” club in SoHo. (I may not have garnered any pointers from my fine-feathered friends, but I did come away with a solid sense of humor!)
Backbends can cause tension and fear as we revolve our spine back into unchartered ground. One of the most helpful steps to remember when entering deeper backbends is our ability to breathe deep and smile. Also, that there is no rush at all. The more we surrender, the deeper we’ll go.
So, channel these feathered friends and open your enormous bird breast and reach your heart toward the sky. Offer your wings and let a slight breeze bring them back as your legs root down to lift your body. And hey, if you’re inspired, go ahead and bobble that head.
Have a strap on hand to help with the prep poses.
Step One: Open your Hips
First things first: We’ve got to open the hips. From Downward-Facing Dog, step the left shin to the front of the mat. The angle of the shin will differ depending on how deep you want to go into the rotation of the hip. The further the heel gets from the groin, the more intense the pose becomes. With time, work toward having your shin parallel with the front of the mat. Flex the front foot and extend through its heel to protect the knee. Gently draw the left thigh bone in as the outer right hip rolls toward the ground. Internally spiral the back inner thigh toward the ceiling and work the baby toe on the left foot down into the ground. As tempting as it is, don’t fold. Stay upright and lift the frontal hip bones and try to square the hips. Hold here for 30 seconds to 1 minute and switch sides.
Step Two: Hitch-Hike
Come into Single Pigeon again with the left shin forward. This time, however, draw the left heel all the way into the groin while the left knee points toward the front left corner of the mat. Roll the upper right hip down to help square the hips, and lift the right foot off of the mat as you reach the right hand back to clasp it. If the foot is out of reach, use a strap. If you’re getting some strong sensation from making contact with the foot, just hold and breath. Otherwise, start to draw the foot in and down. If this is still going well, it’s time to get fancy–place the right palm on the top of the right foot. Spin the thumb in like you’re hitch-hiking until all 5 fingers point in the same direction as the toes. Push the heel of the hand into the toes as the toes resist. Roll the right shoulder forward and lift the kidneys and heart. Encourage the left shoulder to move backward and take a good 8 breaths. Softly release the rear foot and step back into Downward-Facing Dog and repeat on the second side.
Step Three: Get Your Goddess on . . .
Now that the psoas is warmed up, it’s time to work the full rotation of the arm. There’s a very specific way I like to reach back, and it’s not with a straight arm that yanks the shoulder out of the socket. I lovingly refer to it as Goddess Arm. Grab your strap and make a lasso large enough for the ball of the foot to slip through. Place the strap over the foot and place the remaining length over your shoulder for accessibility. Beginning in the same position as in Step Two, bend the right knee and lift the right foot up off of the ground. Spin the right palm up and with a soft, bent elbow, reach back toward the foot (think of the shape of the arms giving an offering in Greek sculpture). Reach underneath the strap with the palm up and grab hold. Before you begin rotating of the arm, start the backbend in your chest. Roll the shoulder heads back and lift your heart toward the sky. Then pull the right elbow in and up until it points up toward the ceiling. Brace your left side by placing your left hand on your upper thigh. If the hips are wobbling, try placing a block or blanket underneath the left hip before taking these steps. Take 8 breaths. Soften the grip on the strap to release and switch sides.
Step Four: Channel Your Inner Pigeon Goddess!
Have your strap lassoed over the rear foot again in your tighter stance of Single Pigeon. Create the goddess arm as the back knee bends and the hand reaches underneath the strap to grab hold. If you’re ready to loose the strap, still begin with the goddess arm, but grab the pinky edge of the right foot. Crawl up the stairway of your toes until you can grab the big toe edge from underneath. Whether or not you have a strap, the next step is to simply open the heart–lift the kidneys, lift the heart, roll the shoulders back and let the head fall back in surrender. Keep this never-ending lift of the heart and roll the right elbow up and in to face the ceiling. Lift the left arm straight up, externally rotate, bend the elbow to grab the right foot on the big toe edge. If possible, walk down the strap or foot to thoughtfully deepen the pose. Draw the elbows in, touching if possible. Root the hips down, lift up through the crest of the pelvis and continue this lift into your heart. Try closing the eyes and enjoy 8 full, surrendered breaths. Soften the grip on the strap or foot and release. Step back to Downward-Facing Dog and drop into Child’s Pose.