Last week, in my teacher training, we discussed Pigeon pose…and it started up a bit of a debate.
It’s not a pose that leaves one indifferent. As we know, hip openers can generate strong reactions, not the kind we like though, not the ‘Anusara-heart-opener–the world-is-wonderful-I’m-so-high’ type. No, Pigeon brings out the dirty laundry that we keep on pushing down into the basket and that will keep on smelling if we don’t deal with it.
One of my fellow teacher trainees explained how she absolutely hates it. Her hips are tight and it’s physically and mentally very uncomfortable for her. Whenever we practice next to each other, I can almost hear her heart sink each time the teacher cues us into Pigeon.
I love Pigeon, I always have, it’s one of the postures that makes me most grateful to practice yoga. A yoga class that finishes with my favourite bird is like a meal with ice cream for dessert. I love it because it makes me face the stuff I most resent about myself, others and the world, with no control over it, in a safe environment.
Fifteen years ago, I remember reading The Pigeon, a wonderful novella about alienation and vulnerability, by Patrick Süskind, better known for Perfume. I read it in two days but the story stayed in a corner of my mind ever since, and I recommend it whenever I can.
The plot is simple and exquisitely absurd, much in the vein of a lot of post-Kafka German language fiction. Jonathan Noel has lead a lonely and uneventful life for years. Same job, a security guard in a bank, same home, a small bedsit in Paris, same routine, everyday and forever. At least, that’s what he thought. One morning, however, as he comes back from the bathroom, he finds a pigeon on the threshold of his bedroom. His tiny universe falls apart. A pigeon to him is ‘the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets its claws in you, picks at your eyes…’
Panic takes over and he decides to never return to his room. He goes to work on that hot summer day with his two security guard outfits on, because he couldn’t pack them, sweats profusely but remains as stoical as ever. His life during the next 24 hours becomes increasingly uncomfortable as he spirals down into irrationality. He suddenly finds himself living like a homeless person, reduced to defecating in the street in between two cars.
All of this for fear of the pigeon and the chaos it symbolises to him. Each time he contemplates coming back home, he is haunted by the piercing gaze of his two-wing foe: ‘This eye, a small, circular disc, brown with a black centre, was dreadful to behold, browless, quite naked, turned quite shamelessly to the world and monstrously open.’
That’s the kind of stuff pigeons do to us.
When we’re lying on our mat, legs open in a rather awkward way, we’re more vulnerable than ever. Chaos unleashes, unpleasant emotions come up unpredictably and they set their claws in our eyes, in our perception of ourself. That’s the eye of our pigeon we fear most, the one that sees the naked truth about our shameful little universe, our ‘monstrosity’ within.
So obviously, we don’t like to come back to that room often. If it weren’t for yoga and pigeon pose, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t visit it much.
Seane Corn came to Vancouver two weeks ago for a weekend workshop and she shared with us a lot about her life journey as a yogi. She described a determining moment in her practice that made it shift from yoga as a work-out to a life-changing experience. She explained how after years of practice, yoga hit her mind for the first time in a class when she was in Pigeon pose, and suddenly she started crying. She had to seek refuge in the studio’s restroom to try and control the flow that had welled up.
For the three days that the workshop lasted, she included alot of hip openers in her sequences, and we stayed in Pigeon pose for more than five minutes on each side. I even fell asleep during the left side in the Saturday practice.
I cried in all my three savasanas during that workshop, but I’ve rarely felt better or more balanced. I’ve faced a lot of fear, anger, resentment, sadness, a lot of tension accumulated for years, and they finally released. Seane Corn talked us through a chakra practice on the last day. As we explored the first chakra, Muladhara, I rephrased the saying ‘a minute on your lips, a lifetime on your hips’, into ‘a minute on your mind, a lifetime in your piriformis’. We store a lot of unwanted, unprocessed stuff in our hips, and it’s not all refined sugar and saturated fat. In the long term, it can be as damaging for our health. This all took place the weekend when Spring arrived and I felt like my mental cleanse had been taken care of.
Seane Corn invited us to move towards our vulnerability instead of hysteria or shut-down, in other words to face the eye of the pigeon and surrender, instead of running away from our shadow for days, months, or years. Spring is here and it’s a good opportunity to get rid of the old stuff we’ve been clinging onto way passed their sell-by date: rancid resentment, half-baked anger or fetid fear. We wouldn’t like to enter the delicious Summertime with that extra weight on our hips, would we?
One of my teachers used to make us choose a mantra for savasana after an intense session of hip openers, to be sure that she wouldn’t let us go back to the real world charged with undigested emotions. It can be as simple as: breathe in ‘peace’, breathe out ‘anger’. And let it fly away…