My Knees, Pigeon Pose & Why It’s Good To Have a Teacher

Stan and Mo helping with class-planning. That's my right leg in Pigeon.
Stan and Mo helping with class-planning. That’s my right leg in Pigeon. In front of Stan you can glimpse my notebook, which I was no longer able to reach once the boys got comfortable.

When I first started practicing yoga, it was on my own, with DVDs, and eventually podcasts. It took me some time to get up the courage to actually approach a class- I kept reading that it was important to work with a teacher, but I was so afraid to look stupid, to say or do the wrong thing, to be too fat or too klutzy or just generally not right, that I preferred to work at home.

The Internet is fantastic, right? I mean, here you are reading my blog, and I’m not going to complain about that. However, my attempts to teach myself yoga alignment online were about as effective as the time I diagnosed myself with leprosy based on a passage from the Old Testament (okay, that was 25 years ago, but I think the metaphor works. Now it might be WebMD rather than Scripture, but I would still rather see a doctor if I have a weird lump or whatever).

I was having a lot of fun with my home practice, and starting to think about getting serious and actually taking a real class with real other humans, when I ran into my first real yoga injury- knee pain.

It was the misalignment in two specific poses that I believe led me to serious knee pain, and it occurred to me this week that my experience might be helpful to share with you.

The first of my two problematic poses was Pigeon Pose- Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. I’m not sure where I heard it or saw it, but I somehow ended up with the idea that the most advanced way to do the pose was with your front shin parallel to the front edge of your mat. Please, hear me when I say to you that this is not appropriate for many bodies. If your front-leg’s hip, inner thighs, or quadricep is not open enough (or, if your anatomy is not designed to work in this way, as not everyone’s may be), your knee will be forced to take the extra pressure.

Skip this paragraph if you know all about the knee. See, your knee is really like a hinge joint- it works like a door, open and close. However, the knee can and will twist just a bit side to side. A little bit of this is natural.  Generally speaking, though, you might think of more extreme side-to-side twisting as an emergency function of the joint (kind of like, if the hinges on your front door are a little loose, you might be able to yank it up and down a bit). So if the rest of your body is tight, the emergency function kicks in, and there’s your painful knee twist.

I spent the better part of a year doing Pigeon Pose in this way, all the while feeling a burning pain in my front-leg knee. I knew somehow this couldn’t be right, but I thought that I had to get my body to look a certain way. Since then, I’ve embraced the idea of “bringing the pose into your body, rather than your body into the pose”- meaning, my Pigeon and your Pigeon will not look the same, since we have different bodies with different needs.

The second pose which caused me trouble was, believe it or not, Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana I). This pose is deceptive. It might be a “1” but it’s anything but simple.  I found myself avoiding the pose as it got more and more painful on my back knee. The reason, as some of you may have already guessed, is that I was so determined to square my hips forward that my back knee was again taking the torque. Our hips aren’t designed to be “square” to the front of the mat- it’s just about impossible. A better cue for myself in this posture would be to square my shoulders to the front of the mat- and then, perhaps, add in some hip action.

So I had taught my knees to twist in a way they weren’t meant to, because I was trying to look like the bendy girl online, and things were getting worse. The pain in my knees became so troublesome- perhaps you know how joint pain can be, it was almost nauseating- that I stopped practicing for several months. I was depressed and scared and generally not much fun to be around. I even became convinced I had lupus (WebMD- you may be seeing a pattern here). Finally, I turned off the computer and visited the orthopedist, who prescribed physical therapy.

When physical therapy turned out to be just the stretching part of yoga (at least, in my case) I went back to yoga. I went to a studio, found myself a teacher who was able to help me with alignment specific to my needs, and although I can still feel the ghost of that knee pain*, my knees are much happier now.

I would love to spend more time talking about how to keep your knees safe in your practice, but that’s not really my aim here. (If you’re experiencing knee pain in your practice, and you’d like to do some more reading, you might check out this Gaiam piece by Sadie Nardini.) Instead, I’m hoping you can learn from my example, and keep in mind the following:

  1. Listen to your body. Don’t be so focused on how the pose looks externally that you are ignoring danger signals. Sharp, burning, electrical pain is never good. 
  2. Do see a teacher from time to time, especially if you are just beginning your practice. I understand that it may not be practical, or financially feasible, for you to attend a class regularly. I believe that you are worth a small investment in your body, at least a few classes, to begin to understand the basics of alignment as they pertain to your unique anatomy.
  3. Even Scripture can lead you astray. Be willing to supplement your reading, DVDs, and even one teacher’s advice with another’s, from time to time, and keep checking in with your personal experience. My favorite teacher advises me periodically to “try it on and see if it fits.” If something does not sound or feel right, then maybe it’s not. Also, chances seem good that you do not have leprosy, but if you think you exhibit the symptoms, then please see a doctor.

That’s it for this week. I’ll flatter myself here by imagining that you’ve noticed my posts have slowed down. I’ve been a bit busy with my new role as Studio Manager at geoYoga (loving it, in case you wondered), and am going through some changes in other areas of my life as well. I hope to be back to more regular postings soon.

Lots of love!


*Especially after a week of showing people how NOT to get into Padmasana- really a bad idea. By Thursday I remembered not to do it anymore.

5 thoughts on “My Knees, Pigeon Pose & Why It’s Good To Have a Teacher

  1. Love this great advice on knees! I’ve missed your posts, but understand and so glad you are loving your new “gig”. Thanks for the reminders 😀
    Hope to see you soon! Namaste.

  2. That’s brillant! I never thought about a cue to sqaure your shoulders rather than your hips in virahabhadrasana 1. Excellent cue! I’m so glad your enjoying your new position at Geo. I just wish it was closer so I could visit more often. Namaste

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