Asana of the Month: The Inner Workings of Sleeping Pigeon (Kapotasana) in a Yin Practice

I remember the first time a teacher brought me into Pigeon pose when I was sixteen years old. The pose, and what the teacher said about it, spoke to me deeply. Looking back, I think it was the first time I really met an asana. I am delighted to share a few pointers on this pose in hopes of passing on the Pigeon Love to others.

Tanya Gita Roberts wrote a beautiful piece about Pigeon in the Asana of the Month section of October 2014. I highly recommend giving her article a read as well. In this month’s piece I will explore “Sleeping Pigeon” as it is practiced in Yin Yoga, as well as how emotions are stored in the body and how to release them in a Yin practice. This is a particular variation on what Gita explained in beautiful detail a few years ago.

Step One: Enter the Pose

The first step is to situate your hips, before easing down.

The first step is to situate your hips, before easing down.

Starting in tabletop position, slide your right knee forward towards your right wrist. Slide your left leg straight out behind you. Let the outside of your right shin, as well as your left leg, rest on the floor. Take a few breaths here, feeling into your legs. Then slowly begin to lower your torso down. Pay attention to how much sensation you are feeling in your legs, as well as how relaxed your body and breath are, as you lower down. You want to find what in Yin is called your “edge,” the place where you are challenged by sensation, but not challenged to the point where you begin to tense up or breathe shallowly. Your edge might be relaxing on your arms, your forearms, your stacked fists, a bolster or pillow, or relaxing all the way onto the floor. Wherever your edge is, stay there once you’ve found it. Let your back relax and your head hang heavy. Make sure that you don’t round to the point that your diaphragm is constricted, though, because you want to be able to have a natural deep breath.

Put a bolster under your hip if there is too much sensation without support.

Put a bolster under your hip if there is too much sensation without support.

If it is uncomfortable to relax into gravity, put a pillow or bolster underneath your right hip. For a Yin practice, you want to be able to relax any muscle that you aren’t using to keep yourself in the posture. Use as much support under your hip as you need in order to really relax.

Bringing the front foot forward deepens the stretch.

Bringing the front foot forward deepens the stretch.

If you want to deepen the stretch in your right hip, you can move your right foot up, creating a wider angle in your right knee. You don’t need to move the foot if you are already challenged by sensation with your foot closer to your body, or if moving the foot causes any discomfort in your knee. You don’t want any discomfort in your joints.

Propping your forearms on a bolster can help you ease slowly into the pose, or stay at your edge if that is where your edge is.

Propping your forearms on a bolster can help you ease slowly into the pose, or stay at your edge if that is where your edge is.

Step Two: Be in the Pose

Once you’ve found a version of the pose that works for your body, come into stillness. In a Yin practice, you hold a pose for 3-5 minutes – or longer, if you are accustomed to the pose. During this time it is good to avoid fidgeting or moving around because when you’re still you can bring your attention further inward. In Yin your job isn’t to get your body to go deeper into the pose; gravity and time are in charge of that. Your job is simply to meet your body where it is, as it is, and watch as it softens and heals in its own time. The Yin practice is largely internal, so here are a few more pointers on what to focus on while you’re in the pose:

  1. At the beginning of your pose, focus on relaxing. Relax your shoulders, the muscles along your spine, your belly, your left leg, and your right leg. Ask yourself if you’re holding anywhere else that you hadn’t already noticed, and invite those places to relax in their own time.
  2. Rather than forcing a deep breath, allow your breath to be as naturally deep as it wants to be. Focus on relaxing your breath.
  3. When your body and breath are soft, bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Start at the periphery, noticing the sensations in your head and face, neck and shoulders, arms, back and front body, and left leg. When you get to the right leg, where the most intense sensation probably is, start to give more attention to each sensation. Take your time, really pressing your awareness and breath against what you find there.
  4. Over the course of 3-5 minutes, watch how the sensations gradually change as your body releases deeper into the pose. Give loving attention to your body, the little piece of life that you inhabit, as it softens.

How Yin Yoga helps release stored emotion in the body

The day I first met Pigeon Pose was when I was attending asana classes at a studio called Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas. On this particular day, the teacher brought us into Sleeping Pigeon at the end of a Hatha class and let us stay in it for about five minutes on each side. She told us, “Our bodies tend to store a lot of emotions in our hips. During a deep hip opener, some of those emotions can sometimes come to the surface. If that happens, don’t turn away. Allow yourself to feel those emotions and release them. Don’t try to figure out where the emotions came from. Don’t think about them – feel them. Breathe into them and let them release.” My conscious mind didn’t understand how emotions could be stored in my legs, but I found that her words resonated with me deeply. I focused on what I felt in my hips and found that there was an emotional quality to the sensations. It felt so good to sink into them and let myself feel them.

Now I have more of a conscious understanding of how emotions are “stored” in our muscles. When a person experiences or witnesses an event that elicits an emotional response, several things go on in the body-mind complex. The body mobilizes a stress response, with one result being that a lot of energy gets poured into the muscles responsible for fighting or running away. The body also activates the tension patterns and physiological responses associated with whichever emotions have been deemed appropriate. Ideally, all the energy fueling the stress response gets released at the time of its creation, through self-defence or effective communication that is healthy and un-harmful for everyone involved.

If the energy doesn’t get released, then it stays in the system in some form. Even though the event has passed, the nervous system is still signaling the alarm, saying that the event is still happening. When the nervous system is out of sync with present moment surroundings, this causes all sorts of suffering. Our muscles become chronically tense, because they are receiving signals to fight, flight, or freeze in response to an event that has already passed. Seeing a reminder of the event can also trigger more vivid memories of the event, amping up the nervous system charge far beyond what is appropriate for a small situation. This can be very confusing and painful.

Thankfully, it is possible to release this stored energy from our nervous systems, even long after the event has passed. There are many different methods, from different religions, spiritual systems, and psychotherapeutic models. Yin Yoga is one method, and it works well alongside other methods such as psychotherapy, Hatha Yoga, massage, meditation, and others.

In Yin Yoga, we find a safe environment to practice, where our bodies feel safe to fully relax. We move slowly, encouraging a relaxed nervous system. We soften into the poses and allow the breath to be deep and relaxed, again encouraging the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest and digest” function. From this place of relaxation, being with sensation can be therapeutic. We stay at our edge, regulating how much sensation we come into contact with- not too much, and not too little – staying with just the right amount that keeps the experience vivid but not overwhelming. Like my teacher said when I was sixteen, we focus on the sensations rather than the thoughts, allowing the sensations to unfold and change as they do when given a spotlight of loving attention.

Step Three: Exit the Pose

To come out of the pose, carefully bring your hands underneath your shoulders to press your torso into an upright position. Stay in touch with the sensations in your legs, moving slowly and carefully. Then gently slide your left leg forward and your right leg back, coming back into tabletop position. From there, rest back into Child’s Pose for a few breaths.

Step Four: Repeat on the Other Side

When you feel ready to move out of Child’s Pose, come back into tabletop. Then come into Sleeping Pigeon on the other side, bringing your left leg towards your left wrist and sliding your right leg back out behind you. Take your time when settling into the pose on this side, as you’ll need to go through the whole process all over again, relaxing from the periphery and in towards the belly of the muscle that has the most sensation. Notice and respect any differences between the two sides. You may need to use more support on this side, or less support. Take your time in settling in again, and be sure to stay in the pose for the same amount of time as you did on the other side. This allows your body to release in a balanced way.

I hope this description of the inner workings of Pigeon Pose in a Yin practice can be helpful in informing all Yin postures, the process of healing, and coming back into union with the Self.

Om

Asana photos by Gawain Jones


ArpitaArpita (Jessy), daughter of Padma (Diana) and Purna (Doug), is a grown-up Centre child, having been born into the Salt Spring Satsang. She took YTT at the Centre in 2009, the youngest so far, being 17 years old at the time. She has spent several summers serving at the Centre in Housekeeping, Maintenance, Yoga teaching, scanning old Babaji Q&A’s, and doing social media. Having recently graduated from Quest University Canada with a focus on embodiment psychotherapy and spirituality, she intends to continue her studies in Yoga Therapy, Somatic Experiencing, and Thai Yoga Massage.

Our Centre Community: Arpita Jessy Rose

Present day 24 year old Arpita with Pussywillow in the motorhome on the Centre soccer field

Present day 24 year old Arpita with Pussywillow in the motorhome on the Centre soccer field

I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love Babaji, because I was born into the Satsang. My parents, Padma Diana and Purna Doug, met at the Centre sometime in the 80’s, and I came into the picture in 1991. As a child I didn’t think about Babaji’s role as a Guru, but his presence was deeply comforting for me. I could feel the wisdom he brought to the community, and the love. He felt more like a grandfather than a teacher, and I thought of him as part of my family.

Baby Arpita being held by Babaji

Baby Arpita being held by Babaji

I remember when Babaji would give candy to me and the other kids. I was one of the shy ones, and I remember him sometimes holding onto the candy and playing tug-of-war with me, maybe to help me break out of shyness. I remember once when he did that I cried because I was so shy. I loved him very much, but was also afraid of him. I could sense how deeply he witnessed me, and though I longed to be witnessed completely, I was also afraid. Even at such a young age, he was working with me on unraveling ego.

We lived in Seattle until I was 4 and then moved to SSI for a few years. I went to the SSC school and made mischief on the land with Sarah and Ceilidh. I have always looked back on those times as being the happiest and freest of my life.

5 or 6 year old Arpita out on a hike with her dad on Salt Spring

5 or 6 year old Arpita out on a hike with her dad on Salt Spring

When I was six in 1998, we moved to Texas and I went through the school system there. I missed Salt Spring and Babaji very much and cried a lot for years. Although we were apart from the satsang, I always felt connected inside. We would occasionally receive updates about the changing lives of satsang members and the Centre, and mom would teach weekly classes out of a big beautiful room in our house.

In my teens, mom started teaching at a studio called Yoga Yoga in Austin, and started inviting me and dad to go to the classes. I had entered the angst of teenage-hood at that point and refused to go, although I always held a feeling of faith and devotion in my heart, knowing that one day I would start doing yoga myself.

When my parents divorced, I was filled with grief, confusion and anger, and was having a lot of trouble staying focused in school and feeling well in myself. Mom suggested that I start doing yoga and dad bought me an unlimited class pass to the yoga studio in our neighborhood. During my last year in Texas, I enjoyed a healing ritual of driving to the studio after school and practicing asana under the guidance of wise, loving teachers.

When I was 17 in 2009 I moved to Niagara Falls to live with my mom and grandmother. Grandma Sadie was dying that summer, and mom didn’t want me to witness that for some reason. She asked me if I would like to go to the Centre to take YTT. I had already known for a while that I wanted to teach yoga one day, but I hadn’t dared to hope that it would happen so soon. I said of course I wanted to! Dad generously paid, and mom shipped me off a few days later.

I had visited the Centre for one family retreat when I was 11 or 12, but it felt like a very long time ago. I stepped onto the land and felt like I had finally come home. Seeing all the old satsang members who were like aunts and uncles was nourishing and healing after having been away for so long. YTT was very intense since my practice and I were both so young. But I opened and learned as much as I was able to, and by the end I felt like a sponge that had been joyfully squeezed out and filled back up again with sweet, bright nectar.

I co-taught with mom in Niagara Falls during my last year of high school, and taught on and off during my gap year before university. At Quest University I taught weekly and sometimes more, to my peers and even to my university tutors. Teaching my peers was helpful for me in building confidence, and I started to find my own rhythm and voice in teaching, and to love it more and more.

For the last few years I have been attending Quest University Canada in Squamish, studying the question, “What is the role of embodiment in healing from trauma?” And also, “What is the role of embodiment in spirituality?” These studies have informed my understanding of yoga and my teaching, and also been informed by yoga philosophy.

In 2013 I took a Women’s YTT with Sara Avant Stover. I learned about the different forms of practice that are best for women during different phases of the menstrual cycle, pelvic floor health for women pre- and post-pregnancy, prenatal and post-natal yoga, as well as women’s circling and female leadership.

I spent the last few summers on Hornby Island, living on a small meditation retreat centre called Deerheart Sanctuary. I lived in the woods, mostly in solitude, doing my practice in the quiet, beautiful yurt by the creek. The women who started Deerheart, Michelle St. Pierre, became a spiritual teacher to me. Her love, stillness, intense presence, and embodiment of womanly grace, fierceness, love, and wise sensuality inspired and changed me deeply. She also introduced me to Adyashanti (via audio-tape), who continues to be a potent spiritual teacher for me. Michelle passed away in 2014, and I am still grieving her passing. I could have learned so much more from her had she stayed alive longer. Now the Centre is run by my dear friend, Kira Anderson, and I know that she will give blessings of love, stillness, safety and wisdom to everyone who goes there.

I have learned things from lots of different people from different systems of thought and practice, and each one has been important on my path. Babaji, though, will always be my first teacher, my spiritual grandfather, the father of this sacred, beautiful community. In 2012 I went to MMC with mom for New Years and got to see Babaji for the first time as an adult. He gave me some big truth bombs in answer to some of my questions, one of them being to encourage me to punch a young man who was bullying me at university! I never did punch him, but his advice has continued to percolate through my consciousness as a reminder to stick to what I know is true and important, and speak up about it with courage.

When I was 4 or 5 I asked Babaji for a Sanskrit name and he gave me the name Arpita, which he translated as “servant to others.” I loved it. It felt beautiful and powerful. I soon forgot it, but occasionally asked to be reminded until I could remember it myself. When I took YTT I started going by Arpita. The shift was indeed beautiful and powerful. I felt seen and respected in a way I hadn’t before, and that feeling helped me to heal and move on from some habits and self-perceptions I had picked up that were harming me. I went by Arpita full time for 6 years. When I went to India in 2014, I was getting a lot of attention for being white with an Indian name, so I decided to go by Jessy again for a while. I found that there were some parts of me I had disowned during the name change, so it felt good to embrace them again. Now that I’m back at the Centre, I’m going by Arpita again, while feeling like both names are my names whenever I want to use them. Arpita, though, is the name of my heart.

That year I was on maintenance

That year I was on maintenance

I stayed at the Centre as a KY during the summers of 2009 (in between the two YTT blocks), 2010, 2011, and 2012. I worked mostly in housekeeping, with the occasional dish and kitchen shift, and failed wildly one year in maintenance. This year, 2015, is my first winter here, and I am enjoying working in housekeeping and scanning old Babaji Q&A’s into the computer system. I am overjoyed to be living in this loving, bright, silly, supportive community in my motorhome with my elderly cat, Pussywillow. Thank you, Babaji, for bringing these blessings into my life.

Found a snake in the garden while on mauna in 2012

Found a snake in the garden while on mauna in 2012

Jai Babaji!
Arpita