Pigeon Tales (VOL. II): Healthy Struggles vs. Pain and Five Ways to Know the Difference

Pigeon Tales is a “special edition” of this blog, coming at you hot off the mat from yep, you guessed it…Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (known to most of us as Pigeon Pose).  As most yoga teachers will tell you while you try to find and maintain stillness in this intense pose, pigeon has a unique ability to tap into your emotional memories and bring up some pretty juicy- and often introspective- stuff.  Each edition of Pigeon Tales comes in a pure and spontaneous manner, dissecting the thoughts that cross my mind while in I give in to the release of the foundation-based chakras…those thoughts I want to share, anyway.  This is, in effect, my dream journal of those deep pigeony places.  I encourage you to try doing the same!

Quite often, when getting settled into a Sleeping Pigeon, yoga teachers will take the opportunity to share some wisdom with their class- usually to get you to focus on something other than the intensity of the pose.  We always want to acknowledge the feelings, but try not to “bite the hook” and act on that feeling by shifting around or coming out of the pose; it is meant to be intense, it is meant to hurt.

If you’re still reading, congratulations.  Most people would lose faith in a writer that insists pigeon (or any pose) is meant to hurt.  That’s because in this situation you can easily identify the difference between Pain and Healthy Struggle.  Pigeon is a great place to bring up this discussion because you know to expect a breath-stealing sensation, but if it hurts (i.e. your feet are going numb and your knee feels like it has been prepped for amputation) you need to make an adjustment.  How you should properly modify falls beyond the scope of this post so if this is you, talk to your teacher next time it comes up!  What I want to talk about here is how to recognize and identify the difference between a healthy struggle and pain in other situations, namely relationships.  Not necessarily just romantic relationships, but all relationships (work, family, friends, etc). When you experience life’s inevitable adversities, ask yourself the following five questions.

5.  Am I Able to Grow?

Pigeon has a laundry list of benefits, the most immediate of which being the release of tension in your hips and stress in your mind.  When practiced daily, this deep hip opener can help you move better throughout practice and increase the accessibility of scores of other poses, ultimately helping your practice grow.

A natural side effect of a healthy struggle is the overall improvement of the self.  When we work through tough times in a healthy way, we come out of it bigger and better than before.  If you get into pigeon and it hurts like hell, and then continues to hurt like hell two hours later, and it hurts worse than hell the next time you get into it…it might be Pain that you need to let go (and by might I mean it is, and by let go I mean change your approach!)  In some of our worst relationships, we find it easier to give in to the insane notion that things will just get better.  Is it practical to think that your pigeon will just stop hurting if you do it the same painful way over and over?  Before I started an active yoga practice, I was a dancer and pigeon pose was something we practiced quite often to improve our flexibility.  I have vivid memories biting back tears and asking what I should do if my feet were going numb, to which my instructor said “just hold your breath and think of something else until we’re done.”  I learned later in life that my problem wasn’t that I am naturally and eternally doomed to live without a comfortable pigeon, it’s that I needed someone to show me a healthy approach from which I could grow.

4.  Is there any relief?

As soon as your body is ready to move out of pigeon, the sensation of that release is almost twice as good as what you feel while you’re in it.  A constant struggle is not a healthy struggle.  There should be a natural rhythm, and ebb and flow of adversity and ease; You need a little struggle to grow stronger (see #5).  The presence of a healthy struggle increases the delight and appreciation of the release.  We all crave the bliss that comes after the clouds subside, but when it does you have to ask yourself if you welcome the clouds back with open arms.  If what you are experiencing is pain, it’s likely that you never want to get into pigeon again and you will make an effort to tip-toe around to avoid causing the clouds to return.  On the other hand, if you welcome the challenge because you know it makes you better in the end and you are able to find a sort of peace in the intensity, it might be a struggle of the good variety!

3.  Am I Open to Variations?

The more you do it, the better you understand what to expect and your familiarity creates a sense of understanding.  This can be a slippery slope.  If you are talking about a painful pigeon, growing might mean that you come to terms with the fact that you need to make an adjustment.  But, maybe your pigeon is just boring!  A boring pigeon isn’t that much different than a painful one when you get down to it.  We know because our mothers told us: if it hurts don’t do it.  But what about when you don’t feel anything?  The monotony of the same routine over and over can be just as distracting as the pain of a bad one.  When pain is absent, introduce a little healthy struggle to spice it up.  Challenge yourself to go deeper, to get to know your pigeon a little more, or to find a new variation altogether.  Your instructor may cue a sleeping pigeon, but maybe you want to take a leap of faith and go for mermaid.  It’s your life, find your mermaid!

2.  Am I Jealous of the Pigeons Around Me?

Honestly, if your mind is wandering hard enough to look at that sleeping pigeon next to you and you think to yourself “Wow, that dude is so peaceful in his pigeon, what a lucky guy”…you might be in the Pain territory.  That guy is not lucky, he just knows what kind of pigeon is good for him.  Maybe he has had a few bad pigeons in the past and learned how to avoid the painful part so that he is at peace with the struggle.

1.  Am I ACTIVELY Avoiding or Distracting Myself?

Well this is numero uno, so you can probably guess that it is my personal cardinal question.  If the sensation that you feel in your pigeon (okay, we all understand that ‘your pigeon’ is actually your relationship, right?  Cool.) is so intense that you find yourself avoiding your own questions, it’s time to get out of the pose.  If you have to tell yourself it will feel better when you know it never does, or the pain happens more often then the release, it’s time to get out of the pose.  If you start looking at other people’s practice and wish that you could be as blissful (or Happy) as them, it’s time to get out of the pose.  Distracting yourself from the real problems and pain that come up are the number one red flags indicating that you can do better.  Life is not meant to be lived by telling yourself things will be different and then doing nothing to effect that change.  If you find that you are unable to be present because present is pain, modify something– starting with the source of the pain.  You’re stronger than you think, and you deserve only the healthiest of struggles.

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