Birdsong – a sound of spring. So to greet the coming season on the mat, how about incorporating some asanas inspired by birds into your fitness/yoga routine? Like their namesakes, some poses are graceful, like bird of paradise, and some are powerful, like rooster. Even if we can’t fly, we can add flexibility, strength and a touch of grace through these asanas.
Birds and their ability to fly were infused with spiritual meaning in ancient times. In Hindu mythology, birds were symbols of the soul and the form it took in between earthly lives. Certain birds were also the vehicles of the gods; for example, Garuda the eagle is often depicted carrying Vishnu. It’s not surprising that many yoga poses were inspired by birds.
You can practice bird poses on their own, but the best time to do them is when your muscles are warm. Incorporate them into your at-home practice following your sun salutations, or work them into your post-run, post-cycle, or post-workout stretching.
Be a bird! Spread your wings, and stretch and strengthen your muscles. Happy spring.
Suggested yoga props: 2 blocks, a blanket, and a strap.
Eka Pada Raja Kapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon)
Let’s be honest: the pigeon may not be anyone’s favorite bird. It is, however, many yogis’ favorite pose, myself included. In Yin Yoga, pigeon is called swan pose, so if you need a more noble bird image, there you have it. There are many wonderful variations of pigeon; I’ve chosen three of my favorites here. Pigeon is most often thought of as a hip opener, which makes it ideal for after…almost everything. A run, a bike ride, a long day sitting in a chair. These variations take things beyond the hips, to other areas of the body. Make sure that for all of them, you are stable in your foundation through the hip area (if your hips are tight, use support to help stabilize).
Stretches: Hips, glutes, psoas, quads; variations stretch shoulders, upper arms, chest.
Basic Pigeon: Remember to puff up your chest like a proud pigeon. Basic Pigeon Instruction »
Variation 1: This is some of the most intense shoulder opening I’ve experienced, so take care to go slowly.
- Loop the strap securely around your ankle, and place the other end over one shoulder.
- Lift your arms overhead, then bend them at the elbows and take hold of the strap.
- Keep your back leg engaged; press the top of your foot into the floor as you work your hands down the strap. Use your leg as leverage.
- Hold here for 5-10 breaths. Walk your hands back up the strap to come out of the pose slowly, with control.
- Repeat on the other side.
Variation 2: This variation adds a quad stretch.
- From variation 1, bend the back knee.
- Work your hands down the strap towards your foot. Lift your elbows towards the sky, lift your chest and your gaze (but not so much your chin).
- Hold for 5-10 breaths; take care not to “slingshot” the strap by exiting the pose too quickly.
- Repeat on the other side.
Variation 3: Bound pigeon – see, it’s possible for a pigeon to be pretty! This is great to try after you’ve practiced the first 2 variations with the strap and have opened your shoulders and quads.
- Start in basic pigeon, left leg back. Your hips must be level (even if it’s with a prop) in order to move into the bind.
- Bend your left knee, and reach back for the foot with your left hand. Use your left hand for balance just outside the right knee.
- Work your foot towards the crook of your elbow, without forcing.
- Lift your left arm up overhead, making a “pillow” of your upper arm by your right ear. Reach back for your left hand.
- Take your gaze up. Hold for 10 breaths. Don’t “slingshot” the release.
- Repeat on the other side.
Stretches: Knee area, quads, hamstrings and calves.
I’ve always thought this pose to be extremely elegant, like a heron. Its lines are long and although it’s a seated posture, the energy extends upward. Big birds can fly! In the full pose, you’re hitting almost every area of the legs. It’s one of the deepest hamstring stretches I’ve ever practiced.
- Start in a seated position. Bend the left knee, hook your thumb around your calf muscle and move it out to the side. Make sure the top of your left foot is on the floor and the toes points back behind you, and that the foot is close to your hip (vs. splaying out). You may need a little padding under your left bum, or if this won’t work for your knee, take the modification below.
- Bend the right knee, and reach forward for the right foot. You may use a strap to reach the foot.
- Extend the right leg as much as you can, while keeping lift through the chest and the low back. This can get intense fast through the back of the leg, so don’t hesitate to keep the extended leg bent.
- Hold for 5 breaths. Carefully release – particularly the bottom leg. Step back to downward facing dog, and then repeat on the other side.
Modification: This is a great mod if you have any knee trouble. Bring the bottom leg out in front at a relaxed angle.
Stengthens: Core and arms.
I’m not going to try and convince you that this is easy – it’s not. But think about what a little powerhouse a rooster is, and you get the idea how strengthening this pose is. Mostly, it requires core strength. It also requires that you can do full lotus. If not, don’t despair; remember that all advanced postures have many steps leading up to them, so you can stop along the way and work there. The lifting action comes from engaging your core – drawing your belly button into your spine – vs. trying to get all your lifting power from your arms. Core strength is cumulative, so if you can hold yourself up for even just a few seconds, start there and keep adding time.
- In full lotus, thread your arms through the spaces between your thighs and your calves. Do not force them! This requires a comfortable lotus pose.
- Engage your core to lift up onto your hands. It usually takes a few tries! And a little bit of rolling forward.
- Press down into your hands and engage your core to hold the lift.
- Hold. For as long as you can. And don’t forget to breathe!
Modification 1. Take your arms just outside your hips and then move them slightly forward. It’s going to be a lot easier to get some air under you if you are able to do full lotus, as pictured here. The more compact your body is, the easier it is to engage the core to lift up.
Modification 2. Use blocks to help you lift up, and place your legs in a tight cross-legged position or half lotus on one side (be sure to switch legs and do it on the other side as well).
Modification 3. Lean forward and gently push off the feet to help you lift (feet will stay on the floor).
Now crow like a rooster (kidding).
Svarga Dvidasana (Bird of Paradise)
Stretches: Shoulders, hips, hamstrings.
Strengthens: Quads, balance, core.
This is another advanced posture that can be intimidating. My approach is to break down advanced asanas into steps, and you can stop anywhere along the way. If you stick with practicing the pose, you will gradually move to the next step when your body is ready. As a yoga teacher, I’ve seen many students try to rush into advanced poses before their bodies are ready (I’ve been there, done that too). We need to remind ourselves that it’s not just about the end result, as much as we’d like to do this pretty pose. Honor your limits, and you’ll be able to expand them.
Step 1: Basics. Come into extended utthita parsvakonasana, side angle pose, with your right hand on the inside of your right foot. Reach your left hand straight overhead. Focus on pressing the outside of your bottom arm into the inside of your front, bent leg; feel your shoulder gently pressing your knee open.
Step 2: Binding. Wrap your bottom arm under your bent knee, reach your top arm around and clasp the hands. If you cannot bring your hands together, then this is where you work until you can; you may use a strap. With the strap, keep working your hands towards one another. You must have a strong, solid bind in order to move to step 3.
Step 3: Binding balance. Engage your core to lift your back foot and bring it up to meet the front foot. The tricky part of this stepping forward: keeping the bind and the balance.
Step 4: Lift off. Engage your core (remember Rooster pose? This is where you get lift off!), shift your weight into your right leg, and slowly float the left foot up as you come to standing in the bind.
Step 5: Flying. Stay strong in your core, keep your gaze on the floor…and extend your right leg. Talk about feels like flying! Hold for 5 breaths.
Try not to crash land…come out of the pose the same way you went in, retracing the steps. This is part of the practice too.
Repeat on the other side.
Having fun with this? Here are more bird poses from previous tutorials:
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Montana-People.com
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