After recent news about Kino MacGregor’s hip injury, I did a little research. She’s a major voice in the yoga world, and a role model to thousands of young women. I wanted to learn more about her, and her injury, since it represents what I see as a risk in the modern yoga world – injuries to the lower back, hips and hamstrings.
I watched MacGregor’s “Hip Opening” YouTube video. In the opening scene, she plunks herself into a deep version of pigeon pose, making it look easy, correcting people who might have their lower leg tucked in close, as opposed to parallel. Then she plunks herself even deeper into the pose and says this is an “intro to surrender.”
Surrender, let go, relax.
These common verbal cues are frequently heard in yoga classes, particularly in passive poses, such as the pigeon pose, considered to be the classic hip opener taught in most yoga traditions. Kino uses the pose at the beginning of her “Hip Opening” video to prepare the body for more hip openers.
You’ve probably done the pigeon pose many times. It is ubiquitous in modern yoga classes, and is often taught instead of half or full lotus because it is considered to be an excellent preparatory pose, and is thought to be safe for most people.
Imagine you are in the pose and the teacher says: “Relax, surrender, breathe.” This probably sounds familiar, over the years you’ve become quite good at this, you can let go and feel a deep stretch in your hips without any effort at all.
Sooner or later you may begin to notice sensations before and after practice that don’t seem right.
Have you overstretched your hips and lower back. These are some of the symptoms:
- Clunking sounds in the joints.
- Aching at the top of the hamstrings, near the sitting bones.
- Pain in the groins, sacroiliac joints or lower back.
- Weakness in the lower back area.
- Loss of resiliency and elasticity.
To surrender or not to surrender? That is the question.
Surrender into sensation, be aware, breathe into sensation, create a state of equanimity, stay calm, relax. These verbal cues imply that every student should stay in the pose as long as possible and deal with the sensations that come up.
This attitude is part of the problem. Yoga students are encouraged to ignore pain, surrender to sensations, and at the same time, pay attention to their bodies and do what feels right. The messages conflict and it’s hard for students to know what is right.
The truth is, different body types and different anatomical structures mean that each person should approach pigeon pose differently. And many students don’t need to stretch their hips this way at all.
Repeating the pigeon pose in a passive way for many years can result in over stretching and eventual weakening of the muscles around the hips. These students, instead of doing pigeon pose again and again, should be doing hip-strengthening exercises instead, or do an active version of pigeon, one where all the muscles in the hips are engaged, instead of relaxed.
What’s the solution?
I believe that the yoga community will eventually acknowledge the long term implications of yoga asana, and redesign the practice to meet the needs of an aging population.
In my own teaching practice, I have been doing one-on-one sessions, teaching about the Body Braid and how to continue to practice yoga safely, while considering each student’s unique anatomy.
People come to me because they are unsure about sensations they are experiencing and want to know how to avoid injury. I usually suggest a strengthening practice that avoids the passive stretches they love.
Some students are shocked at how much harder it is to do poses with full muscular engagement. Their remarks are revealing:
- “But I like the feeling of letting go.”
- “This is so hard.”
- “It’s too much work.”
I know, I tell them. I’ve been there. But with time, I managed to adapt my practice and get used to the new sensation of strengthening my muscles, rather than stretching them.
If a student has pain in the lower back, hips or hamstring insertion, I suggest:
- Replacing forward bends with squats and more back extension (backbends)
- Replacing hip openers with hip strengtheners.
- Practicing with the Body Braid, which will provide resistance creating dynamic stretches.
The yoga of the future will reflect the changing needs of the population, either that, or it will become a passing trend.
The benefits of yoga far outweigh the risks. The imbalances that lead to injury in modern yoga classes can change if the yoga community can find a sense of humility and be open to evolution.
Interested in adapting your practice to your changing body?
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a private session.