Nothing divides a yoga class quite like the words – “pigeon pose.” When I say these words in class – I watch students’ faces range from elated kid on Christmas morning to what I imagine is the same face your dentist’s receptionist is used to seeing. Depending on our hips and a variety of other factors, pigeon can be an amazing release and stretch or just pure torture. And if you feel like you’re being tortured in pigeon pose, then you probably aren’t releasing and relaxing into it, which means you aren’t receiving a great deal of benefit from the unfortunate experience.
I’ve noticed in class, that unless I specifically give students permission to do something other than pigeon pose – they force themselves to do the pose. As yoga students, you ALWAYS have options (especially in my classes). You never are required to do the pose the teacher is suggesting. So here is your permission – if pigeon pose doesn’t feel good, don’t do it!! There are a bazillion alternatives to pigeon pose that are just as beneficial. I have outlined a few of my favorites below. The next time pigeon pose is suggested by your yoga teacher, maybe give one of these a try!
In regards to the anatomy – if we focus on the front leg (let’s call this your pigeon leg) we are looking for poses that externally rotate this leg, while flexing at the hip and adducting. In other words – we want that pigeon leg to be turned to the side (like a tree pose lifted leg or warrior 2 front leg; i.e. external rotation) with the thigh bone in front of the body (i.e. flexion, as opposed to extending behind the body) and drawing towards the center line of the body (i.e. adduction).
Sometimes all it takes to enjoy the pose are simple adjustments – pigeon has two primary adjustments: 1) Angle of the front knee and 2) upright vs. folded. Before trying some of the other variations – give these adjustments a try.
The general rule of thumb is that the closer the foot on your front leg (your pigeon leg) is to your body – the less deep the hip opening. The closer your front shin is to parallel to the front of the mat – the deeper it is. But this says nothing about comfort for your individual body. So play with the angle of that front leg – try pulling the foot in really close to the body, and then try gradually taking the leg further away towards the parallel shin version and see if you can find your sweet spot.
The other adjustment is how upright you are versus how much you fold forward. Again, assumptions can be made about which is more difficult from a theoretical standpoint – but move around a bit, feel where the weight shifts, and see if you can find a place that is comfortable. Blocks can be a great tool for this, under your hands in either the upright option or the folded option. The first row of photos below shows the version with your foot pulled in close – both in upright and folded options and then the second row of photos shows the parallel shin version. Remember this isn’t black or white, there are a variety of shades of grey in between the extremes shown below. Keep shifting and adjusting until you find comfort – and if pigeon still isn’t working for you, jump below for additional options!
Add a Blanket or Blankets!!
Fold up a yoga blanket, hot dog style (long ways) and then place it on your mat at a diagonal – with the higher end on the same side as your front leg in pigeon. You’ll want the blanket angled so that the top corner supports your front outer hip (outer calf rests on the ground in front of the blanket) and the bottom corner supports the front of your back thigh. If one blanket isn’t enough to do the trick – add a second or a third. This option relieves some of the strain that occurs when your hips don’t rest on the ground in pigeon (which is most of us). Again – you have the option to remain upright or fold.
Recline your pigeon
When a hip opener or a forward fold isn’t feeling good – I like to simply flip it onto my back. This can take a variety of forms (as shown below). Thread the needle, or a reclined fork lift grab of your lower leg – or even holding your lower leg like a baby. Let’s break it down …
Thread the Needle is the most gentle of these options. Crossing your ankle (with a flexed foot) over the opposite thigh – you now have two options. 1) Keep the foot of your neutral leg down on the floor and press into the thighs or 2) hug the legs into the torso, grabbing either onto the shin or thigh of the neutral leg.
If that isn’t giving you enough of a stretch, then begin to progress to the next option, which is a forklift or a baby hold around your externally rotated (pigeon) leg. The forklift can be any under or over grab of the lower leg – grab on however you need to. And the baby hold is just what it sounds like – wrap one arm around the foot and one around the knee and cradle your lower leg like a baby. Either of these options can be done with your neutral leg bent or straight – goal here is to be as relaxed as possible (head down, shoulders releasing towards the floor, etc.).
Final round of options here – although I hope this has inspired you to be creative and to think of additional ways that you receive the same stretch as pigeon, but only better for your body. If traditional pigeon isn’t working, and you don’t like the hip opening on your back, you can try the pose seated – either a fork lift seated pigeon (similar to what we just did on our back, but upright) or a double pigeon can do the trick.
Let’s start with the fork lift version – or baby hold even. This will be just like the supine version, but seated. Goal here is to keep your spine as long and tall as possible – most of us start to round in this position as we get into the hip opening.
And last but definitely not least – double pigeon can be more challenging for the hips than traditional pigeon, but not as claustrophobic. The goal here is to get knees and ankles stacking over one another – it doesn’t matter how close the knees and ankles are to touching, just try to stack them and keep both feet flexed to protect the knees. You can stay upright or fold forward if you feel open enough.
Hope this helps you dive deeper into your own personal practice. Would love to hear about your favorite pigeon variations!!