In a previous post I shared that pigeon is my nemesis pose. As such I thought it would be a good idea to discuss how to improve pigeon pose. While I don’t think I’ll ever love it, using the tricks and tips in this post have made it more accessible. So much, that I no longer dread it.
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A big issue with pigeon is that it’s a STRONG externally rotated pose. Meaning that the hip is opening away from the midline of the body. Unfortunately this is the opposite of what my body likes to do. Which is internal rotation. In my classes I’ll explain it as, are you a pigeon or a hero? Which of those two poses is the most comfortable to you?
You can see from my expression which one feels more comfortable for me. When discussing how to improve pigeon pose, remember to start where you are. Be thankful of all your body is able to do now.
How to do Pigeon pose
Pigeon is an often maligned pose. People either love it or hate it. Classified as a seated pose. The front leg is bent, in external rotation, the back leg is extended behind, and the torso upright. In the ‘traditional’ alignment of the pose the front shin is parallel to the front of the mat.
However for some of us the traditional alignment of this pose is not just a struggle but downright uncomfortable.
How to improve Pigeon pose
Use the guidelines from my nemesis post. Let’s look at different ways to help us ease into the pose: seated, supine, props, support, warm up and more. You can find variations, and modifications in my accompanying video below.
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Warm up external hip rotators
One of the most important things to any movement practice is to warm up first. Too often I see people in yoga that warm up with Sun Salutations. My friends sun salutations are NOT a warm up! They are especially not sufficient warm up for pigeon. Instead work do movements that open the thigh away from the midline of the body.
This can be done laying on your back, or on all fours. This is a good time to work on rotation too. Pay attention to the movement. Is there a difference between the right and left hip? Chances are if the answer is YES here, then there will be a difference when you’re in pigeon pose!
Release the muscular tension
One of the sticking points for pigeon is tight inner thighs. If this is the case for you, maybe do some foam rolling (or tennis ball rolling) along the inner thigh. This will help warm up the muscle fibers and soften the tissue.
Another thing you could do is a somatics release for the hip flexors. That’s a whole post in itself so I’ll cover that another day. You can see a brief overview in the video above.
Change your relationship to Gravity
While we think about pigeon as a seated pose we can switch things up. By changing our relationship to gravity we can allow for some comfort in the pose. By changing the relationship of our body to gravity we can allow for joints to have less torque.
Most commonly known as the “figure 4 stretch”. This variation of pigeon [above] is ideal for those with knee issues in regular pigeon pose. It allows for the same external value of the front leg but with less pressure on the knee.
Most of us will recognize this seated position too. Again it provides external hip rotation. But again, with less torque of the knee. It’s also a great way to practice pigeon pose throughout the day in our daily lives.
This pose also gives us a great opportunity to clearly compare the right to left side. As you can see my left hip is so much tighter than my right.
Bend the rules
Rules are made to be broken, or at least bent a little. And that includes alignment rules! For many of us having that front shin parallel to the front of the mat is NOT an option. Me included. Allow the front shin to be angled diagonally. It’s ok!
If that still gives your hip or knee cause for discomfort maybe just allow the shin to be parallel to the long edge of the mat. This is swan pose. While it doesn’t give you the external rotation of the bent leg hip, it does give you hip extension in the long leg. It’s a great option to pair with the seated/laying variations above.
The traditional alignment for pigeon dictates that the hips are parallel to the floor. For many, this will mean the pelvis is connected to the floor. However, for others, not so much! This is where I suggest using a yoga block under one side of the pelvis to bring it more neutral. No block? Try a pillow, cushion, blanket or a couple of thick books.
My favorite variation of pigeon pose uses a yoga bolster. Straddle the bolster. The front foot will walk to the opposite side, and the knee opens out. The front leg is bent and externally rotated. Extend the other leg back and allow the pelvis to settle on top of the bolster.
For extra support and comfort place a block/blanket under that front knee. This variation is the only way I personally can get that front leg externally rotated, my hips parallel and allow myself to settle in the pose. Doing pigeon supported this way I can stay in the pose for a period of time, and surrender to it.
Accept & embrace it
By supporting the body we allow the muscles to stop screaming at us. Subsequently, we can be in the pose longer. This means, we will also be willing to practice it more often! Therefore, we may find we’re able to go deeper and get more flexible by regressing and doing less. Unfortunately, this long term approach doesn’t satisfy our ego. Be prepared for some internal struggle with doing less. But in the long run, it’s so worth it. Especially for the ease of body, and the mind.
- Is pigeon a favorite pose or one you struggle with?
- Which of the variations would be the one you’d pick?
- What’s your least favorite yoga pose?