Fire log pose (agnistambhasana). Square pose. Double pigeon. You might know this “hip-opener” by any one of these names, depending on the style of yoga you practice. In fact it’s so ubiquitous in yoga classes these days that a yoga clothing store I worked at a few years ago sold a tank top called the “double pigeon,” a name that the marketing department must have assumed would be familiar to the average twenty-first-century yogi.
Double pigeon also happens to be one of my favorite poses. And if I’m being honest, it’s because it, like most poses that involve external rotation of the thighs, has always come easily to me. It’s a pose that I feel “good at” and that feels good in my body—unlike, say, hero pose (virasana), which involves internal rotation of the thighs and is a pose that definitely does not come easily to me or feel particularly good in my body. A pose that, despite my attempts to practice non-attachment on my mat, has a tendency to make me feel awkward, inflexible, and “bad” at asana. That is, until I place a block or blanket under my seat, because then it doesn’t feel half bad. But when I was a new yogi, I didn’t realize that this was an option.
Because hero pose came easily to my teachers, I assumed that it should come easily to me too. And that there was something wrong with me if it didn’t. Back then I didn’t know much about the role body proportions and biochemical individuality play. I just figured that if I practiced enough and got “flexible” enough I would eventually be able to do everything perfectly and painlessly. And I did eventually figure out how to get my seat to the floor in virasana and was even able to lie back into supta virasana (reclined hero pose). But when I was really, really honest with myself, I had to concede that it didn’t make my knees or lower back very happy, so most of the time I still prefer to remain upright and sit on a prop or lie over a bolster for a supine variation. In fact, I credit this pose in particular for teaching me what great friends props can be.
Even though it was one of my favorite poses, it definitely wasn’t everyone’s favorite.
After I’d been teaching awhile, I began to notice that for many of my students, double pigeon was “their virasana.” In other words, even though it was one of my favorite poses, it definitely wasn’t everyone’s favorite. Just as I once sat around silently wondering how my teacher could ever think virasana was a reasonable pose for most people, many of my students were probably wondering the same thing about double pigeon. But thankfully, just as I learned variations and prop tips that helped make virasana more pleasant for me, I also learned new variations of double pigeon to offer.
A few of these variations and alternatives are described below, along with some general alignment tips that may help double pigeon feel more comfortable for some practitioners. You might find some of them to be quite familiar, others not. Either way, I hope they’re helpful the next time you practice or teach double pigeon.
Before practicing or teaching a pose, it’s helpful to know why you want to do it in the first place. Double pigeon can provide a great stretch for the groins and outer hips (and the lower back if you fold forward). The outer hip stretch in particular is one reason it can feel so good after a run or a long day of sitting; however, bear in mind that there are plenty of other ways to stretch these areas, so don’t despair if double pigeon doesn’t work for you!
Before we explore variations, let’s review the essential aspects of “traditional” double pigeon.
Begin by sitting tall, facing the front of your mat, with your legs extended and separated as they would be for upavistha konasana (seated wide-legged forward fold), feet flexed. If your lower back tends to round, sitting on a folded blanket or two can help maintain its natural curve.
Bend your left knee and, keeping your foot flexed, place your left shin on the mat so that it is roughly parallel to the top edge of your mat. Then bend your right knee and stack your right shin directly on top of your left so that your right ankle is stacked over your left knee and your left ankle is directly under your right knee, even if this makes your right knee lift up a little higher. Ideally, your right foot will be off of your left thigh (this can help to prevent your ankle from collapsing outward).
Remain upright or hinge forward from your hips, keeping your spine as long as possible and both feet flexed as you fold. (You may find that placing your hands on the soles of your feet helps them to remain flexed.) Stay for a few breaths (or longer if you like! I often set a timer for 1-3 minutes), then repeat on the other side.
Tip: If your right (top) knee is comfortable but just a tad higher than you’d like (i.e., if you want to go “deeper” in the pose), try this: Sitting upright in double pigeon, rock over onto your right hip, bringing your right hand to the floor beside you for support. Your left hip will be lifted now. Bring your left hand to your left inner thigh and push the flesh of your inner thigh off to the left (think in, down, and off to the left as opposed to lifting it up and pushing it out to the left as though you were trying to turn the leg out more). Aim to maintain this action as you lower your left hip back to the ground. When you get there, you may discover that your right knee is a little lower than it was before!
Common propping and variations include placing a block or thickly folded blanket under the top knee for support or practicing sukhasana (easy pose) in lieu of double pigeon. If spinal flexion is appropriate for you in seated forward bends (meaning that it’s not contraindicated and you can maintain length throughout your spine as you fold), you might find that folding forward in sukhasana provides a great outer hip (and lower back) stretch. Additionally, here are a few other variations to try.
Nowadays, I invite my students to take the “lateral hip opener of their choice,” and double pigeon is just one option. Figure four (supine or seated) is often a more popular choice. To practice the seated version, from dandasana (staff pose), bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Place your hands behind you (fingers can point forward, backward, or diagonally, depending on your preference) and lengthen through your spine (like you were preparing to press up into reverse table). Flex your left foot and cross your left ankle over your right thigh.
Remain here for several breaths. Keeping your left foot flexed, aim to make your left shin horizontal: Press out through the mound below your left big toe (as though you were rooting it into the floor), and draw your left knee toward the pinky-toe side of your left foot.
Come out of the pose if you feel any knee pain. If there’s no knee pain and you’d like to deepen the stretch, experiment with bringing your hips closer to your right foot. To deepen further, draw your chest toward your left shin (you may need to lift up onto your fingertips to do so). Continue to lengthen through your spine and work to bring your shin as horizontal as you comfortably can.
Repeat on the second side.
Begin in dandasana, and, keeping your right leg extended, cross your left ankle over your right thigh as you would in “classic” double pigeon. This variation can serve as an excellent double pigeon prep or as an alternative. Do be mindful not to hyperextend the bottom knee (which can be easy to do in this position)—making sure that your bottom-leg heel doesn’t lift can help.
Placing a block underneath the top knee (as mentioned above) can be a great option for some people but may not feel so great for others (particularly if the knee is very high up). An alternative is to place a block in front of the bottom shin and to rest the top foot or ankle on it. In general, this variation will feel a little “deeper” than sukhasana and a little milder than full-on double pigeon.
In addition to helping you find a "hip opener" that will serve you well, I hope this, and other discussions of alternatives to traditional pose forms, may also serve as a reminder to all of us, teachers and students alike, that a yoga practice isn’t one size fits all. Just because something feels great or comes naturally to us doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the case for the yogi next to us (and vice versa). And when something doesn’t come naturally to us, it doesn’t mean anything is “wrong” with our practice. It simply means that—like everyone—we have our own unique strengths and limitations. Keeping this in mind when we practice and teach can help us to cultivate more compassion and understanding—for ourselves, our students, and everyone around us.