As the granddaughter of an award-winning pigeon keeper (a “fancier”), I have a natural affinity for anything related to that stout city bird. This includes eka pada rajakapotasana, or “pigeon pose.”
My love is not universal, however. Pigeon pose is often used as part of the cooldown in vinyasa classes but is not always well received by students. It has also been infamous for years as the perpetrator of sacroiliac issues (though, in my humble opinion, that is more of an assumption than based on fact). From my experience with pigeon, it seems that we are often cooped up with one idea of how the pose must be when in reality it can be explored in many ways. This is especially true when using props, such as a chair.
The chair makes pigeon pose versatile, allowing you to make it accessible, supportive, or more comfortable than your unpropped pigeon.
An accessible way to practice pigeon without having to get on the floor (either prone or supine) is to do it in a chair. Along with a chair, you may also need a blanket to place either under your feet (so they reach the ground) or under your hips (to ease the crossing of your leg). A bolster or blocks also come in handy to support your arms, but those may not be necessary.
Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the floor. Place your blocks slightly off to the sides of the front of the chair legs. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh. To lengthen your spine, press your hands into either your legs or the sides of the chair.
Stay here or hinge forward at your hips. Rest your arms either on your legs or on a bolster placed across your legs.
If your arms reach past your legs, place your hands on your blocks. Stay here for whatever length of time is comfortable. Then lift your torso upright and place your right foot onto the floor. Switch sides.
The way floor pigeon is generally cued requires a good degree of passive hip extension. If you find lunges to be uncomfortable, you may find pigeon to be as well. One way to ease discomfort in your back leg is to lift the pose up. You can do this by placing your front shin on a chair. For more stability, place the chair against a wall in order to prevent it from accidentally tipping backward. This will also make the back leg very active since you will be standing and bearing weight as if you were walking or leaping.
Start with the chair facing you at the front of your mat, stepping about a foot away from the chair. Hold on to the chair seat, or the upper rim of the chair back if the chair is by a wall. Externally rotate your right leg, bend your knee, and place your right leg on the chair so that your knee points to the right (and may or may not be on the chair); your right foot can point either toward the bottom left corner of the chair or toward your left thigh. Depending on how far away from the chair you are, as well as your body proportions, you may need to bend your standing (left) leg while entering the pose. Lean your torso forward a bit and walk or scooch your left foot back to increase your hip extension, keeping your toes tucked and heel lifted. Stay here or fold forward while resting your forearms on the back of the chair and your head on your forearms.
To come out of the pose, lift your torso up and move your left foot forward. If you’ve folded your forearms, come back onto your hands. Push your hands into the chair seat, lift your right leg from the seat, and step the right foot back to meet your left. Switch sides.
Not all versions of pigeon entail a forward bend. The traditional variation of eka pada rajakapotasana is actually an advanced backbend with the back knee bent so that the foot can be grasped by the hands. It offers a triumphant feeling in the chest, puffed up proudly like a pigeon strutting about. Can you imagine embodying that pride? Practicing an upright pigeon can be intense. It can also be the beginning of a new adventure. Using the chair can help set you down the pathway from working the forward-bending version into a backbend.
Come into tabletop facing your chair. Bring your right knee behind your right wrist so that your right foot points toward your left groin. Walk your left foot back to extend your left leg as much as is comfortable for you, pointing your back foot. Perhaps notice the difference between the foot’s position in this version of the pose and in the previous one. Pull the chair toward you so that you can place your elbows and forearms on the seat. Press your left toes into the floor to feel the backbend rising up from the toes and activating the back of your left leg. Press your right shin into the floor and your arms into the chair seat. Lift your sternum toward the sky.
If it’s comfortable, start to draw your head back as part of the extension of your spine.
When you're ready, lift your head as you uncurl your chest and rest your forehead on your arms. Then take your right leg toward your left leg and return to tabletop or whatever position is most convenient for you as you exit. Switch sides.
It’s not that this variation of pigeon is particularly “wild,” but rather that the alignment breaks the rules as to how teachers are often taught to cue and adjust pigeon. Many yoga teachers have been trained to look for square hips, being told that pain will otherwise ensue because the hips aren’t perfectly level. I believe this is an inaccurate assumption. In fact, this form of pigeon—in which the hips are not square—tends to be more accessible because the hips are allowed to rotate naturally. A blanket or something to sit on can be helpful but may not be necessary.
With your chair within reach, the seat facing toward you, sit with your legs in front of you, knees bent and feet on the floor. Drop your knees to the right, letting your pelvis also lean to the right, with your left hip lifting away from the floor. You can have your right shin almost parallel to the front edge of your mat or tuck your right foot in toward your groin with your foot pointing toward your left groin or thigh. If your right thigh doesn't rest on the ground, try placing your folded blanket under your right buttock, thigh, and knee.
Stay here or fold over your right leg. Draw your chair near and support your arms and head on it. Stay here for a few breaths.
If this is going well, move the chair forward, fold over your front leg a bit more, and hold on to the front chair legs. Push the chair forward to lengthen the sides of your body.
To come out, pull the chair in and use it to help lift your torso. Then return to your starting position, and windshield wiper your legs for a few breaths. Switch sides.
This variation may be a great option for those who want to cool down with pigeon but don’t typically consider it a resting pose. (And a sandbag could offer an extra treat for keeping your bird grounded.)
Grab your chair and face the seat. Lie on your back and adjust yourself so that your calves rest on the seat and the backs of your knees rest against the front edge of the seat. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh.
Stay here, or you can let your pigeon take flight by sliding your left calf in toward you (away from the chair), supporting your legs with your hands. (If the calf remains on the chair seat, you can ground your pigeon by placing a sandbag over the middle of your left shin.) Stay here as long as you’d like.
To exit the pose, slide your leg out from under the sandbag if using one (or have someone remove it for you) and rest your right calf alongside the left on the chair. Switch sides.
As you may be able to tell, there isn’t a pigeon I don’t like. By embracing all the varieties of pigeon, you too may feel a shift in how you feel about eka pada rajakapotasana. These variations allow you to explore the pose more deeply without struggling. All of a sudden what seemed like an all-or-nothing pose becomes adaptable and invites a unique personal experience.
The more we explore, the more our mind begins opening to new possibilities. And the less cooped up we feel by our limiting beliefs.