I don’t know that I’ve come across a more polarizing pose than pigeon. It’s at the same time the most requested and the most groan-inducing asana among my students. As I was preparing to write this article, I asked around the office to find out how my Yoga International coworkers felt about pigeon, and responses ranged from “Pigeon is the perfect pose to balance our modern lifestyle” to “I hate that pose. It hurts my knee.”
I don’t know that I’ve come across a more polarizing pose than pigeon. It’s at the same time the most requested and the most groan-inducing asana among my students.
I certainly have my own love/hate relationship with the infamous bird pose. I’ve long adored the forward bend variations, but the backbend variations? Not so much (at least not initially…I’m slowly learning to like them more). But because pigeon is so prevalent (I’m hard-pressed to think of a vinyasa class that I’ve attended that didn’t wind down with some sort of pigeon option. And think of all the times this pose has graced the cover of Yoga Journal—seriously, it's a lot.) I’ve spent an awful lot of time practicing, teaching, and dissecting it in workshops over the years—and I've learned a few useful tips along the way for making pigeon more enjoyable, sustainable, and easier to explain to my students. But whether you’re a pigeon proponent or you shoot eye-daggers at your teacher when she announces that it’s time for “hip openers,” perhaps you’ll find some of them useful as well.
Safety and alternatives for pigeon
Do keep in mind that no matter how many cool alignment refinements you learn, pigeon might not be your (or all of your students') thing, and that's 100 percent okay. Regardless of how popular a pose may be, there's no single asana that's so incredibly awesome that everybody should do it—especially if it doesn't feel safe for your body. There are plenty of great pigeon alternatives, like succirandrasana, thread the needle pose, sometimes called “supine” or “lying pigeon” due to its similarity (that's the one where you lie on your back, cross one ankle over the opposite thigh, and pull that thigh toward you). And as teachers and practitioners, I don't think we can remind each other enough that it's always okay to skip or modify a pose.
Wait! What pose are we talking about here?
And okay, I know, before we delve into the alignment, we should probably be clear about what pose we’re actually discussing. Though not a direct translation, “pigeon” is often used to refer to eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged king pigeon pose), pictured below, or even more commonly its “prep,” which involves keeping the back leg straight and folding forward over the front leg, and has a reputation for being a quintessential “hip opener.” (Whether or not this is actually the case is a subject of another article, and I can highly recommend checking out the ever-awesome Jenni Rawlings’ “Let’s Forget About Hip Openers” if you’d like to explore this question more fully.) Technically, straight-up “pigeon pose” (kapotasana) is a symmetrical backbend from the Ashtanga second series. A super big one of the forearms-meet-floor, head-meets-feet variety. (A Google image search will provide many examples, including the odd eka pada rajakapotasana mixed in now and then.) Though kapotasana is surely a fascinating pose worthy of an article of its own, to many practitioners (myself included), it’s not nearly as familiar or accessible as its asymmetrical cousin, eka pada raja kapotasana, which will be the focus of this article.
How the !@#$ do I get into this pose?
For many students, the trickiest aspect of pigeon is actually getting into the pose. Because this is a pretty well known asana, many teachers often assume that a cue from downward facing dog to “bring your right shin forward into pigeon” is enough to set up, but this sparse instruction can be confusing for pigeon novices (“My feet are all the way at the back of the mat right now, and you want me to bring my shin where exactly?”), and may also be inaccessible, frustrating, or scary for students with more limited ranges of motion or past knee or hip injuries. This doesn’t mean that “bring your shin forward” is a useless instruction, just that it may not be appropriate for everyone. Here are three different ways that you can approach pigeon pose:
Sparse instruction can be confusing for pigeon novices.
Come in from hands and knees: Start on all fours (I really like to place blocks under my hands here, which makes it a little easier to bring the knee forward). From hands (or blocks) and knees, bring your right knee forward and then out to the right. Tuck your back toes under, and slide your back leg back. Spread your right toes to keep your foot and leg active. You might find that you feel a pretty decent stretch in your outer right hip. If not, to deepen the stretch, widen your front knee out to the side (avoid using your hand, which can torque the knee) and scoot your back leg back, until you get to a place where you feel a bit of a stretch in your front outer hip, but no knee pain.
Enter pigeon via lunge: From a low lunge (let’s assume right foot forward and left (back) knee down), walk your right foot to the left, behind and slightly to the left of your left hand (so that your right heel is in line with your left hip); lower your right outer shin and knee to the mat, and let your right foot move back toward your left hip enough that the pose is comfortable and stable for you. Keep your toes active and spread (see below for more details on the toes).
Move forward from down dog: If the “shin forward” instruction feels a little elusive, but you still want to enter the pose from down dog (or if you’re a teacher looking for a clearer way to cue the pose), try this:
From downward dog, lift your right leg (not too high, keep your pelvis level), and bring your right knee forward about half way. Pause here, and externally rotate (turn out) your right hip so that your right knee moves out to the right. Then place your right outer shin and knee down, and slide your back leg back.
Don’t flex your front foot (but keep your toes active!)
“Flex your foot to protect your knee,” is a cue that many practitioners are familiar with, but dorsiflexion (the anatomical term for what most of us tend to think of as “a flexed foot”) isn’t always the key to happy knees—it really depends on the pose, or, more specifically, where the shin is in the pose. In poses where the shin (or shins) is/are straight across—like agnistambhasana (fire log pose), where the bottom shin is parallel with the front edge of the mat and the top shin is stacked directly on top, or the aforementioned succirandrasana—flexing the foot is a great idea. However, in eka pada raja kapotasana, unless your front shin is totally parallel with the front edge of your mat (something that’s not particularly feasible or optimal for a lot of practitioners in this pose—especially the backbend variations), flexing will cause the foot to sickle, putting the ankle and knee at risk. Instead, when you practice pigeon, point your foot but flex your toes back (this is sometimes called “flointing” because it’s basically a cross between flexing and pointing). As you “floint,” especially draw your pinky toe back and reach out through the ball of your big toe. Press the pinky toe side of your foot into the floor to lift your outer ankle away from the floor. This way the ankle stays straight, and by activating your toes in this way, you engage muscles that support your knee.
Dorsiflexion (the anatomical term for what most of us tend to think of as “a flexed foot”) isn’t always the key to happy knees.
Use your core muscles to “square” your torso
Once you’re in the pose rocking your foot floint, try this:
Press your fingertips into the floor beside you and lengthen up through your spine. You might notice some extra engagement in your low belly when you do this. Keep that and draw the back leg side of your belly toward the front leg side (instead of trying to yank your hip around, move from your belly), and lift your back thigh up without lifting your back knee up. Move your front outer hip back. With your torso more “square” to the front, lift up through your low belly and find a little more length in your spine.
Take up some space!
Keeping the stability that you've created, you might find that, at this point, you can take up a little more space and descend a little “deeper” into the pose. Place your hands in front of you and try scooching your back leg back a little further. (Once you’ve scooched, you can keep your back toes tucked or untucked; see which feels better. Do make sure the back foot points straight back and doesn’t sickle.) Keep your pelvis level and stable. To come into the forward fold variation from here, lift up through your belly, lengthen your spine, and drape your body forward into the fold. Keep drawing the left (back leg) side of your belly toward the right side of your belly, and drawing your right hip crease back so that your pelvis stays level and stable. With every inhale, back out of the fold a little and see if you can find a little more length through your spine so that you can take up even more space as you fold forward on the exhale.
How to work into the backbend variation of pigeon
To set up, with your torso upright (not folding forward), engage (lightly squeeze) your left (back leg) hamstring and glutes as you draw your heel in toward your seat and catch hold of your foot with your left hand. Stay here and work with the thigh stretch, resisting your foot against your hand as you draw it in toward you. Re-square your rib cage and chest toward the front of the mat.
If you'd like to work toward “catching” the back foot behind you (a variation that for a long time seemed absolutely impossible to me until I learned how to set it up with a strap and work the right actions in my shoulders), loop a strap around the sole of your left foot. Hold the loop in your left hand (left palm facing up), and externally rotate the upper arm (your torso will have to open up to the left a bit as you set up). Keep the external rotation as you spin your back elbow up toward the ceiling. Then reach your other hand up and back to catch hold of the strap as well. Keep your spine long and turn from your belly to help keep your torso facing forward. Walk your hands down the strap (maybe your hands reach your foot, maybe they don't) as you keep broadening your collarbones and lifting your chest. As your chest lifts, move the back of your head back to follow, keeping your neck long in all directions.
There’s no real reason for your foot to touch your head
Foot-to-head contact does not a “better” pigeon make. The first time I caught my back foot with both hands, my first thought was “Sweet! Now I can make my foot touch my head!” But I soon discovered (felt) that whenever my foot met my head, it didn't actually feel awesome for my neck or lower back. And when I saw pictures of my foot touching my head (because, admittedly, when I caught my foot for the first time my second thought was “I’m so gonna Instagram this…”) I could see the strain in my face and the “scrunch” in my neck. It was anything but steady and easeful. Once I let go of the idea that doing the “full pose” meant resting my head in the arch of my foot, my relationship with eka pada rajakapotasana became far less tumultuous, and I actually began to enjoy an asana I once dreaded. As far as I'm concerned, this pose is just as awesome (and way more sustainable) if foot and head keep a healthy distance.