Pigeon pose (we are talking about supta eka pada rajakapotasana here, to be precise) is a hip-opening forward bend that is a staple of modern vinyasa-style yoga classes. And for good reason - it stretches the psoas and hip flexors of the extended leg, and the gluteus minor of the bent leg, all the while opening the hips. Yum!
However, supine pigeon can be a tough pose if you have a more limited range of motion in your hips, or if you have delicate knees (the two are often connected by the way). So here are three great ways to modify your pigeon pose in class or at home, and stay safe while still getting all the great benefits of this pose.
Note: If you have recently had hip or knee surgery including a hip or knee replacement, the third pose - Upside-down pigeon - is the one for you! I wouldn't recommend the other two until you have recovered at least 70% of your normal range of motion - and even then, practice them carefully and preferably with the supervision of a qualified and experienced teacher.
First of all, a few thoughts on the alignment of this pose. As a teacher, I see a lot of lop-sided pigeons: that is, where people's bodies create an 'escape valve' for the big hip-opener by collapsing off to one side. I suppose that a lop-sided pigeon probably doesn't do anyone any harm - but I'm not sure it ever did anyone any good, either.
To truly get the benefits of pigeon pose, you ideally want your pelvis to remain
square towards the front of the mat, with the hips more or less at the
same height. Now, unless you have naturally very open hips, this is
going to be tricky for most of us - which is where these modifications
Now, I have encountered many yogis and yoginis who are reluctant to modify poses, especially if it involves using a prop. Personally, I think this attitude is more likely to be driven by ego than by wisdom, although to each their own. In any case, I like to think of it this way: doing poses with the
appropriate modifications and props is like taking practice questions before an exam. It's
not a 'cop-out': it's a smart way to prepare your body for going
deeper and, above all, to protect yourself from injury.
1. Propped-up pigeon
This is a perfect modification for those people who can approach the shape of Pigeon but feel a bit of a twinge in their knee when they try to bring the front leg a bit more parallel to the mat. It is also ideal for those who feel restricted in the groin area while doing this pose.
Let me start by saying that I am a HUGE fan of this variation. It's simple, retains the form of the pose, and all it requires is for you to grab a blanket, block or bolster at the beginning of your practice and have it handy by your mat. Then, when you come into pigeon pose, simply place the blanket/block/bolster underneath the buttock and upper back of the thigh of the leg with the bent knee. Et voila! A propped up pigeon that will allow your pelvis to be forward-facing and even so that you can externally rotate the front hip, bringing the front knee more parallel to the front of the mat for a deep but safe hip-opener.
2. Swirly pigeon
I call this second variation 'swirly' pigeon, because your legs are doing a sort of a swirl around your body. [Points to the reader who comes up with a better name!]
For this variation start by sitting with one knee bent (this will be the back leg) and the other shin reasonably parallel to the front of the mat. Slowly swing the bent knee back so that your back thigh is parallel to the front shin. At this point you can asses whether it will help you to add some padding underneath the buttock of the front leg - I recommend it! Finally, twist your torso slightly so that you can place your hands on either side of the front thigh. Either stay there, or deepen the stretch by coming into a forward fold.
3. Upside-down pigeon
Of the three, this variation is the safest and most accessible. You can do this variation even if you have recently had a hip or knee replacement or any other kind of surgery on those areas. This is also a safe and satisfying hip opener for anyone with lower back or sacrum issues, because your back is fully supported by the floor. And, it means that you don't have to sit this pose out while in a group class: simply flip it upside-down and get exactly the same stretch, without all the strain.
For this version, start by lying on your back with one knee bent. Gently bring the other knee towards your chest and
carefully place the ankle of the lifted leg over your knee. Next, reach
your hands either side of the grounded leg and clasp the back of the
thigh or front of the shin, using a small towel or strap if appropriate - your head and shoulders should stay on the ground. Slowly draw your grounded leg in towards your body until you feel a deep stretch in your floating hip and buttock. Breathe deeply and try to relax! To get a deeper stretch, try to open your floating knee away from your body as you draw the other leg closer.
I hope that was helpful! I'd love to hear your experiences with pigeon pose and any tips and tricks that you've picked up along the way to make this pose enjoyable and safe. :)