Painless Pigeon

Protect your knees and eliminate pain and discomfort with this variation on Pigeon Pose.
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Protect your knees and eliminate pain and discomfort with this variation on Pigeon Pose.

A lot of the poses we explore in classes fall into the category called "hip openers.” This is a bit of a misnomer, as what they really are are poses that increase the lateral or external rotation of the femur (thigh bone) at the hip joint. Many of my favorite poses, like Bound Angle, Garland, and Half Lotus, involve this particular action at the hip joint. Ultimately, these poses, I believe, are preparations for sitting meditation practice when done in cross-legged seated positions, like Perfect Pose (Siddhasana), Easy Pose (Sukhasana) or Lotus variations (Padmasana).

Back to the misnomer of hip openers: The hip can actually open in many directions, including the front, back, sides of the joint, as well as internally rotating, as in Hero Pose (Virasana). This is a good place to bring Pigeon into the discussion.

One-Legged King Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana), often just called Pigeon Pose, combines external rotation of the front hip joint and extension of the back leg (which opens the front of the back leg's hip joint). And if you have average flexibility like I do, you probably use props to do the pose safely and effectively, and possibly quite a few—a couple of blankets, a block, maybe even a bolster. One reason this is helpful is that the front knee can be vulnerable to strain or injury if your front hip is really tight. The props tend to keep the front leg's knee happy and healthy and the back leg's knee cap comfortable. And I personally get a lot out of this way of exploring Pigeon.

However, one day a few years back, my wife, Raven, also a yoga teacher, taught a version of Pigeon without props that gave me that satisfying sense of release and opening in my front hip and increased extension in the back leg without the risk of tweaking my front knee! She quipped that this version is called Wounded Pigeon on the Side of the Road. And you will see why in just a moment. This variation has become a mainstay in my yoga tool box, so without further adieu, here it is:

Sit in Sage's pose, Bharadvajrasana, at the front right corner of your mat, shins tucked to your left, your outer right thigh parallel and up against the right side of your mat. Support your torso on your right hand, placed a bit to your right. You are going to keep your right buttock and hip on the mat at all times during this variation, I repeat, at all times! Lift the left leg off the right and move it back just clear of your right foot. Then, while leaning just a bit to the right, move your right shin forward until it is flush up against the front edge of your mat, making a 90 degree angle with your thigh.

Next, lean more to the right and a bit forward so you can begin to take your left leg back behind you until it is straight, allowing the leg to angle back and to the left back corner of your mat. For those with back hip tightness, you may want to let your leg stay over to the left and even rest the inner edge of your left foot on the floor.

If you have more flexibility, you can carefully wiggle the left leg more in line with left hip and parallel with the long edge of your mat, even turning the toes under and lifting the back knee to increase the stretch of the back leg.

With the torso more upright, the work gets focused on the back leg, but if you begin to fold the upper body over the front thigh, you will find that deep satisfying stretch in the right hip and buttock areas. The right knee should remain blissfully silent!

To come up, simple reverse all the actions to get back to your starting position in Sage's pose. Then, shift over to the left side and go for Wounded Pigeon on the other side! Students with hip injuries or arthritis, as well as those with hip replacements, should get guidance from a qualified and experienced teacher when learning Pigeon, no matter what variation they do.