Athletes--and people who spend a lot of time sitting--often suffer from tight hips. Aha, we yogis like to think, I know the perfect hip opener: Pigeon Pose. For some bodies, the familiar forward-folded Eka Pada Rajakapotasana works like a charm. But for many, this is too intense a pose, either overwhelming the musculature of the outer hip, causing it to clench against the stretch (obviously, creating the opposite effect from the release we are seeking), or transferring tightness at the hip, a ball-and-socket joint, into strain at the knee, which, as a hinge joint, suffers.
Happily, changing the pose's relationship to gravity lets us enjoy the stretch in the hip rotators, including the pesky piriformis, glutes, and iliotibial (IT) band, while lessening the load we put on the knee. Here are some different ways to orient the pose; I demonstrate them in the video below, as well. Each takes one leg into external rotation and abduction; in most, you'll be crossing the ankle over the other leg's knee into a Figure 4 position.
Standing Pigeon. By taking Figure 4 while standing, you can control the amount of weight you put into the stretch by lowering your hips. Variations include folding forward to add a hamstring stretch for the standing leg, or stretching your chest and challenging your balance by clasping your hands behind your back.
Seated Pigeon. Sitting with the stretching leg in Figure 4 lets you adjust the degree of intensity. Either fold forward or bend your supporting leg and walk the foot in.
Forward-Folding Pigeon Pinwheel. If Pigeon Pose is too intense in its traditional forward-folding orientation, drop onto the front hip and bend the back knee, making a pinwheel shape. You can then fold forward until you feel a pleasant stretch.
Reclining Pigeon. Lying on your back, you can bring your legs toward you in a Figure 4 position. This makes for a less intense stretch, as gravity is moving your legs, not your whole torso, into the stretch.
Pigeon at the wall. A variation of reclining pigeon is to prop your supporting leg on a wall. You can stretch it up the wall, or bend at the knee and slide your foot down until you feel a nice stretch.
Sage Rountree is a yoga teacher, endurance sports coach and athlete, and author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga. She teaches workshops on yoga for athletes nationwide and online at Yoga Vibes. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.