Three Great Ways to Modify Pigeon Pose
Article At A Glance
Pigeon Pose (or Supta Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) is a hip-opening forward bend that is a staple of modern Vinyasa-style yoga classes. And for good reason—it stretches the hip flexors of the extended leg, and the glutes of the bent leg, all the while creating space and mobility in the back and hips. Yum!
However, Pigeon Pose can be a tough posture if you have limited range of motion in your hips, or if you have delicate knees (and the two are often connected, by the way). So here are three great modified Pigeon Pose variations to try out in class or at home, and stay safe while still getting all the great benefits of this pose.
Hip or Knee Surgery Note: If you have recently had hip or knee surgery, including a hip or knee replacement, the third pose (Reclining 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.
Alignment in Pigeon Pose (And Modified Pigeon Pose!)
First of all, I have 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. A lop-sided pigeon can cause tension in the SI joint and add undue strain on the bent knee.
Pigeon Pose, along with many standing yoga poses, used to be taught with the hips squared to the front of the mat, with the hips more or less at the same height. Now, unless you have naturally very open hips, attaining this alignment is not only tricky for most of us, but it can cause strain and/or injury in the hips, which is where these modifications come in.
Get the Most Out of Pigeon Pose With Variations
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 algebra before attempting calculus. It’s not a ‘cop-out’: it’s a smart way to work with your body where it is and, above all, to gain the benefits of the pose rather than injure yourself attempting a pose you aren’t ready for.
Propped-Up Pigeon Pose: Modify with props
This is a perfect modified Pigeon Pose for those 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 more parallel to the mat. While doing this pose, it is also ideal for those who feel restricted in the groin area.
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 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, place the blanket/block/bolster underneath the buttock and upper back of the thigh of the leg with the bent knee.
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.
You will probably find that you need to work with different heights on different sides of your body, as most of us have one hip that is more mobile than the other. That’s normal—embrace the difference and don’t try to force both sides to be the same.
Seated Pigeon Pose Modification
This second modified Pigeon Pose variation is excellent for anyone with a limited range of motion in the hips, hamstrings, and back. Working on Pigeon Pose in a chair is also a great way to stretch your hip when you cannot do floor work. If you’re deskbound, try these variations to give your hips a refreshing break.
You can even do them on an airplane or extended train ride home. If your hips are very tight, the chair can allow you to work in a smaller range of motion. This will help protect your knee and hip joints while practicing this pose. (You can also try this pose seated on the ground if accessible.)
As with all forward bends, starting with a tall spine—finding your full height—is important before you begin bending forward. Another essential thing to remember when forward bending is to bend at the hips, not the waist! To bend at the hips, your pelvis must rotate forward as your torso moves at a diagonal. If the pelvis stays fixed, you will bend at the waist, round in the spine, and could injure or strain the lower back.
Reclining Pigeon: Support your Back
Of the three, this modified Pigeon Pose 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 the floor fully supports your back. And it means that you don’t have to sit this pose out while in a group class: flip it upside-down and get 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 toward your chest and carefully place the ankle of the lifted leg over your knee. Next, reach your hands on 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 toward 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.
Bonus Practice Video: another Variation Practiced at the Wall