Yoga Hip Openers for Beginners: Safe Alternatives to Pigeon Pose

Hip Openers for Beginners- Pigeon pose Variation in a Chair.

Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) is a fan-favorite in Vinyasa-style yoga classes. But as much as some students love this shape, there always seems to be an equal number of students who dislike it or simply can’t get comfortable with it. For these students, Pigeon Pose may not just be an unfavorable posture but one that could hurt them if they push themselves into it or practice it regularly without suitable modifications. This article explores beginner-friendly yoga hip openers, offering safe, supportive alternatives to Pigeon Pose.

Hip Openers for Beginners: Why Pigeon Pose May Not Be for Every Body 

Why is Pigeon Pose such a powerful posture for some (but not all) students? When practiced with proper alignment, Pigeon Pose offers a deep stretch for the glutes and iliopsoas. But what makes it different from many other yoga postures is the way Pigeon Pose also targets the piriformis, a deep gluteal muscle that can contribute to sciatica when it’s tight. For those who find comfort in this shape, Pigeon Pose can serve as an anecdote to tightness caused by the prolonged sitting so common to modern-day life.

And yet, Pigeon Pose is simply not for every body. This is especially true for students with knee, hip, or lower back issues because of the pressure it places on the sacroiliac and knee joints. In addition, for students who are less mobile or for those with structural limitations, practicing Pigeon Pose regularly can lead to gradual wear and tear that can eventually make them more susceptible to injury. 

Sporty young woman in white sitting in variation of One Legged King Pigeon Pose - Eka Pada Rajakapotasana 1

So, why should yoga teachers strive to offer these students alternatives to Pigeon Pose in all-levels yoga classes? Meeting students where they’re at on any given day aligns with a trauma-informed approach to teaching yoga. This allows students to feel seen in mixed-level classes and informs them that yoga is about more than their body’s ability to bend or move a certain way. Importantly, providing alternatives to Pigeon Pose can minimize the risk of causing injury or harm, benefiting the class, including students who are less vocal or less inclined to ask for individualized modifications.    

What Exactly Are Yoga Hip Openers? Targeting the Psoas in Beginner Pigeon Pose Alternatives

When deciding how to instruct beginners to modify Pigeon Pose, it’s important to understand which muscles we target. When students request “hip-openers,” the first question yoga teachers should ask is, “What type?” Hip-openers encompass a broad category of yoga poses that include many different postures that do many different things. 

When students say their hips are tight, some may mean they have tight glutes or hamstrings, but others may be tighter in the psoas. The psoas is a group of muscles that connect the spine with the legs, facilitating fluid movement and stabilizing the spine. It also plays a role in the fight-flight-freeze response, contracting in response to stressors. Chronic stress can lead to constant contraction of the psoas, affecting structural integrity and emotional well-being. To function effectively, the psoas needs to be relaxed and supple. But prolonged sitting can shorten and weaken this crucial stabilizing muscle group, impacting pelvic alignment.

Identifying Psoas Tightness in Your Students

Psoas muscle medical vector illustration diagram. Lumbar spine and psoas major attached from discs to femur bones. Hip pain problem and hurting lower back. Fitness or chiropractic therapy information.Suppose beginning students don’t have the anatomical vocabulary to know whether they’re experiencing tightness in the psoas or somewhere else in the body. In that case, we as teachers, can ask them to show us which part of the body they’d like to stretch. From this information, we can provide whichever modification would be safest and beneficial for their body on that particular day. For example, Figure 4 is often given as a modification for Pigeon Pose, but this shape does not stretch the psoas like Pigeon Pose. If you know a student is feeling particularly tight in the front of the hips rather than in the back or side, suggesting Low Lunge Pose (Anjaneyasana) as a modification may provide greater comfort and relief than Figure 4.

Yoga Hip Opening Considerations: Beginner Modifications for Pregnancy

Before delving into how to cue beginning Pigeon Pose alternatives, it’s important to address the suitability of yoga hip-openers during pregnancy. Pregnancy is a common time to try yoga as a complete beginner because it is a safe and recommended way to stay active during this transition and change. For this reason, if you teach all levels of yoga classes, it’s likely that you’ll have a few pregnant beginners in your class at some point during your career. Knowing how to instruct modifications for pregnancy is crucial to teaching a safe, supportive, all-levels yoga practice. 

While this information is not exhaustive, here are a few important considerations for pregnant beginners. First, during pregnancy, the hormone relaxin surges, often making pregnant students more flexible and potentially making it easier to place wear and tear on joints and muscles. For this reason, it’s important to show them alternatives to Pigeon Pose if you’re instructing it in an all-levels class. Generally, it becomes uncomfortable to lie on the back about midway through the pregnancy, so it’s important to offer hip-opening options that allow students to stay upright. The following three Pigeon Pose alternatives are safe for pregnant women and most other beginning yoga students.

3 Beginner-Friendly Hip-Opening Yoga Poses

Here are three beginner-friendly hip-opening yoga poses that can be offered as safe beginner-friendly alternatives to Pigeon Pose. Although these poses are suitable for a wide range of practitioners, it’s always a good idea to stress students listen to their bodies, choose the pose that feels best, and modify it in any way they may need.  (Image below courtesy of Leah Sugerman)

1. Deer Pose (Mrigiasana)

Deer Pose a gentle beginner level hip opener yin yoga pose.

Deer Pose is a Yin Yoga shape that looks very similar to Pigeon Pose but is often more accessible for many bodies because it places less pressure on the front knee. This is a suitable alternative for students with knee issues or those who desire a deeper or different stretch of the external rotator muscles. Here’s how to practice:

  1. Approach Deer Pose either from Tabletop Pose (Bharmanasana) or from a seat, taking the left shin forward first as you would for Pigeon Pose. Unlike Pigeon Pose, rest your weight on the left side of your pelvis rather than balancing in the center.
  2. Position your front leg to about a 90-degree angle with the shin in line with the top of the mat.
  3. Bend your back leg to about a 90-degree angle behind you.
  4. Either stay up on your hands or bring yourself down to your forearms if this feels more comfortable for you. 
  5. You may also stack blocks to rest underneath your forehead if you are choosing to lower down.
  6. Stay for about 3 minutes before easing back to Tabletop Pose or to a seat. Pause in stillness for a few breaths, noticing how the two sides of the body feel before setting up for your second side.

2. Lizard Pose (Utthan Pristhasana)

Young attractive woman practicing yoga at home, stretching in a Utthan Pristhasana exercise, Lizard Pose variation- a hip opening yoga pose.

Lizard Pose is often taught as a more active posture, so it’s not always suggested as an alternative to Pigeon Pose. But this shape is effective for students who would like to stretch the psoas. Here’s how to approach the shape:  

  1. From Tabletop Pose, walk your left foot to the top of the mat, positioning your foot to the outside of your hands.
  2. Take blocks underneath your hands, lifting them to whichever height is most comfortable for you.
  3. Either stay where you are if this is comfortable, or ease your forearms to the blocks or to the mat. 
  4. If you’d like to get deeper into the outer hip, you can choose to come onto the pinky edge of your left foot. Gently rock side to side as you breathe into the hips here.
  5. Stay in this shape for about 3 minutes before gently stepping your left foot back to Tabletop Pose. Pause for a few moments before switching to your second side.

3. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)

Seated Bound Angle Pose with Blankets under the knees for extra support.

Bound Angle Pose is a seated forward bend that offers hip flexion and external rotation similar to Pigeon Pose. But unlike Pigeon Pose, this shape is symmetrical, making it a more comfortable position for students with pubic symphysis dysfunction or pain in the pubic bone. Symmetrical poses are generally recommended for people with sacroiliac (SI) joint issues as well. Students can choose how close they’d like to position the feet into the body, allowing them to target either the adductors or the groin. Students who prefer the restorative benefits of Pigeon Pose can spend the entire time in the Reclined Bound Angle Pose instead. 

  1. Come to a seat, resting your hips on one or two folded-up blankets. 
  2. Bring the soles of the feet together and open the knees out to the sides. 
  3. For additional support for the knees, place blocks or rolled-up blankets underneath the outside of the knees.
  4. Breathe in to lengthen the spine, and as you exhale, begin to gently fold forward from your hip joints—not your waist—over your legs to the degree that feels comfortable in your body. 
  5. Pause and breathe for about 3 minutes before gently rolling the spine back upward. Place the hands behind the backs of the knees to guide them back into center and pause in stillness for a few rounds of breath.

 

Reclined Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)

Supported, Reclined Bound Angle Pose -- a gentle restorative hip opening pose suitable for all levels includung beginners.

 

  1. As students in the room approach their second side of Pigeon Pose, you can come into Reclined Bound Angle. To do so, place a block widthwise on your mat, one at the medium height and one at the lowest height. The shorter block should be closest to you, with its wide edge abutting the taller block. Place your bolster over the blocks to create a ramp that slants upward, away from you.
  2. Come to sit right in front of your bolster with your sacrum resting on the front of the bolster. Reposition your feet into Bound Angle Pose, placing blocks or rolled-up blankets underneath your knees.
  3. Gently lower yourself down onto your bolster and rest in the Reclined Bound Angle for about 3 minutes.
  4. When you’re ready to exit this shape, rock to one side and use the strength of your arms to lift yourself back to sitting.
Lacey Ramirez

Lacey Ramirez writes for YogaUOnline and is an ERYT-200 yoga teacher, global health researcher, and writer based in St. Louis. Through her work, she seeks to make yoga accessible, inclusive, and equitable.

Lacey discovered yoga as a tool for centering during her years as a competitive runner. Since then, yoga has served as a way to connect with her body throughout her experience of pregnancy and parenthood. She teaches because she hopes others can use this sacred practice for calming, healing, and transformation.

As a yoga teacher, Lacey specializes in teaching restorative, Yin, prenatal, and trauma-informed Vinyasa yoga. She has also completed birth doula and prenatal/postnatal barre certifications and trainings. Additionally, she holds a Masters of Science in Global Health and Population from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. To learn more and connect, visit her website laceyramirez.com 

Recent articles

Categories

Upcoming courses

Yoga for
every body

How to Avoid the Top 3 Pitfalls of Forward Bends

With Julie Gudmedstad

Recent articles

Share

Sorry, You have reached your
monthly limit of views

To access, join us for a free 7-day membership trial to support expanding the Pose Library resources to the yoga community.

Sign up for a FREE 7-day trial