Pigeon pose (eka pada rajakapotasana = one legged king pigeon pose) is one of my favorites. It’s a great yoga pose for the hips, working deep into the connective tissues in the pelvic region, stretching the glutes, psoas, butt and into the hamstrings and quadriceps. It also creates a strong external rotation in the hip socket of the forward leg, helping lubricate the joint, increasing range of motion and working into often-ignored areas. While some poses target a specific area, pigeon pose works a whole region, from belly button to knees, targeting the general hip area on both legs. This makes it highly time-effective, covering a lot of ground with one pose.
Getting Into Pigeon Pose
To get into Pigeon pose, start on all-fours, or your hands and knees. Lift your right knee off the ground and place it on the mat directly behind your right wrist. You might need to scoot your right foot in front of your left knee to get it placed. Allow your foot to land where it does – do not use your hand to move your foot. For some, the lower right leg will be parallel with the top of the mat. For others, the heel will be near the hip. Either are correct and it will depend on your flexibility where you are.
Once your right leg is placed, slide your left leg down the mat until it is straight. Look over your shoulder to make sure your leg is parallel with the side of your mat. To get deeper, tuck your left toes and reach your left heel back to create a deeper stretch. Repeat as necessary and then untuck your toes so the top of your foot is resting on the mat. Make sure your hips are square.
Bring your hands to the floor, keeping your torso lifted to start. Take a couple deep breaths to settle into the pose and think about keeping your weight centered and balanced over your hips.
If your flexibility allows, consider lowering your torso toward the floor. Start by lengthening through the spine, then lowering down. You don’t want a rounded spine here. Start by coming to your elbows and if that’s comfortable, stacking your hands and resting your head (like in the picture above). The final step is to bring your forehead to the mat, arms stretched out overhead. This is a deep position, so only go there if your flexibility allows. If it’s too deep, back out into one of the other variations. You could also use a bolster or block to rest your head on, but be sure to protect your neck.
Holding Pigeon Pose
Once you get into the pose, put your awareness on your breath and how it moves through your body. Notice the areas where you feel the most sensation – maybe it’s both legs or just one, maybe it’s tingly and perhaps you’re clenching your butt or other muscles as a way to resist going into the full stretch. Take note of all of this and attempt to breathe into those areas or sensations, seeing if you can relax and settle into the pose. It won’t be easy and it might be very uncomfortable, but if you use your breath, you can work through that.
Note: If ever you have pain, carefully back out of the pose, using a blanket under the right buttocks if necessary, coming up onto your elbows or coming out of the pose completely. Pain never belongs in yoga. Sensations, yes, discomfort, absolutely, but pain, never. You might need to being to discern whether you are in pain or just uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s a very fine line.
Attempt to hold this pose for a while. At first, take it easy – maybe only 1-3 minutes. As you learn to discern and tap into the power of the breath, play around with longer holds – up to 15 minutes per side. It’s hard, but can bring physical and mental changes (progress perhaps).
Getting Through the Mental Challenges
Outside of the physical challenge of holding this pose, you will have strong mental challenges. Many people find that they begin telling themselves stories like ‘I can’t do this,’ ‘I’m weak,’ or they bail out completely, not trusting in their own abilities. These themes carry over into our lives, so it can be fun to pay attention to them and think about where else these themes appear and how they limit you in life.
At some point in pigeon pose, you will want to shift or fidget. Attempt to resist this urge and stay still, finding a way to commit to stillness and remain patient when your mind is jabbering and you’re struggling to stay calm. Watch your thoughts, watch your sensations and use your breath to get through. Sometimes I will think about breathing in through one side of my body and exhaling the other, or creating space in the hip with the most discomfort and exhaling sinking deeper. Anything to focus your mind will help.
Coming Out of Pigeon Pose
Getting out of the pose is just as important as getting into it. Do not rush this. The longer you stay in the pose, the longer it will take you to get out of it. The general goal is to backtrack from how you entered. So if you’re in the full outstretched position, first find your way to your elbows. Take a breath there. Then push into your hands to lift your upper body off the floor. Open your eyes and take a breath there. Finally, roll onto your right hip and slowly bring your left leg toward. This might be really challenging and you must take it really slowly to protect those connective tissues you just targeted. Take as much time as you need. Most people kind of sit there for a bit before bringing the left leg up or straightening the right. Move in a way that feels natural, but do it with the utmost care and caution.
As a counter-pose, I like coming into a modified up dog, keeping my feet, knees, thighs and hips on the floor, put pushing through the palms to lift the chest. This stretches the front of the body. You can also take a down dog or child’s pose as recovery. I also like to move a little, either between up dog and child’s pose or just rotating my hips in table to get any hitches out before taking the other side. After a long pose, you will need to move a little to ease the discomfort (the discomfort will persist for a few seconds or minutes).
Then, as if this wasn’t enough, come back onto hands and knees and retrace the steps on the other side, this time bring the left knee behind the left wrist and stretching out through the right leg.
For those unable to do pigeon, either because of knee or ankle issues, do the pose on your back, keeping the left leg straight and pulling the right leg in toward your chest. The relationship to gravity is different so it’s hard to get deep into the pose, but it still helps.What do you think? Try pigeon pose and let me know how it was for you.