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Yoga Pose Breakdown: Pigeon Pose

Updated: Nov 3, 2023


Hey hey readers! I’m glad you are here! In this month’s blog post, I am going to break down one of my personal fav yoga poses – pigeon pose. Pigeon pose is really a broad term that encompasses many different varieties, albeit with some definite commonalities among each version. Traditional pigeon pose, as described in yoga, typically refers to a pose known as Eka pada rajakapotasana (and shown in the image above), in which the body is sort of in a half splits, half figure 4-ish shape. However, there are so many different ways to express pigeon pose, from a variety of positions with several different modifications or forms. Pigeon is referred to by some as an advanced backbend, and in its truest, traditional form, this is an accurate statement for the spine. However, I think of pigeon pose more as a hip opener, as the hip orientation of the front leg is pretty much the same in any of the varieties.


Personally, I find pigeon pose, in any variety, to be incredibly delicious to my body. This is partly because I am a runner, so any hip-focused pose in yoga is always welcomed by my body. But, I also sit at a computer or in my car (driving between assisted living buildings for my speech therapy practice) about half of my work day, so pigeon is a great way to help counter some of that sitting. I also find pigeon pose to be a very satisfying cooldown when my yoga practice focuses on a lot of single leg balance work or lunges. And other times, I enjoy having an entire practice focused around this pose, practicing it from a variety of positions, playing with the nuances of the pose when executed in different ways.


I include pigeon pose pretty regularly in my personal practice, and I also teach this pose quite frequently. Through my years of teaching and practicing, I have seen many different flavors of this posture. Pigeon pose is one of the more variable poses in yoga – that is, there are many ways in which this asana (i.e. pose) is expressed by practitioners. It’s also important to note that pigeon pose is not only utilized in the yoga world, and nor should it be. The stretching and joint actions experienced in pigeon pose are executed in other fitness disciplines, and for good reason. There are quite a number of benefits to practicing this pose, in any of its varieties. Let’s chat about what is happening in the body in traditional pigeon pose and the benefits therein, and then get into the alternatives to this traditional setup.


Traditional Pigeon Pose

First, disclaimer: when I use the term "traditional," I do not mean that this form of a pose is inherently better or worse than any other form. Variations and modifications exist for all poses in yoga, and as practitioners continue engage in their yoga practice, more and more varieties will continue to be discovered. This is because every BODY experiences and executes a given yoga posture differently. While there are some basic biomechanical principles that can help the body better navigate the mechanical environment of a given pose, a yoga posture is really unique for each individual practitioner. Thus, my discussion of traditional pigeon pose is not an endorsement of it being advanced, better, or superior in any way. Rather, I am simply honoring the historical tradition of yoga by describing the traditional form from a yoga sense, but also sharing how this traditional format has changed and varied over time by practitioners. Okay, enough of me qualifying, so let's get on to the mechanics and joint actions of pigeon pose, from the traditional sense.


In traditional pigeon pose, the hip of the front leg is externally rotated (i.e. turned outward) and flexed (i.e. drawn closer to the front of the trunk). The knee of the front leg is flexed (i.e. bent), and the ankle of the front leg is generally dorsiflexed (i.e. toes drawn toward shin). This particular joint position in the hip and knee of the front leg is the main thing all pigeon pose varieties have in common. Now, in the back leg, the hip is extended (i.e. drawn further away from the front of the trunk) in traditional pigeon. In the truest traditional version, the knee of the back leg is bent, with the ankle plantarflexed (i.e. toes pointed away from the shin). The spine is extended (i.e. bent backwards) with the arms reaching above and back (shoulders flexed), with the elbows bent, to grab the back foot.


Now, of course, there are some slight alterations to this traditional version. One, you don’t have to bend the back knee; rather, you could just leave the back straight, resting on the mat (as the picture at the top shows). Two, instead of lifting the arms up and reaching them back behind, you could rest your palms on the mat, just in front of the front shin. And from here, you could vary even further, by coming onto your elbows or even stacking the hands and resting the forehead on the hands in a forward folded shape. Three, the angle of the bend in the front knee can vary from being at a 90 degree bend, with the shin parallel to the top of the mat, to less than 90 degrees, with the front foot angling down towards the front hip of the back leg. Four, you might choose to play with the degree of dorsiflexion in the front ankle, until you find the angle of flexion that feels best for your front knee. And fifth, you can play with some small movements in this pose, such as shifting side-to-side, rotating your spine left and right, or folding in and out of the pose.


Benefits of Pigeon Pose

The benefits of pigeon pose will of course vary based on the specific version being practiced. Also, the benefits of the pose totally depend on which body part you are talking about. For simplicity's sake, let's chat about the benefits of traditional pigeon pose.


Let's chat about the front leg first. With the front hip externally rotated, this stretches the muscles that internally rotate the hip (i.e. turning the head of the femur, or thigh bone, inwards, as in eagle pose or half lord of fish pose), including the tensor fascia lata (TFL), the adductor (i.e. inner thigh) muscles, the gluteus minimus, and the anterior (or front) fibers of the gluteus medius (for more in depth information on the glutes, click here). The muscles that cause external rotation at the hip (i.e. turning the head of the femur outwards, as in tree pose or butterfly pose), including the gluteus maximus, psoas, sartorius, and piriformis, get activated and strengthened in the front hip in pigeon pose. With the front hip flexed, this stretches the muscles that cause hip extension (i.e. moving the head of the femur away from the front body, as in warrior III or bridge pose), including the hamstrings, posterior (or back) fibers of the gluteus medius, and the gluteus maximus. But, let's take a moment to chat about the gluteus maximus a little more, since it appears that pigeon would both stretch and activate this muscle in the front leg at the same time. This is actually the case - in pigeon pose, the glute max fibers are in an eccentric contraction, where they are lengthened but still engaging to create tension. This helps build eccentric strength in the glute max, which is highly important for being able to safely ambulate in a variety of environments. So in pigeon, the internal rotators get stretched and lengthened while the external rotators get activated and strengthened.


What about the back leg? With the back hip extended, this stretches the hip flexors on the back leg, including the psoas major, rectus femoris, and some adductor muscles, while simultaneously activating or strengthening the muscles that cause hip extension, such as the glute max and hamstrings. If the back knee is flexed (bent), this helps to stretch the quadriceps of the back anterior (front) thigh, while strengthening and activating the hamstrings on the back leg.


What about the trunk and shoulders? With the spine extended (i.e. bending backwards), this creates a stretch for the muscles on the front of the trunk, while activating or strengthening the muscles on the back of the trunk. Alternatively, if you are practicing a version where you fold over the front leg, the spine is more likely flexed (i.e. bending forwards), creating a stretch for the back of the trunk. If the shoulders are flexed with the arms overhead, this helps to stretch muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, back fibers of the deltoid, and triceps, while activating the muscles of shoulder flexion, including the anterior fibers of the deltoid muscle.


So, as you can see, pigeon is a multi-dimensional pose, stretching and activating a large number of muscles. Let's chat now about some good ways to prep the body for all these muscle and joint actions.


Prepping the Body for Traditional Pigeon Pose

To prep the legs and hips for traditional pigeon pose, I find that general hip mobility exercises, single leg balance work, and lunges do the trick. Sure the practitioner could take a very technical approach and consider which muscles need to be activated and which muscles need to be opened, or lengthened, and go from there. However, in my personal practice or when I teach this pose, I find that hip circles from apanasana (knees to chest) or tabletop pose are nice hip mobility preparations. For single leg balance work, I find that marching glute bridge, crane pose, tree pose, or even 3-point balance are great to activate the glutes. High crescent lunge and warrior 2 are also great to help open and activate the appropriate tissues. Supine (i.e. on the back) or seated windshield wiper-ing of the knees left to right also is a nice way to begin to prep the hips for pigeon. Also, butterfly pose is another nice option, at least to prep the external rotation action of pigeon pose.


To prep the shoulders for traditional pigeon, poses such as tall mountain (arms overhead) or child's pose with arms reaching forward help increase mobility at the shoulder joint, while poses such as plank and downdog help to activate certain shoulder muscles.


To prep the spine for the backbend in traditional pigeon pose, poses such as cat/cow stretch, cobra, locust, and upward dog are great for opening the front body and activating the back body.


To prep the hamstrings and quadriceps on the back leg in traditional pigeon (back knee bent), poses such as half-bow pose (for more on bow pose, click here) or dancer's pose (for more on dancer's, click here) can help prep the muscles appropriately.


Another way to prepare the body for traditional pigeon pose is to practice some of the other varieties and modifications described below.


Changing Your Orientation to Gravity

Traditional pigeon pose can be varied by changing the body's orientation to gravity, such as supine (on your back), seated, or standing.


From supine position (see below), you can execute a version of pigeon known as reclined pigeon pose, where you place the ankle of one leg on the opposite thigh, near the knee, coming into a figure 4 shape. You can stay in this shape, with the bottom foot on the ground, or you can lift the bottom foot, and interlace your fingers behind the bottom thigh, finding that same hip external rotation/flexion as the front leg in traditional pigeon. You can also do this reclined pigeon variety at the wall, as shown in the image below.


From a seated position (see below), you could bend your knees, placing your feet on the floor. From here, you could cross one ankle on the opposite thigh (as described above for the supine variety). You can do the seated pigeon variety from a chair or bench, as shown in the image below, or while seated on the ground. As with the reclined version, the leg on top gets that same hip external rotation/flexion position as the traditional form.


From a standing position see below), pigeon quickly becomes a very challenging balance pose, where you essentially combine chair pose with pigeon. To do so, you cross one ankle on the opposite thigh, while the standing leg bends into a chair pose shape. Option to lift the arms overhead, finding that same shoulder flexion as the traditional form, or simply keep hands at heart center.


Related Poses

There are some poses which are similar in some ways to traditional pigeon, and these other poses can be used as a prep or substitute for pigeon pose. The poses listed below are by no means an inclusive list of the poses that could be swapped out for traditional pigeon; rather, these are simply some other options you could try if you want to change up your pigeon or prep for the traditional form:

  • Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2)

  • Baddha konasana (butterfly pose)

  • Ardha hanumanasana (half splits) or hanumanasana (full splits)

  • Lizard lunge

  • Open-hip downdog

  • Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3)

  • Janu sirsasana (head-to-knee forward bend, as shown in the image below in the center)

  • Vrksasana (tree pose, as seen in the image below on the far left)

  • Deer pose (90-90 hip rotation, as shown in the image below on the far right)


Yoga Props

As with any yoga asana (i.e. pose), props can always be included to help support or add challenge to the posture (for more info on yoga props in general, click here). For traditional pigeon pose, the most commonly used props are a yoga block, which can be placed under the front hip, and a yoga strap, which can be used to help grab the back foot (if bending the back knee). A blanket can also be used under the pelvis or knees, if needed. Personally, in my own practice, I typically only use a yoga block under my front hip when I am practicing a more traditional version with my spine extended and shoulders flexed with arms overhead, as I find the block helps me to focus more on the torso's alignment in relation to the hips.


Summary

Thanks for sticking with me until the end! Pigeon pose confers many benefits to the body, which can vary based on which form or version is being practiced as well as which body part is being discussed. In traditional pigeon pose, each leg is doing something entirely different, so detailing the specific musculoskeletal benefits is very complicated, as it depends on what leg and joint you are referring to. However, in general, pigeon pose is meant to improve mobility and activation in the hips for improved daily movement and function. Pigeon pose is highly variable, and it can be practiced from a variety of positions. Neither version is inherently better or worse for a given body; rather, you and your intuition are your best guides on what version is most appropriate for you. Above all, listen to your body, adjust as needed, and remember to breathe while you are in whatever variety you choose to practice.


As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement and yoga. If you have questions about pigeon pose specific for you, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, personal trainer, or yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at info@lotusyogisbyjackie.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!

~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-SFC



References:

Biel, A. (2014). Trail Guide to the Body - 5th Edition. Books of Discovery. Boulder, CO.


Long, R. (2008). The Key Poses of Yoga. Scientific Keys Volume 2. Bandha Yoga Publications. Plattsburg, NY.


Long, R. (2010). Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends. Yoga Mat Companion 2. Bandha Yoga Publications. Plattsburgh, NY.


Oren, G.K. (2013). Yoga: the trainer’s inside guide to your workout. Hinkler books. Australia.


Stephens, M. (2010). Teaching Yoga: essential foundations and techniques. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, CA.

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