Pigeon is a deep, challenging stretch that lengthens your hip flexors, a group of muscles that tends to tighten after sitting for too long.
More pigeon pose benefits include loosening your glutes and piriformis, a small muscle behind your gluteus maximus that tends to get irritated when your glutes are tight.
But reaping all of the hip-stretching benefits of pigeon isn't easy. You need a lot of hip, glute and back mobility on both sides of your body to get into the yoga pose (and hold it). Without a base level of mobility, pigeon pose can be stiff, awkward or even painful.
So if you're not feeling comfortable in pigeon, keep reading to learn what your body is trying to tell you. You'll also find pigeon pose modification to help you work up to the challenging posture.
3 Ways Pigeon Pose Can Be Challenging
If You: Can't Get Your Back Hip to the Floor
You Might: Have Tight Hip Flexor Muscles
If your flexors limit your ability to lower your back hip all of the way to the floor, your lower back may compensate by arching, explains registered yoga teacher Cailin Shurson, RYT-230.
Over time, this position can worsen existing back pain or introduce new pain.
If You: Have Pain in Your Back Knee
You Might: Have a History of Knee Problems
According to Sondergaard, pain in your back knee is a common reason yogis struggle with the pose. "If you have a knee issue, resting your back leg down onto your knee can be painful," she says.
Chances are you've had problems with your knees in the past, like meniscus tears or arthritis. But if your knee history is spotless, it could be that you're simply not used to putting pressure on your knee, in which case the pain should disappear the more you practice the pose.
If You: Have Lower Back Pain
You Might: Have Tight Glutes
If you're like most people, the external rotator muscles in your hips, which you use to pop your front hip open in pigeon, may feel especially stiff. "We sit in chairs and our hips are stuck in neutral throughout the day, so we're just not using them frequently to rotate them out," Sondergaard says.
If your glutes are too tight to rotate your hips outward, your body will compensate with rotation up or down the kinetic chain. "The body moves more in joints above or below the hips to make up for whatever movement restriction is present," Shurson says.
Upstream, that rotation can create discomfort or pain in the lower back.
5 Pigeon Pose Modifications
Great pigeon pose modifications include placing a pillow, folded blanket or towel under your front hip so you can better relax. You can also play with the angle of your front leg.
Gillian Walker, a yoga teacher and founder of The Hot Yoga Dome, also recommends incorporating other yoga hip poses into your routine if you can't comfortably do pigeon pose. Happy baby pose, butterfly pose, runner's lunge, seated figure 4 stretch and using yoga blocks are all excellent hip-openers, she says.
1. Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)
- Lie on your back and bend your knees up toward your armpits.
- Grab your feet with your hands and pull your knees closer to your armpits, keeping your shins perpendicular to the floor.
- Hold, rocking your body from side to side if you want.
2. Butterfly Pose (Baddha Konasana)
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. You can place a small pillow under your butt to make it more comfortable.
- Bend your knees and bring your feet in towards your groin, pressing the soles of your feet together.
- Sitting tall, keep your feet together as you allow both knees to drop to either side and toward the floor. Hold your feet with your hands and rest your elbows on your knees.
- You can deepen the stretch by pressing down gently on each inner thigh with your elbows.
3. Runner's Lunge
- Start on all fours in a tabletop position.
- Step your right foot forward into a low lunge. Your right toes should be aligned with the fingers of your left hand.
- Bend your front knee to 90 degrees, keeping your knee over your front foot, and leave your back leg straight (or you can bend the knee slightly).
- Support yourself by placing each hand on either side of your front foot. If you need to, drop your back knee to the floor.
- Repeat on opposite leg.
4. Seated Figure 4 Stretch
- Start seated with a straight back and both feet flat on the floor.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee.
- Press your right knee down as far as it can comfortably go and begin to bend forward at your hips without arching your back.
- Sit back up and return to starting position.
- Repeat on opposite leg.
5. Pigeon Pose With Yoga Block Under Hip
- Start in a tabletop position with your hands on yoga blocks and knees on the mat.
- Bring your left knee forward and place it behind the left wrist, positioning your left shin diagonally across the mat. Lower your left hip, shin and ankle to the ground.
- Extend your right leg straight back behind you so it’s in line with your hip. Allow your toes to point straight back.
- Square your hips as much as possible and elongate your spine by drawing your shoulder blades down and back.
- Place a yoga block under your left hip for support. Elevate your hands on another yoga block if needed.
- You can keep your arms straight or bend your elbows to rest your forearms on the yoga blocks.
- Repeat on other leg.
Need help opening your hips? Work up to pigeon and other challenging yoga poses with this 10-minute stretch routine.