There's no end to yoga's stellar hip-opening stretches, but pigeon pose is MVP-level.
Pigeon is a deep, challenging stretch that lengthens the hip flexors, a group of muscles that tends to tighten after sitting for too long.
It also loosens your glutes and piriformis, a small muscle behind your gluteus maximus that tends to get irritated when your glutes are tight.
Lastly, it gets your hips rotating outward, which most people's hips don't do often enough, says Ashley Sondergaard, a registered yoga teacher and host of the Yoga Magic Podcast.
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 variations, modifications and alternatives to help you work up to the challenging posture.
If You: Can't Get Your Back Hip to the Floor
You Might: Have Tight Hip Flexor Muscles
Pigeon and tight hip flexors have a tricky relationship. Yes, the move helps them loosen up. But when the front of your hips are tight, it's hard to get into the pose in the first place.
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, DC.
Over time, this position can worsen existing back pain or introduce new pain.
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.
“Your shin does not have to be parallel with the short side of the mat,” says Sage Rountree, PhD, author of Everyday Yoga.
Gillian Walker, a yoga teacher and founder of The Hot Yoga Dome, also recommends incorporating other yoga hip poses into your routine. Happy baby pose, butterfly pose, and runner's lunge are all excellent hip-openers, she says.
- 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.
- Start seated and bring the soles of your feet together in front of you, bending at the knees.
- Keeping your knees out to the side, grab your feet and pull your torso toward your feet and your feet toward you.
- Start standing, then take a huge step forward.
- 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.
If You: Have Pain in Your Back Knee
You Might: Have a History of Knee Problems
According to Sondergaard, pain in the 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 — anything from meniscus tears to arthritis. But if your knee history is spotless, it could be that you're simply not used to putting pressure on the knee, in which case the pain should disappear the more you practice the pose.
Place a folded blanket or towel beneath your back knee. If that still doesn’t do the trick, flip over on your back and do the figure four stretch.
This move also stretches your glutes and external hip rotators, but without putting any weight directly on your knee.
- Sit on the floor with your feet flat on the floor.
- Cross your right ankle over your left knee.
- Move your right knee away from you to feel a stretch in that side's hips.
- Hold, then repeat on the opposite side.
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.
If tight glutes are preventing you from lowering your front leg's hip all the way down to the floor or causing lower back, knee or ankle pain or soreness during Pigeon pose, do the figure four stretch (above).
This Pigeon pose alternative allows you to stretch out your hips and glutes with your back in a more neutral, and therefore less painful, position, Rountree says. It'll also ease the stress on your knees and ankles.
Once you’re ready to try pigeon again, place a prop like a yoga block, blanket or pillow under your front hip so you can relax into the pose.
Need help opening your hips? Work up to pigeon and other challenging yoga poses with this 10-minute stretch routine.