Pigeon! Love it or leave it. I really don’t want you to hurt your knee while practicing this pose. A couple of friends of mine, and my dad, have injured or re-injured their knees in yoga classes. All are strong athletes with tight hips, and all got hurt doing Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) or Reclined Hero (Supta Virasana). These postures can really strain the knees, and although they are less likely to mess you up if you’re properly aligned, and using props, and flexing your front foot, yadda yadda yadda, let’s be real — we don’t always take time or have time or realize we’re out of alignment until it’s too late.
So, if you have previously had knee injuries, or you’re just worried about getting one, or if your knee’s felt tweaky while in Pigeon, I suggest the following two variations. Don’t be afraid to substitute them for Pigeon in class. If the teacher asks what’s up, just tell him or her that you have a bad knee or something. If they give you any trouble, try a teacher with a smaller ego.
First Alternate: Figure 4 Stretch, a.k.a. Eye of the Needle
Lying on your back and using your arm strength to pull in, rather than gravity and the weight of your body to push down, allows you greater control over the pressure you place on your front knee. So when it’s Pigeon Time, flip onto your back, bend your knees, place one foot on the floor and sit the other ankle across your thigh. Reach one arm through the eye of the needle (“the universe between your legs,” as Katelyn has memorably cued in class) and the other around the outside of the leg. Interlace the fingers below the knee, on the shin, and pull in. If you’re really tight, try holding on behind the thigh instead. Lay flat. Rock around. Mmm.
Second Alternative: Upside-down Pigeon, a.k.a., Dead Pigeon
This stretch is deeper, and it really is just like a Pigeon flipped over. Bring one knee in and wrap up your lower leg in your arms: one foot in the crook of an elbow, and a knee in the other. Interlace your fingers to hold the leg in and lie down. If that’s impossible, try sliding both arms under your leg and holding it firewood-style, or just grab your foot and pull it toward the opposite shoulder. If you need more stretch, wrap an arm behind your head and grab the foot of the bent leg. The extended leg should be active and internally-rotated, unlike what I am doing in the picture, which is lazily letting my leg and foot flop out, which they are wont to do. Speaking of lazy, there is a cat.
Pigeon is an incomparable pose for me. It’s a killer stretch for the glutes (med, min, max, piriformis, and all those rotators, methinks), the quads and psoas, and it also has some seriously woo effects. Hold it for a minute or more and you might feel sick, elated, angry. You might cry, or trip. But Pigeon’s not worth ripping a meniscus. As I always say: This isn’t gym class, and I am not the boss of you. Your practice is your own. Learn the modifications that work for you, and use them until they’ve outgrown their usefulness.
Did You Know?
“The last ‘pigeon post’ service was abandoned in India in 2004 with the birds being retired to live out the rest of their days in peace.” – 21 Amazing Facts You Didn’t Know About Pigeons