by Jenni Rawlings
PHOTO: this simple-looking pose can be a killer on your knees if you’re not careful.
Single-Leg Pigeon Pose (aka “half pigeon”) is a classic hip-opener and a favorite cool-down stretch often enjoyed at the end of a vigorous vinyasa practice. Statistically, Pigeon Pose is also one of yoga’s most injurious asanas—so let’s take a closer look at safety, alignment, and the biomechanics of this posture.
The Mechanics of Pigeon Pose
Pigeon Pose stretches the front leg hip muscles, most notably the glutes and adductor magnus. On the back leg, the hip flexors are lengthened as the hip moves into extension. For knee safety, we need to focus on the relationship between our front hip and our front knee—this is a hot spot and potential trouble area.
To do the full expression of this pose, we need your front hip to easily rotate out to 90-degrees. If that that sounds like a big ask, you’re right. Most people’s hip rotation falls short, and that’s why this pose can be dangerous.
Here’s what happens.
If your hip joint cannot rotate out to 90-degrees, your knee is forced to make up the difference which can cause injuries to the lateral collateral ligament (outer knee ligament) and a possible compression or tear of the inner knee cartilage (the medial meniscus).
IMAGE: if our hips are tight, single leg pigeon can overstretch our LCL and tear our medial meniscus.
Are Your Hips Ready for Pigeon Pose?
To find out if you’re ready for Pigoen, let’s try a quick mobility test to assess your hip rotation. Begin by lying on your back. First, bend one leg up at a 90 degree angle so the thigh is perpendicular to the body. Next, grab your thigh with both hands and externally rotate it so that your ankle swings toward you. Finally, continue to rotate the thigh until you can’t move it anymore, at which point you’ve found your end point.
PHOTO: notice you want to rotate from your thigh, not be pulling on the angle of the foot
Ideally, your hip will rotate out to a full 90-degrees seen visually with your shin parallel with your belt line above your waist, but for most people, this is not happening. Most end up with their shin an angled away at 40-60 degrees, a clear sign that Pigeon Pose could potentially be a problem pose.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Single-Leg Pigeon Pose is not right for everyone. If you have a knee replacement, have had knee surgery, or simply feel knee pain even after doing your best to optimize your alignment, you should work with an alternative like reclined pigeon (aka “thread the needle”) instead.
Reclined pigeon will still effectively open your hips without putting your knees at risk.
PHOTO: Reclined Pigeon is a safer and simpler way to practice Pigeon Pose.
How To Practice Pigeon Pose Safely
One way to modify single-leg pigeon to keep our front knee happy is to simply not bring our front shin perpendicular to the front of our mat. This will help to minimize torque in that front knee. Try this: from downward facing dog, shift forward to plank pose. Bring your right knee to your right forearm, actively pointing the right foot, but being sure to not “sickle” the ankle to one side. As you hover the right leg above the floor, rotate that hip externally so the right ankle moves toward the left wrist.
Once you’ve come to your end range of external rotation in that right hip, gently place that shin down on the floor, making sure to keep that knee very flexed (i.e. keep the shin and thigh touching).
Important: don’t scoot that right foot any further forward than your leg’s intrinsic strength allowed when you originally set the shin down. Check in with your right knee and make sure that it doesn’t feel any discomfort here at all.
With your back knee still lifted off the floor and those toes tucked under, scoot the whole back leg back just a bit, and then roll your left hip forward until your hips are squaring to the front of your mat. You will probably notice at this point that your right hip is hovering off the floor to some degree; place a prop underneath that right thigh (folded blanket, block, bolster) to meet your body at its perfect edge in this shape.
The above example is my favorite way to modify pigeon pose, but there are a few other strategies that can help keep the knee safer as well. The higher you prop the front thigh and hip, the safer the front knee will be. If you prop up very (very!) high, you might be able to bring that front shin closer to parallel to the front edge of the mat without creating torque in the knee joint.
Another way to minimize risk to the knee is to simply not fold your torso forward over the front leg. When we lay our torso forward, we add a significant amount of weight to our front leg, and if our knee is in a risky position, this added load can easily create injury. Depending on how well you’ve aligned your pose, you can find a great stretch in your front hip without leaning forward at all.
Remember, Single-Leg Pigeon is a pose that demands close alignment attention. If you learn how to practice this properly, it’s a powerful pose.
JENNI RAWLINGS loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga teaching. You can find out more about her offerings and teachings at www.jennirawlings.com.