5 Pigeon Pose Alternatives (That Still Open Your Thighs)

June 23, 2023 0 Comments

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Ask most vinyasa yoga students what they would like to focus on during class and they will most likely say opening the hips. To be more specific, they usually ask for the forward-swept version of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, which is commonly known as Pigeon Pose.

The pigeon pose certainly has its advantages. Intense stretching can be a fun — some might say cringe-inducing — experience. The forward-folding nature of the pose also creates an opportunity to turn inward and down-regulate thoughts and emotions.

But for some, these benefits come at a price.

What can make pigeon pose (too) intense?

The intensity that some of us feel in Pigeon Pose is a reminder that the pose’s popularity does not make it suitable for all bodies. In fact, the conventional posture requires a range of motion in the front of the hip that is unrealistic for many of us.

If you experience difficulty in Pigeon, it does not necessarily mean that you need to exert more effort or breathe. The problem is not you. This is a pose.

The first problem is the shape of the pigeon pose. One common version of the pose is to straighten the hips forward, the front of the knee is bent at a 90-degree angle, and the front of the shin is roughly parallel to the front edge of the mat. Many teachers no longer insist on this alignment, due to the understanding that bodies differ in joint placement and range of motion. However, this form is still perceived by many students as the preferred expression.

Bringing the front of the lower leg almost parallel to the front of the mat requires almost 90 degrees of external rotation of the front of the thigh. The average range of motion in this plane is 40 to 50 degrees. Trying to force yourself into this right angle can cause the front knee to rotate slightly to compensate for the hip. But the knees allow very little rotation, especially when they are bent at 90 degrees. Trying to go beyond your natural limits can be problematic for the ligaments and internal structures of the knee, including the meniscus.

A more common alternative to Pigeon is to deeply bend the front knee and bring the front heel to the opposite thigh. Although this reduces the degree of hip rotation to the normal range, it now requires the full normal range of knee flexion. For some students, carrying significant body weight on such a deeply bent knee can be uncomfortable, especially those with reduced range of motion in knee flexion, osteoarthritis or bursitis of the knee, or knee replacement.

The second structural problem with pigeon pose is that it involves significant pelvic asymmetry. We think of the pelvis as completely rigid and the hip socket as the moving part in yoga poses. In fact, our pelvis has slightly movable ligamentous joints, including the sacroiliac joints on either side of the back of the pelvis. The joints allow only very slight movement between the pelvis and the sacrum, but for some students even this small discrepancy between the tension on one side and the other side of the sacrum can be uncomfortable or destabilizing.

Finally, there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to Pigeon or any part of the physical practice of yoga. We differ in the shape and position of our joints, our proportions, our movement habits, our posture patterns and, frankly, our preferences. Gone are the days of believing in rigid posture alignment or that the pose you hate the most is the one you need the most (hopefully).

5 alternatives to the pigeon pose

No matter what you do or don’t feel in your knees, sacrum, or spirit, there are bound to be days when you’d rather be somewhere—anywhere—than Pigeon Pose. What if you listened to it?

Fortunately, there are other options than suffering through a posture that is, for whatever reason, uncomfortable. Which alternative you choose depends on what works for your body and what aspect of pigeon pose you want to experience.

If you prefer the hamstring stretch, you want a pose that puts one or both hips into flexion (thighs bending forward) and external rotation (thigh moving away from your body), such as deer pose, easy pose, oblique angle, and bent figure 4.

If you aim to stretch the adductor, you want a pose with your knees wide apart, such as “Bend Angle”.

If you want to relieve physical tension, you have the potential to go back in and experience the energetic shift that many students associate with pigeon pose in any of these poses if you find a version that isn’t too intense.

Illustration of a person practicing Deer Pose, Yin Yoga Pose

1. Pose of a deer

Perhaps the most outwardly similar alternative to Pigeon is the Yin yoga pose known as Deer Pose, which may be more comfortable for your front knee. As in the most intense version of Pigeon, the front leg takes a right angle, but the pose allows the pelvis to tilt to the side and rest on the mat. The back knee bends and moves out to the side, with the thigh at about a right angle to the front leg, lifting the back leg. When you lean forward on your hands, forearms, or support, the back leg carries slightly more of your body weight than if it were extended behind you in Pigeon.

Adjusting the position of the pelvis reduces the amount of external rotation required for the front leg. The more you tilt your pelvis, the less external rotation of the front hip.

As: You can move into Deer Pose the same way you move into Pigeon Pose, either from Quadruple Pose or from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). Bring your right knee forward to the mat near your right wrist. Lower your left knee to the mat if it isn’t already there. Position your right sit bone, placing your right shin roughly parallel to the front of the mat. Move the bent left knee forward until the left thigh is roughly at right angles to the right thigh. Bend your torso forward toward your right knee until you feel a gentle stretch in your right outer thigh, then support yourself with straight arms, lean on your forearms, or use a bolster to support your arms or chest. Breathe here. When ready, repeat on the other side.

A woman in a light pose with support on her hips
Clothing: Kalia (Photo: Andrew Clarke)

2. Easy pose (suhasana)

This cross-legged sitting position engages the same action of the front legs as the Pigeon and Deer while bringing the back leg forward into the cross-legged sitting position. This significantly reduces the asymmetry of the pelvis. Grounding through both sit bones shifts some of your body weight from your knees to your pelvis. If your knees are sensitive to stress, place wedges under your outer thighs to help support the rest of your weight.

As: You can move into easy pose just as you would into Pigeon, whether on all fours or Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). Bring your right knee forward to rest behind your right wrist and rub your right sit bone as you place your right shin roughly parallel to the front of the mat. Bring your left leg forward and cross it in front of your right. Place your feet so that each knee is roughly in line with the sole of the opposite foot, and pull through the little toes of both feet to lift the outer ankles slightly. Press evenly on both sit bones to lift and lengthen your back. Bend forward until you feel a gentle stretch along the outer thighs, then either lean on your straight arms, forearms, or support, and breathe. When you’re ready, repeat with the other leg in front.

Outside the limited angle
(Photo: Andrew Clarke; Clothing: Kalia)

3. Limited Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)

This forward seated bend provides hip flexion and external rotation of the Pigeon, but increases pelvic symmetry. The knees are located further from the body than in the Pigeon, which allows the adductors to be stretched. Again, supports attached to the outer thighs can help support residual body weight for sensitive knees.

As: Set yourself up in the knotted angle pose as if you were going into a cross-legged position, but instead of crossing your legs, bring the soles of your feet together. Press evenly on both sit bones to lift and lengthen your back. Lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch along your outer or inner thighs, then either support your straight arms, forearms, or support, and breathe.

Outside the cow's face
(Photo: Andrew Clarke)

4. Cow face pose (Homukhasana)

This pose flips the script a bit. It’s not very pigeon-like, but this pose allows both hips to flex and externally rotate, just like the front leg of a pigeon. Although bringing the legs together offers less potential for the adductor stretch, the support of the top knee on the bottom knee brings the leg closer to the chest and the front of the pelvis, providing an even better stretch of the back of the thigh. You can emphasize this stretch by bending forward at the hips.

As: Get into a four-legged cow face or downward facing dog pose. Bring your right knee forward to the mat near your right wrist, then lower your right sitting bone to the ground. Bring your left foot forward to cross the inside of your left thigh over your right, bringing each heel closer to the opposite thigh. Your knees may even collapse. Press evenly on both sit bones to lift and lengthen the torso. Lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch along the outside of your thighs, then either lean into your straight arms or rest your torso on your upper thigh or support and breathe. When you’re ready, repeat your steps and repeat on the other side.

(Photo: Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Kalia)

5. Lying Figure 4

It is the most supported Pigeon alternative. Although reclining figure 4 is the biggest departure from it in appearance, it retains the hip flexion and external rotation of the pigeon. By lying on your back with your knee at a right angle and your ankle resting on the opposite knee, you can adopt a position that stretches the relevant tissues without putting your weight on the joints. Even though the spine is now neutral rather than bending forward, the benefit of being able to support the floor can make you feel even more calm and introspective than when sitting forward.

As: Lie on your back, bend your knees and place your feet on the mat. Lift your right leg and cross your right ankle over your left knee, then let your right knee bend away from you to the front of the mat. You may already feel a gentle stretch in the outer or inner thigh. If not, lift your left leg, reach between your legs to hug the back of your left thigh, and pull both legs toward your body until you feel the right sensation. You can also rock your lower body slightly in any direction to change the location and emphasis of the stretch. Find a place where you can sit comfortably and breathe. When you’re ready, release both legs back to the mat and repeat on the other side.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Practice Pigeon Pose

About our contributor

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor who offers group and individual yoga classes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and by request at practice.yogamedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her anatomy and alignment studies, Rachel uses yoga to help her students build strength, stability, and mental clarity. Rachel is also the co-host of the new Yoga Medicine podcast.

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