Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana): It Might Not Be as Healthy as You Think

By: 
Charlotte Bell

I didn’t want to do it. I’ve always enjoyed Pigeon Pose in yoga, or at least the hip-opening variation that’s a preparation for Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon). Many of my students like it too. For many years Pigeon Prep was a staple in my yoga classes. When we’d practice vinyasa-style yoga, it felt wonderful to swing forward from Adho Mukha Svanasana  (Downward Facing Dog Pose) into Pigeon—it was a smooth move that I miss.

But the more I’ve begun to delve into hip health in the past few years, the more I realize that Pigeon Pose is likely problematic for many yoga practitioners. I’ve stopped teaching it. Here’s why:

·       Pigeon Pose places a very strong asymmetrical force on the sacroiliac joint (SI joint). In Pigeon, the external rotators and abductors on the front-leg side of the SI joint are stretched, while the back-leg side of the SI joint is being compressed.

·       Gravity. When the pelvis is unsupported (off the ground or even barely grazing the ground) in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, the weight of the torso amplifies the asymmetrical force on the SI joint.

·       More often than not, the back leg’s position necessitates that the neck of its femur will press into the anterior border of the hip socket. Over time, this can wear down the labrum that rings the socket and the cartilage on the head of the femur.

·       Tightness in the external rotators and abductors can transfer into the knee of the front leg, putting shearing pressure on the knee joint.

Is there a way to rectify the problems with Pigeon Pose? In the past few years, before retiring the pose altogether, I advocated that everyone elevate the pelvis by sitting on a block. This can relieve some of the problems. For some though, those whose hips are already off the floor, a block may or may not be high enough to prevent the weight of the torso from exacerbating the asymmetrical effects inherent in the pose.

Pigeon Pose Alternatives in Yoga Practice      

So what to do instead? Two options come to mind: Supta Ardha Padmasana (Supine Half Lotus) (left) and Agnisthambasana (Fire Log Pose) (below). Both asanas help relieve tension in the external rotators and abductors, but since both legs are in flexion in these two poses, the action on the SI joint is much more symmetrical.

Of the two, Supta Ardha Padmasana is the safest choice for most people. Because it’s practiced lying down, it’s easier to keep track of the integrity of your spine. As always, it’s best to learn these poses from an experienced teacher who understands the importance of maintaining a healthy spinal position, and can teach you how to understand this for yourself.

Final Thoughts

Modern postural yoga seems to have a bit of an obsession with hip opening. While it’s important to maintain mobility in the hips—especially since so many of us spend lots of time sitting in chairs in front of a computer—stability is just as important. The practice of asana is not about becoming ever more flexible. It’s about balance—the balance between flexibility and stability. Hip-opening yoga practice should always include hip stabilizing practice as well—standing balance yoga poses and Utkatasana (Fierce Pose) (right), for example.

As with all yoga practice, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not all cookie-cutter replicas of each other. There may, indeed, be some people for whom Pigeon Pose yields positive results. But as a teacher, in the context of a yoga class populated with varied body types, I don’t feel Pigeon is the healthiest choice.

Reprinted with permission from Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’ blog.

Would you like to read more yoga asana practice tips from special contributor Charlotte Bell?  Check out this article: Supta Padangusthasana - Sustainable Stretching.

YogaUOnline and Natasha Rizopoulos also offer this course - Hip Opening From the Ground Up: Essentials of Safe Hip Opening.

 

Charlotte Bell.2Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of two books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products¹ blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.