The “king of hip openers,” one-legged pigeon pose lengthens the hip rotators (internal and external) and the hip flexors for all around flexible, open hips. It’s one of the most effective cures for tight hips, as the pose improves pelvic alignment, relieves lower back and sciatica pain, prevents pulled groin muscles, and has a positive effect on overall agility.
This deep variation of pigeon pose constricts normal breathing. The posture, then, builds a respiratory resilience that benefits the practitioner on and off the yoga mat. In poses, like this one, where it is actually easier to hold the breath than to breath laboriously, breathing through your practice benefits your respiratory health in a major way.
Yogi Swami Satyananda Saraswati attributes a myriad of benefits, apart from flexibility training, to intense backbends. In his seminal guide Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha, he claims that intense backbends massage the abdominal organs and balance secretions from the pancreas and adrenal glands. This effect relieves the symptoms of digestive disorders like chronic constipation and also helps alleviate menstrual cramps.
Do not attempt this variation of one-legged pigeon pose if you:
- have heart problems.
- have a hernia.
- have colitis.
- have a peptic or duodenal ulcer.
- have a lower back or neck injury.
- can’t sleep.
Although the sheer number of variations can be overwhelming, they are actually pigeon pose’s greatest strength. Move through the variations, beginning with gentler ones like dead or sleeping pigeon, for a pigeon flow that opens the hips and targets areas like the quads, the erector spinae, the chest, and the arms. Utilize both forward bending and backbending pigeons for a comprehensive, safe flow.
Because the transition from downward facing dog to one-legged pigeon pose is seamless, it’s also easy to incorporate it into your sun or moon salutations. Just remember, a forward fold is absolutely necessary after an intense back bending pose like this variation of one-legged pigeon pose. A seated forward fold, like prostration pose (naman pranamasana) or seated forward bend (paschimottanasana), is the perfect counterpose.
- Begin in downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) with your palms planted slightly wider than shoulder distance apart.
- Inhale. Keeping your hips parallel to the floor, lift your right leg to the sky.
- Exhale. Bend your right knee and sweep your right leg forward. Plant your right knee directly behind your right palm. Flex your right foot and plant it behind your left palm, so that your lower leg rests against the mat. The closer you plant your right foot to your palm, the more intense the external rotation of the leg.
- Untuck the toes of your left foot and gently slide your left leg back so that your hips sink towards the mat.
- Look over your shoulder to ensure that your left leg extends straight out behind you. Rotate the leg slightly inwards. Press the leg – from the top of your foot to your thigh – into the mat actively. This will improve the alignment of your hips.
- Sink your left hip back and down so that your hips are parallel to the short edge of the mat.
- Slide your hands towards the back of the mat as you sit up. Scoop your tailbone towards your navel to protect your lower back from compression.
- Plant your hands where the pose feels active, but not painful. Press your fingers into the mat.
- Place your hands on your hips. Push down to sink your hips closer to the mat. Lengthen the spine by lifting up through the ribcage. Open the chest. Lengthen through the back of the neck (to avoid compression).
- Inhale and slowly bend the left leg upwards, pointing your foot towards the sky.
- Lift your left arm up to the sky and bend your elbow, reaching behind you. Exhale. Slowly bend backwards, from the waist, and gently drop your head back. Grab ahold of the top of your left foot with your left hand. Bring the raised arm in, close to your head, with your elbow pointing to the sky.
- Inhale. Lift your right arm to the sky and bend your elbow, reaching behind you. Exhale. Bring your right hand to your left hand, taking hold of the top of your left foot with both hands. Gently pull your left foot towards your head with both arms.
- Breath and hold the pose.
- Release your left arm, then your right. Lower your left leg to the mat. Plant your hands on the mat, in front of your externally rotated (front) leg. Exhale. Tuck the toes of your left foot under and push up into downward facing dog. Repeat the pose on the opposite side.
Modifications and Props
Prop your hip. If your hips are tight and hover uncomfortably above the mat, propping your hip can make pigeon pose gentler. Modify it by placing a folded blanket or prop under the thigh of your externally rotated (front) leg. Propping the hip also also helps prevent knee torsion.
Dead Pigeon Pose. This supine variation gently opens the hips. Begin lying supine on the mat. Bend your knees and lift your lower legs so they hover parallel to the mat. Externally rotate to the right leg and place the heel of your right foot directly below your left knee. Exhale. Use your right arm to gently push your right knee forward, to deepen the external rotation. Breath and hold the pose. Switch sides.
Sleeping Pigeon Pose. There are four things happening in variation I of pigeon pose: the front leg is externally rotating, the hip flexors in the back leg are lengthening, the back is bending, and the shoulders are opening. It’s sometimes difficult, then, to jump into all aspects of the pose at once. In place of step nine (above), fold your torso forward over your front leg. Sink your belly into your thigh, rest your forehead on the mat, and reach your arms forward. This modification eliminates the backbend, so you can focus exclusively on opening the hips.
Mermaid Pose. This pigeon pose variation engages the quads in a deep body bend that extends from the knee, through the entire back, and into the elbow. Skip steps eleven through twelve (above). Instead, reach your left arm behind you, palm facing out. Grab hold of your left foot from the inside. Bend your arm. Slide your left foot down your forearm until it’s hooked in the crease of your elbow. Raise your right arm and bend it backwards. Take hold of your left hand with your right. To exit the pose, let go of your left hand. Straighten your left arm and slide your foot up your forearm. Release your leg to the mat. Push up into downward dog.
One-Legged Pigeon Pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). The original pose does not include the intense shoulder opener. Begin in downward facing dog (adho mukha svanasana). Inhale and lift the right leg back. Exhale and swing it forward, bringing your right knee to your left wrist. Untuck the toes of your left leg and lower both legs to the mat. Inhale and sit up. Breath and hold the pose. Exit and repeat on the opposite side. See our detailed instructions of one-legged pigeon pose.
One-Legged Pigeon Pose Variation II (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). This variation focuses on stretching the quadricep muscles in the back leg. Begin kneeling on the mat. Inhale. Step your right leg forward, bending your knee at a 90° angle. Place your right hand on your right thigh. Exhale. Bend your left leg up, bringing your foot towards your buttocks. Reach your left arm behind you, palm facing in, and grab ahold of the outside of your left foot. Gently pull the foot towards your buttocks.
King Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana). King pigeon pose is an intense back bending posture that is, actually, very different from one-legged king pigeon pose. Seek detailed instructions before attempting this challenging pose. Essentially, the practitioner assumes camel pose. Then, instead of dropping the arms back, the practitioner reaches over her head to plant her arms on the mat as in circle pose (chakrasana). She drops her head to the mat.
Hip flexors. The hip flexors are a large group of muscles located deep in the thighs, hips, and buttocks. They connect the leg, pelvis, and abdomen and allow you to lift your upper leg towards your body or bend your body over your upper leg. Sitting for long periods of time weakens the hip flexors, making it difficult to lift the upper legs and to bend over. Pigeon pose lengthens the psoas and rectus femoris in the back leg.
Hip rotators. The hip rotator, or lateral rotator, muscle group includes six small muscles in the hip that control external rotation of the legs. Short hip rotator muscles contribute to poor pelvic alignment. Pigeon pose lengthens the hip rotators in the externally rotated (front) leg for good pelvic alignment and improved external rotation.
Gluteal muscles. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. The gluteal muscles are some of the body’s strongest and are the primary movers of the hips and thighs. When upright in pigeon pose, the internally rotated back leg stretches the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. When in a forward bending pigeon pose, the pose stretches the gluteus maximus.
Quadriceps. The quadriceps muscles cover the front and sides of the femur, making up much of the muscle mass of the thighs. The quads stabilize and allow extension of the knee joint. When the quads are overworked from jumping, running, or lifting, they can become tight and increase the chance of ACL injury. Particularly when the back leg is bent, pigeon pose stretches the quads of the back leg.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Back bending in pigeon pose strengthens the erector spinae muscles deep in the back.
Abdominals. The abdominal muscles are located in the lower belly, between the ribs and the pelvis. They control the tilt of the pelvis and the curve of the lower spine. Backbending in pigeon pose stretches the rectus abdominus (your six pack) in particular.
Subscapularis muscle. The subscapularis muscle attaches to the front of the scapula. It controls the inner rotation of the arm and, when the arm is lifted above the head, it draws the upper arm down and forward to prevent dislocation. Reaching backwards in pigeon pose lengthens the subscapularis muscle, increasing the range of motion in your upper arms.
Triceps brachii. The triceps brachii is the large muscle on the back of the upper arm responsible for straightening it. Push exercises, like planks and push-ups, build tricep bulk. Reaching the arm behind the body, as in pigeon pose, stretches the tricep muscles, making them longer and more supple.
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