Of all the postures near and dear to the hearts of so many yoga practitioners, poor misunderstood Pigeon pose may well be the most precarious. Loved by so many, but executed correctly by so few, this pose stands out amongst all others as the most likely to help you and your local orthopedic surgeon get on a first name basis.
Why? Because you're doing it wrong. Pigeon posture was never meant to be a hip opener. The original intention of this pose was lost in translation, and the modern interpretation is more likely to cause harm than create inner peace.
Here's what happened:
In the yogic renaissance period of early 1930's India, the father of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya, set his hand to creating a sequence of postures challenging enough for the young boys under his tutelage. The results of his work still exist to this day in the form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and its influence is present in nearly every other approach to yoga that involves the physical body.
In the second series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga there is a posture known as Kapotasana, translated as Pigeon pose. This posture is clearly intended to be a back bend.
Kapotasana or Pigeon pose.
In the third series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga there is another posture known as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, translated as One-Legged King Pigeon pose.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, or One-Legged King Pigeon pose.
The back bend in the previous Kapotasana is still present, but now the posture adds in the quality of external rotation of the forward hip, the quality that most people tend to think of when working with the modern variations of Pigeon pose.
But unlike most modern interpretations, I would still classify Eka Pada Rajakapotasana as primarily a back bend, honoring the thread linking it to its parent posture, Kapotasana. I think Krishnamacharya would have too.
When Krishnamacharya was creating this particular sequence he was tasked with challenging young Indian boys who, from birth onwards, had spent the majority of their life sitting cross-legged on the ground. By virtue of this simple fact these young men were already likely to be very open in their hips, especially in external rotation.
When Krishnamacharya created this sequence he arranged the postures from simplest to most complex. Poses involving deep hip mobility in external rotation were mastered early on in the form of Padmasana (Lotus) and Supta Kurmasana (Hidden Turtle or legs behind the head). Both of these postures occur in the first series, long before a student would begin working with any variation of Pigeon pose.
Most modern adult yoga practitioners haven't substantially opened their hips in external rotation or developed the ability to extend their spine deep enough to merit working with the original Pigeon postures offered by Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. By encountering these poses out of their original context (nestled safely within the sequences of Ashtanga), Eka Pada Rajakapotasana began to be misinterpreted as a hip opener. But unless your hips are already substantially open this is actually a dangerous way to go about it.
Tension in the hip joint transfers into stress at the knee and with repetition can create soft tissue damage. This occurs when the lower leg crosses the body at an acute angle forcing the knee to rotate laterally. And unfortunately this is how most people are practicing Pigeon pose.
Don’t Do: Pigeon pose at 45 degrees.
Don’t Do: Poor attempt at King Pigeon.
This wouldn't be a problem if your hips were already open, but it's not likely they are. Most modern yoga practitioners differ from young Indian boys in one important way, they have spent the majority of their lives seated in chairs rather than seated on the ground.
A better alternative to more safely opening the hip joint in external rotation is Lizard posture, a contemporary yoga pose that allows for a more gradual opening to occur.
Safely open the hip joint in external rotation with Lizard pose.
Once the hip is open enough for your body to easily perform the full expression of Lizard posture, then Pigeon could be approached safely as a hip opener, but only if the lower leg crosses the body at an angle of 90 degrees or greater. This requires a great deal of flexibility to be done correctly. Once you progress substantially in this level, only then should you consider adding in the component of back bending to safely seek the full expression of the original pose.
In summary, you are not a 12 year old Indian boy, and neither am I. As western yoga practitioners, we have inherited a system of movement that was not intentionally designed with our bodies in mind, and there are flaws. Often times things get lost in translation.
Adamantine® Yoga is my attempt to upgrade and update the traditional usage of movement as a means of seeking spirituality. I truly believe I have found a simpler, safer, and more effective way of using postures as a means of living a happier and healthier life.
Something as seemingly simple as changing the way you practice Pigeon pose, could honestly change your life.