I’m a Yoga Teacher With an Unpopular Opinion: Pigeon Pose Sucks. Try These Hip-Openers Instead

Photo: Getty Images/JulPo
Some yogis say they love pigeon pose yoga. The rest of us? We grit our teeth and white-knuckle it through the intense hip stretch.

Leaning over our front bent leg, pigeon pose is a shape that can be uncomfortable and possibly harmful. For some people, this position is too intense on the connective tissues in their hips—and pushing it too far could even cause long-term pain. If you have knee issues, also pain. If you are hyper-flexible and you’re instructed to “relax, relax, relax,” then there’s a high possibility of, you guessed it, pain.

But no one ever said yoga was about pushing through pain. If pigeon pose doesn’t work for your body, try these alternative hip openers that, in my experience as a yoga teacher, I’ve found to be far more body-friendly.

Four pigeon pose alternatives that stretch your hips pain-free

Reclined figure four

This popular alternative is a gentle, controllable stretch that reaches the same muscle groups as pigeon pose without added pressure on the knee.

How to do it: 

  1. Lay on your back with both knees bent and your feet on the floor.
  2. Cross one ankle over the other knee and pause. For some people, this will already be enough of a stretch.
  3. If you want more sensation, you can reach between your legs to grab around the bottom leg. You can press your elbow into your crossed leg to encourage your knee away. You’ll know you’re at a good level of stretch if you can keep your shoulders on the ground, breathe steady, and you feel a stretch.

For more support, you can lean the bottom foot on the wall instead of holding the leg up with your hands (or a strap).

Fire log pose

This shape focuses on the sides and back of the hips. It can be very intense so take it slowly and don’t push if it’s too much.

How to do it:

  1. Sit up tall in a cross legged position.
  2. Take one ankle and stack it over the opposite knee so that the two shins are stacked on top of each other. Root down through both hips and sit tall. Flex through both feet.
  3. Option to fold forward.

The ankle joint and the knee joint it’s sitting on should be exactly on top of each other—a helpful image is a door hinge. You can imagine a pin going straight through both joints.

For more support, add a block between the bottom knee and the floor or the top knee and bottom foot (or both).

Cow face pose

This pose reaches the IT band, piriformis, and gluteus medius (and minimus)—which are hip stabilizers and therefore usually tight—while also being more gentle on your knees than pigeon pose.

How to do it:

  1. Start seated, and cross one leg over the other so your knees are stacked.
  2. Draw your ankles close to your hips.
  3. Focus on rooting down evenly through both hips.
  4. For more intensity, you can work both ankles forward, bringing your shins in line with the top of your mat.

For more support, sit on a blanket to keep both hips level and grounded.

Twisted lizard

This option has no external rotation/transverse motion in the knee so it's a good option for folks with knee instability or pain while still getting a similar stretch to pigeon pose.

How to do it:

  1. From hands and knees, step one foot outside both hands and gently lean hips forward.
  2. Turn the front toes out at a 45 degree angle, and place that hand on the inner thigh to encourage that knee away from the body.
  3. Gaze over that shoulder.
  4. Option to add a quadricep stretch by bending the back leg and reaching for that foot.

To add support, place a blanket under your back knee and/or opt for a strap to reach for your back foot if you’re exploring the quadricep stretch.

Pigeon pose is intense. Intense isn’t always a bad thing. If you aren’t experiencing long-term pain or discomfort in your hips and/or knees, then pigeon pose may be helpful for you.

However, if you’re experiencing discomfort, or are just curious to change up your hip-openers and explore more accessible yoga, these postures will help you stretch your hips safely and effectively.

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