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Is Pigeon Pose Harmful?

Hi there, wellness entrepreneur. Welcome back!

Today, we’re going to be talking about practitioner skills, specifically about the benefits and controversy of Pigeon Pose. And we’re going to talk about why it’s controversial, its benefits including the physical layer, energetic, emotional, and beyond. Following this article you will understand if pigeon pose is harmful. 

So this episode will give you awareness of when you might choose to add pigeon pose to your yoga classes, especially private sessions, or for that student who asks you after class or on the fly at a party, “What pose or what stretch is helpful for my peer performance or this area in the back of my hip that’s constantly gnawing or aching me?” Pigeon pose is usually the go-to answer here, and I caution you before you blindly just recommend pigeon pose to consider all this information first.

What is Pigeon Pose in Yoga?

So let’s get on the same page first of what pigeon pose actually is. Traditionally, it’s a pose where you’re sitting, sometimes upright, sometimes folded forward, one leg is in front, the shin can be parallel to the top of the mat, the hip is in external rotation flexion, the knee is flexed, and the back leg is extended long behind, often internally rotated. And then again, the student can sit upright in for more of a back bend flavor or hold forward.

Why Pigeon Pose Could Be Harmful

The problem with pigeon pose is it feels lovely for the practitioner that it sometimes is appropriate for. Sometimes it feels lovely for the person who is actually making a problem that they might have worse. The other problem with pigeon pose is it’s often thrown in at the end of the class to calm down the nervous system or to neutralize the spine or to get more grounded and slow the class down in preparation for Shavasana. And it is a good pose for that for the appropriate students. So it’s really twofold.

If you’re having a private session, you get to decide, is pigeon pose actually an appropriate pose for that student in front of you? If it’s a group class, it’s knowing how to cue pigeon pose to keep your students safe and have other alternatives that can help them to get the same benefits physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically.

How Pigeon Pose Can Help with Physical Issues Like Sciatica

I’m going to start on the physical layer why pigeon pose might be a problem for some students. We’ll start at the feet and work our way upright. So if a student doesn’t have the appropriate amount of hip external rotation, then what can happen is, to get the shin to the top of the map or to even just have the femur bone coming perpendicular to the top of the map and having the tibia, the shin bone at a slight angle to get that motion where the student’s hips is on the ground. If they’re not using support, the ankle might sickle or it might collapse into an inversion type position.

So for a hyper mobile student like myself, that can be a problem. If my ligaments in my ankle are already stretched and then I’m continuously over inverting my ankle or sickling my ankle because I have limited mobility in my hips, then I’m going to put myself at risk for ankle sprains, which might not seem like and falls, which might not seem like a big problem for the 20, 30, or even 40 year old. But as we all age, falling can be a problem and lead to a cascade of other problems. And ligaments aren’t necessarily like a rubber band where we stretch them out and then they’re going to go back to their normal shape. So yes, as we age, typically on average we stiffen up some. However, it’s good to keep our ankle stability to protect us from falls as we age and to allow us to walk with the greatest efficiency.

So now we’ll travel up the chain to the knee. Again, if the hip doesn’t have the required external rotation, so the student can position that leg in front, then the force can be directed to the knee and put their meniscus or overstretch some ligaments there at risk.

Okay, so now we’re in the hip pelvis region or the front leg. Again, a certain amount of external rotation is required to allow the pelvis or the hips to sit on the ground. And for some people, they might not have that range of motion or the back leg, so as can be tied or the abdominals can be restricted or some of the hip flexors can be restricted and that can limit as well the pelvis ability, the hips to sit on the ground. So then more pressure is added to the knee because now the body weight is bearing down on the knee in this kind of precarious situation.

So that this is often when bolster, a blanket, some type of support is beneficial to place underneath the glutes. But even with that support, there can still be a great enough force or torque that can pull the pelvis out of alignment, the sacrament to torsion or lead to some kind of imbalance in the pelvis, the sacra, the hips which can remain there, maybe leading to a side dysfunction or even travel up further to the low back causing the spine to be in a rotation and contributing to pain there or over extension of the spine.

So you can see, it seems like a simple enough pose, one leg is forward, one leg is back, we can use support and we can call them the nervous system before Shavasana, but it ends up being a really complex physical pose that if the student is not mindful or aware when done repetitively over time, so meaning multiple times a week if you go to a hot sequence where pigeon pose is part of that hot sequence, for example, the repetition over time can lead to imbalances in the body that puts them at risk for injury now or down the road in the future.

And obviously this is not desired for you as a teacher because you never want your students to be putting more harm on their body than good when they show up to class or private sessions. And of course, the students don’t desire that result as well.

If you want help on sequencing your classes be sure to read this blog:  https://igniteurwellness.com/how-to-plan-a-yoga-class/

What Should We Do With Pigeon Pose

So what do we do? So if you’re teaching a private session, a one-to-one with a person, then you can evaluate that individual in front of them and determine if pigeon pose is appropriate for them or not. By going through all the body regions and assessing if they have the range of motion or if using blocks, bolsters, and blankets provide enough support to access the pose in a way that’s not going to put a repetitive strain on certain body structures.

The other way to look at it is some students will come in requesting pigeon pose specifically. Often it’s for a back of the hip type discomfort or pain, or they’ve been given the diagnosis sciatica and they Googled it and pigeon pose keeps coming up or they’ve done pigeon pose themselves because they have sciatica or the back of the hip pain and they feel that it brings relief. This still requires an assessment.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a patient in my office telling me that they have a sciatica and they have a disc issue going on as well that they’re unaware of and their fascia is really restricted. There isn’t any disassociation with the low back, the pelvis and the hip. And when they’re in pigeon pose, even though they might feel relief in the moment, we are able to track it down eventually because they’ll start to feel better and yet they won’t. All of a sudden then they won’t progress or they’re continuously having their pain and we’ll be able to track it down to pigeon pose where they might not feel discomfort in the moment, but they feel it later that night or the next morning they’ll wake up with kind of a gnawing type sensation.

For some people, pigeon pose can make their sciatica worse. For some people it can bring relief, and in those cases it’s really important to make sure that it’s true, it actually is bringing them relief. But in other cases it actually might make problem worse based upon their nervous system, their neural tension, their fascia, and anatomically how their body’s built.

So if you work one-to-one with your people, you can hash that out together or refer to a physical therapist or a chiropractor to help track down the root cause of their back of the hip pain because it might be sciatica, but it also can be a piriformis issue and you really need to discern which one it is because one’s muscle, one’s nerve, there can be disc involvement as well. So something that seems so simple, “Oh, back of the hip pain, just do pigeon pose,” is actually a little bit more complex. And you can also refer to two blogs in the past to help with this. The blogs on sciatica and the sequencing for the low back will help with this as well. (Insert links here)

Now, in a class you might decide to use pigeon pose as the peak pose if you’re adding it in as a backend or you can decide to use it as part of the cool down the wind down to prep for Shavasana. And of course a lot of people love pigeon pose. I love pigeon pose. So in this instance in a class, you want to make sure that the queuing is important for both alignment and then also for students awareness so they know what they should be feeling and what they shouldn’t be feeling. Because often sometimes in pigeon pose, students might be feeling neural sensations from nerve or pulling kind of aggravating their sciatic nerve and they think it’s muscle or they think it’s normal. So it’s really educating them on what they should be feeling and helping them to keep an awareness of activation, especially in their ankle, pushing the outer edge of the foot into the ground, making sure there’s no knee pain.

You can even use pigeon pose as a strengthening posture where you’re utilizing the hips for stability without the support of the props for a short period of time. It depends on the intention, but queuing is very important here.

Structure Your Yoga & Wellness Program with information from this blog: https://igniteurwellness.com/signature-wellness-program/

The Emotional And Energetic Work Benefits of Pigeon Pose

The other thing to be aware of in regard to pigeon pose is the emotional and energetic work that might be going on underneath the surface that the student itself or him or herself might not even be aware of. And of course you don’t necessarily see. And some of that work I’m talking about is nervous system works.

So if there’s any trauma, it doesn’t have to be in the pelvis, but it can be in the pelvis. But if there was nervous system trauma that a student might still be processing through or has never processed through can be stored in the pelvis and hip region and then they come to class and try to force it through it, it might be too much.

It’s also in the area of the work of the first, second, and sometimes even third chakra, especially if we’re going into the upright back bend. So it is a sensitive region with a lot physically, emotionally, and energetically going on. So we do want to give our students the time and the space to feel into this and process it all.

And that’s sometimes, where you hear people crying often it’s pigeon pose. So in these instances when approached mindfully in a supportive way, pigeon pose can be a great pose to help an individual gain more flexibility, unwind and down-regulate their nervous system and do the work of optimizing and balancing or bringing into alignment their lower chakras. So that can be quite wonderful.

And if a student isn’t able to access pigeon pose, it’s knowing that even with support, okay, you can try support and if you bring it in and it’s still not a good fit, that there’s other options.

But so commonly I see in Facebook groups and Google where teachers are recommending if you have posterior hip pain, piriformis type syndrome and sciatica, they’re blindly just giving out pigeon pose. And this blog is just an awareness for yourself to really assess the situation and determine, “Okay, I’m going to choose to add it to my class, what queuing can be helpful for the student?”

Modifications for  Pigeon Pose 

So let’s go through some here, such as engaging the outer edge of the foot so the ankle doesn’t sickle, ensuring that there’s no knee pain, giving them options for angles for the shin, options for support underneath the hips, options for changing the flexion of the hip or the angle of the femur options to fold forward and use of props. There are options to stay upright. Supporting the back leg.

You can add in a strengthening posture, you can come down to figure four or for some people, figure four isn’t accessible. The supine pose where you cross the ankle over the thigh. So you try figure four where the student has more support and they push the foot into the wall. Four you can try. The figure four is sitting in a chair.

The ways to gain more flexibility, especially in external rotation and for the back leg lengthening through the psoas and the hip flexors, there’s so many ways to achieve this. The pigeon pose doesn’t have to be the answer and should never blindly just be given out to students. And it’s also queuing in the class, “Okay, we don’t want to feel numbness, we don’t want to feel tingling, we don’t want to feel discomfort or soreness through the back of the hip.” It is learning how to discern between nerve pain and a muscle stretch, avoiding any discomfort and sensations in the SI joint region, avoiding any discomfort and sensations in the low back region, that all can help keep the students safe and guiding them what they might want to feel.

Conclusion

So some people, depending on their flexibility, feel more of a stretch through the front part of their back leg where they’re getting more to the psoas, especially if there’s core engagement there to protect the low back. And that’s fine. Some people feel more of a stretch or a sensation in the inner thigh, the adductors or the groin region, and that’s okay too. And they can feel it in the back of the hip for sure by the piriformis muscle. However, it is discerning is it really the piriformis or is it a fascial referral? In which case is that appropriate and helpful or not? Or is it nerve or not? And really only the student can tell through practice and discerning how they feel the next day and the day after that. So maybe helping them to notice and have awareness of their body and how they’re feeling after class.

And the next day in one-to-one sessions, you can do trial and error, especially if someone has sciatica or disc issues. Try it out. If they really want to do pigeon pose, I’ve had many people requesting to do it safely, learn how to do it safely, then try it and they can determine how they feel the next day or after that. And if it flares their symptoms or they feel worse, it’s not like they can’t ever do pigeon pose ever again for most people. You can say, “Oh, okay, well let’s look at where a range of motion or strength might be lacking and focus on those areas first and then we can revisit pigeon pose in a few months,” and that gives them some hope or something to look forward to or something to work towards.

If they are working through trauma or having nervous system responses. Do you need to refer out to a trauma specialist or someone that can help with that? Or are you able to down-regulate the nervous system through breathwork techniques, like a lengthened exhale? Can you add in root chakra work? Aligning that root chakra and giving feelings of sufficiency and safety and coming into the second chakra of fertility and creativity and essentially birthing new ideas into the world.

So for sure, it’s not to say that pigeon pose is bad, right? I love pigeon pose. There are many students who love pigeon pose and it just might not be appropriate for them right now. And that might be a really good reason why they should work with you one-to-one. So you can help them to develop the strength, the flexibility, the awareness to do pigeon pose safely if they love it, if it is like it can be a great pose to do with support prior to bed, to calm the nervous system to get a better night’s sleep, right?

So maybe they work with you for a few sessions to get the strength, to get the flexibility so then they can safely do pigeon pose before bed so they can sleep better. That would be a wonderful six-week program.

There you have it. All right! So I just wanted to bring this one particular pose into your awareness since I do see in many Facebook groups how controversial it is through the passionate arguments and comments in in groups. And now you have a little bit more insight into the alignment and what to be aware of.

And if you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. And of course get on the mat and try all types of pigeon pose yourself, try it with support, try it without support, try it in the strengthening format, do it yourself and embody it, experience it for several times and then teach it. And your students will love that creativity and variety as well, because truthfully, there’s so many variations of pigeon pose.

Alright, I will see you on the mat. Bye for now!

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Alison McLean

"I help the Entrepreneur reduce stress and live a more fulfilled and balanced life."
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