Strange Yoga Instructions: Pigeon Pose and the Piriformis Muscle


I’d love to meet the first yoga teacher to tell students to take the knee out to the side of the hip in pigeon pose. Pigeon pose, as it is commonly known, is a preparatory pose for the more advanced eka pada raja kapotasana (one legged king pigeon in Sanskrit). I think the alignment of the outer knee with the outer hip is very important.

Pigeon pose, an all time favorite, is a piriformis muscle stretch when you extend forward over the front knee. The piriformis muscle, along with the psoas major and gluteus maximus, is one of only three muscles that connect the legs to the spine. It helps to stabilize the pelvis as well as turn the leg out in external rotation. I think that almost everyone tucks their pelvis under, and subsequently leans backwards through life, and, if you are one of those people, your piriformis is either tight or weak or both. Piriformis problems are often related to sciatica and piriformis syndrome.

The closer the knee and the hip are to aligning parallel with the side of the mat the deeper the stretch will be in the piriformis. Once the knee is aligned with the hip, students can start moving their shin parallel to the front of the mat, increasing the intensity of the stretch to the piriformis. The pelvis should be squared off with the sit bones at the same height and the outer hips (greater trochanters) in a line parallel to the front of the mat.

The alignment of the knee and the hip is critical for both the stretch of the piriformis and for lengthening the IT Band. Knee pain caused by tight IT bands could be the reason for taking the knee out to the side. As soon as the knee goes out to the side wider than the hip, the IT band releases and the tensor fascia latae, the muscle of the IT band, is taken out of the pose as it relaxes out of tension, or worse engages to pull the knee out to the side. This defeats the whole purpose of the pose. We want to work the length of the IT band along with the stretch of the piriformis.

Here are two different ways to address the knee pain which might occur when aligning the knee with the hip:

1. Pay attention to the alignment of the foot and ankle in relation to the alignment of the knee. This will balance the ligaments of the knee (a future post).

2. Lift the pelvis higher, making it easier to square the hips and relieve some of the tension between the hip and the knee.

Pigeon pose in all of its forms is a great way to stretch and change the all important piriformis muscle. While a tight piriformis can be the bane of our existence, a happy piriformis will likely be the answer to our physical prayers.

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Knee Pain in Pigeon Pose
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6 Comments
  1. Cool, Jonathan! It’s funny, I used to ALWAYS teach this pose with the knee in line with the hip and if possible, the shin more perpendicular to the front of the mat. But in recent years I had been modifying the instruction to take the knee wider if there was knee pain (or like you said, to be higher on blankets/props but I’ve found most students won’t prop themselves higher even when it’s appropriate and I don’t always have time to get to everyone personally). But my main issue with this pose is the whole notion of having to flex the front ankle, which I don’t agree with any more. As long as the lateral side of the ankle isn’t sinking into the floor, the foot can be pointed which can tend to help with knee pain. I’m looking forward to your post on the ligaments of the knee, because my sense is that some people perhaps externally rotate the thigh TOO much and the calf/shin isn’t coming along, so to speak, so there’s an imbalance at the knee which, depending on the person, is exacerbated by trying to flex the front ankle. Anyways, I’ve found that some days pigeon is fine (I have a cranky knee probably from tight front line/quads and ITB), and some days I have to prop it, and some days even propping it, it will still feel terrible in the knee. On those days, ankle to knee is my go-to hip release pose!

  2. Why hello Jonathan I am one of the teachers teaching pigeon with the knee to the outside of the line of the hip. I’ve always been a fan of taking the knee wider to help clarify the square of the hips. True, the piriformus stretch might be short changed this way but there is a whole world of interest in squaring the hips while engaging the core. I guess I see this pose as having several possible directions of benefit. Maybe it is antiquated thinking but I still love the ability to square the hips by scissoring the legs while upright, which is most readily available with the knee off to the side more. When the torso comes forward, it does so at no expense to the transversus abdominis. Then, by keeping that tone and walking the back foot back farther (maybe, depending on the person) while launching the torso forward instead of down, there is an extension, a tone and a square. Thoughts?

    • Hi LIsa, There is nothing wrong with taking the knee wide of the hip it is just, like you say, a a bit less of a piriformis stretch. If that is what you are going for, that’s great. I always teach pigeon as a piriformis stretch and do other similar variations of other things. But what is in a name? It is all good.

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