YoTip: Pigeon Pose for the rest of us with Lynette Chiang [VIDEO]

VIDEO: YoGanesh teacher Lynette Chiang demonstrates an easy way to get into Pigeon pose

Words and photos by Lynette Chiang

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One of our more “obscure” muscles (in that, you’re not really aware of it on a daily basis like your quads and hammies) is the piriformis. This muscle is located deep in your butt, running from the sacrum to the top of the thighbone.  It’s one of the the many hip rotator muscles that collectively turn the hips and upper leg outward (called external rotation), and particularly for athletes, provides stability around the knee when twisting and changing direction.

To find the piriformis: If you sit in a chair, cross the right ankle (flex that foot!) just in front of the left knee and tip your body forward from the hips, you’ll feel the piriformis wake up in your right lower butt. I call this the Piriformis Desk Jockey stretch, because it’s an ideal thing to do at your desk. Sitting cross-legged and leaning forward also activates this muscle.

Piriformis

Hip muscles as seen from behind – the Piriformus wraps around the lower sit bone area

The piriformis skirts the infamous sciatic nerve – the one that gives grief by sending shooting pains down the leg and sometimes numbing the butt. This condition is called sciatica.  This Wiki entry eviscerates the area impressively, showing how the nerve actually passes THROUGH this muscle for a certain percentage of the population. When tight, muscles contract and fatten – and in this case, can push the sciatic nerve. Stretching and strengthening this muscle is thought to help alleviate and and avoid sciatic pain.
In its easiest form, Pigeon Pose is simply lying face down with one leg tucked under your body, grounding the same side hip down on the mat, as shown in the video.  This is sometimes called Pigeon Prep. Often, a block or blanket is placed under the sit bone of the bend leg, when hips are tight.

In a more “proper” form of Pigeon, the shin is parallel to the end of the mat – rather difficult for all but the most malleably-hipped humans. Yoga Journal calls this One-Legged King Pigeon pose:

Yoga Journal's King Pigeon Pose

(Two-legged involves bring the back leg up to your head, but that’s a whole other level!). I made the video above to illustrate an easier way to get this leg formation happening. I’m one of these humans who aren’t super open-hipped by design – I’m also one of the child ballerinas who could never really do the splits! None of this genetic stuff need stop you from getting a good approximation to any yoga move and reaping the benefits.

Lynette’s Easy Pigeon:

  1. A good idea is to warm up the area with some of the exercises listed under “Other Ways to Stretch the Piriformis” below. Then sit on the floor. Bend the back leg behind you completely at the knee, like you were jumping over a hurdle.
  2. Bring front leg shin parallel to mat, flexing foot
  3. “Box” the front leg in with the arms as shown, arms pressing in to keep the front foot flexed to protect the knee
  4. Keeping upper body low to the mat, manoeuvre it squarely over your front leg
  5. Now – with care – knee-toe the back leg to straighten it, so the entire front of the back leg faces the mat. Don’t over strain! Drop forehead to mat and exhale to deepen. Stay there a while, all the while “scootching” your back leg longer to be as straight and long as possible.
  6. To come out, the first thing you must do is release the back leg completely, i.e. bend it acutely at the knee. This “unlocks” everything.
  7. Stretch out and do the other side.
Just remember 3 things:
1. The FIRST thing you do going INTO the pose is bend the back leg completely.
2. Keep that front foot FLEXED (that’s what the boxed arms are for) to protect the knee
3. The FIRST thing you do coming OUT of the pose is bend the back leg completely.

Other ways to stretch the piriformis

There are easier ways to stretch this muscle – and they provide a good warmup for Pigeon.

Piriformis stretch lying down1. Piriforms stretch lying down: Lie on back, left knee bent, right foot crossed over it at the ankle. Reach through the “hole” to clasp left shin, and pull shoulders towards mat. Keep you head on the ground. This image thanks to Sciaticalive.com.

 

2. Piriformis stretch sitting: the easiest of them all! Sit in a chair, cross your right over the left at the ankle, and keeping back straight, lean forward. You can aim to reach for the floor. This image from Doubleyourgains.com which shows some other good lower back stretches.

3. Piriformis stretch standing: Stand on one leg, weighting it for a moment to get your balance. Cross the right knee over the left and lean over. Don;t do this one if it’s a strain on your standing knee. This image, with other tips, from chiropractor Dr Backman.

Happy piriforming/pigeoning!
Lynette Chiang aka GalfromdownunderYoga teaches Vinyasa for the Rest of Us at YoGanesh Manhattan 
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5 comments on “YoTip: Pigeon Pose for the rest of us with Lynette Chiang [VIDEO]
  1. Trudy Cox says:

    Vanessa- I miss our Monday classes! Please let me know where you are teaching!
    Love,
    Trudy

  2. Lynette says:

    Doug,
    I can’t wait to share your incredible story with the YoGanesh Community!
    Meanwhile, I’m sharing this video of you, who at age 65 started yoga just 3 years ago:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbH3XnId2tI

  3. Lynette says:

    Thank you Vanessa! It’s actually more of an intermediate technique for absolute beginners and those with tight hips. Sometimes, I just leave things at Pigeon Prep and then let students experiment with Easy King Pigeon – bring the back leg up and saying hello to it at whatever proximity they can manage. Appreciate that you find it useful.

  4. VANESSA SELIOKAS says:

    Gratitude for posting this, Lynette – hip opening postures make-up a significant part of my classes when I teach. I pulled my piriformis over a year ago (apparently my ego was warmed up plenty and my hips not so much). These valuable tips will be included in my personal practice and passed along to my students.

    Jai,

    Vanessa A. Seliokas
    Kripalu RYT-200

  5. Doug Slack says:

    Thank you Lynette,
    Very lovely pigeon and a wonderful explaination. I like the “box” to keep the foot flexed.
    I do another stretch that also works to open the hip; sitting upright with one leg extended and engaged the other leg craddled foot and knee inside the elbows gently working towards getting the foot and knee into the armpits. I always do this in preparation for Compass, putting my knee behind my shoulder or foot behind my head.
    Thank you
    Doug

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