It’s very common to hear cautions in the yoga world that pigeon pose is risky for the knee. But is it?
First of all, why is pigeon believed to be risky for the knee?
The idea is generally that pigeon requires 90° of hip external rotation. Because no one actually has that much hip ROM (the average is 45°), the assumption is that we “steal” it by cranking on the knee.
Buuut… that’s not really what happens!
In reality, to rotate one’s knee joint 45° in lieu of that extra 45° of hip ER would be highly uncomfortable.
Instead, each person’s body organizes itself to fit the general shape of pigeon by moving in other places where it makes more sense to move.
Here are 3 examples of how the body naturally self-organizes in pigeon:
#1: Our front shin might not be parallel with the front edge of our mat.
When we angle our shin back toward our opposite hip, this reduces the amount of hip external rotation required.
#2: We might roll onto our outer hip (i.e., our pelvis won’t be “square” to the front of the mat).
When our pelvis rotates away from the pigeon leg, this reduces the amount of external rotation required in the pigeon leg hip.
#3: We might elevate our pelvis off the floor.
We might intentionally place a prop under our pelvis, or our pelvis might just hang out in space some distance above the floor. This reduces the amount of hip external rotation required:
These extremely common adjustments allow us to embody pigeon pose without needing 90° of hip external rotation.
And they happen without our even having to think about it because the body naturally self-organizes. These are all favorable adaptations!
It’s also important to note that acute knee injuries generally happen in situations involving high velocity and high magnitude loads.
So if we were, say, dropped into pigeon from a height of 6 feet, this certainly might be risky for the knee!
But because classic pigeon is a static, passive stretch, the loads are so low that it is not especially risky for the knee.
For a more in-depth discussion about whether pigeon pose will wreck your knee, plus many more body geeky insights on this classic hip-opener, listen to Episode 18 of the Yoga Meets Movement Science podcast: Pigeon Pose: Friend or Foe?