I never understood the excitement over Half Pigeon Pose. For the longest time it was a posture that just frustrated me. It never felt comfortable for my body and no matter how much the teacher asked me to surrender I just couldn't. It wasn't exactly pain I was experiencing, there just never was a sense of ease in the posture. That's until I took the time to actually understand the various aspects of Half Pigeon.
As I've gotten older I've developed more patience with my practice. If I don't like a posture I take the time to investigate the reason behind my distaste. It took a lot of experimentation for Half Pigeon to feel decent in my body. Through my trial and error approach I've started to teach Half Pigeon in my classes in a way that feels right in my body. Luckily, my approach has been met with a lot of appreciation.
Just a couple weeks ago I had a student pull me aside after class. She told me she's never liked Half Pigeon because she never knew what to do in the posture. For the entire class the teacher was telling her exactly what to do, but when it came to Half Pigeon she got radio silence. Of course I understand the many reasons why a teacher would back off with the instructions in Half Pigeon, but I like to give some very specific directions in the posture to keep students engaged physically and mentally. She shared with me that my class was the first time she actually enjoyed Half Pigeon because she understood what was going on.
Here's my approach:
By pressing your front shin bone into your mat you're establishing some buoyancy in your body. Allowing gravity to just pull me down just never felt right. In my experiments I decided to do the opposite (a little trick I learned from my teacher--if something's not working, do the opposite). Viola! The posture already felt different in my body. When you press your shin down you'll get muscles around your hips to fire. Engaging and stretching your muscles aren't actions that have to happen independently. Because you engage a muscle doesn't mean you can't stretch it and the surrounding muscles at the same time.
There's the tendency in Half Pigeon to let the hips sway heavily to one side or the other. To help stabilize and level out your pelvis squeeze your inner thighs toward each other. If you're favoring one hip due to pain in your front knee then you'll want to reevaluate the posture. I have suggestions below on how to deal with knee discomfort.
The adjustment that changed the whole posture for me? Reach the sitting bone of your front leg back. For most bodies the shift is tiny and not a lot will happen physically. However, the smallest shift of your sitting bone back will increase the stretch deep into the outer hip and glutes for most bodies. In my opinion this adjustment in the posture is what takes Half Pigeon from a blah hip opening posture to a useful, targeted hip opening posture. It's incredible how many times I've had students lift out of their posture, make eye contact with me, and nod their head when I've given this instruction like they're saying, "I get it now!"
I definitely don't want to take away the softening, surrendering aspect of Half Pigeon from my students. Although the legs and hips are working in this specific approach, there's plenty of space to let the arms, neck, and abdomen relax. This might just be the case for me, but when I get hyper-focused with my physical body, my mind is able to do the same.
Knee pain got you down?
Sometimes it's not misunderstanding that keeps yoga students away from Half Pigeon. Often the posture can cause knee discomfort. There's a few ways to alleviate that issue.
Your body is structurally pretty incredible. It's made up of domes and angles to keep you supported and stable. In yoga, even when you manipulate your body into various shapes, it's best to work with those natural structural supports. When it comes to your joints, they are most stable and supported when they're at a 0, 90, or 180 degree angle. In Half Pigeon I encourage students to place their front shin at an angle that seems right for their knee, but often it's a challenge to find that just-right angle. If you are experiencing knee pain, try one of these options.
First, try to reduce the angle of the front knee a lot. Without actually sitting on your foot, pull your front foot closer to your groin and see if that increases, decreases, or doesn't change the discomfort. Narrowing the angle of the knee is also incredibly helpful if you plan to transition Half Pigeon into King Pigeon Pose. Although so many of us are striving to get that shin as far forward as possible, it's okay to back off a lot. Backing off might be exactly what your body needs.
Although backing off on the front knee's angle is a very good choice, in most bodies it reduces the outer hip stretch. You could maintain the outer hip stretch while taking care of the front knee by increasing the angle in your front knee up to 90 degrees. As someone who has a history of knee pain I used to cringe whenever an instructor would tell me to get my shin parallel to the front edge of my mat. There's no way my body will do that! Of course at the time I didn't understand the power of props. Most bodies aren't going to move their shin that far forward without distorting their pelvis, so the posture needs to be propped up. Place one block at its lowest height under the sitting bone of your front leg. You might even want a second block under your front knee to keep that supported. Even better, if you have a bolster you can lay your whole front thigh bone across the bolster. Props, just like postures, require some experimentation. Play with the placement of your props so that it works for you.
The picture above is how I do Half Pigeon in practice. Any knee pain I once felt is now gone, I get a deep stretch in my outer hip, and if I go through the various actions and engagements of the posture I am able to settle in and focus. My hips will never touch my mat in this posture, but that's not the point!
We as students have painted ideal images of postures like Half Pigeon in our heads. Sometimes it's nice to have a goal and something to strive for, but at the end of the day none of the postures are one-size-fits-all. As Leslie Kaminoff so beautifully states, "Asanas don't have alignment". Your body, however, does have alignment. Your body has its own unique, individual alignment for each asana. Stop forcing your body into cookie-cutter shapes. Take the time to experiment and play. Your body will thank you for it.