Common mistakes: This position is meant to create length in the spine, but all too often, we keep our legs straight and try to get our heels to touch the floor, says Sarah Girard, a yoga instructor at multiple Equinox locations in New York City who also teaches alignment flow classes. This can pull the pelvis into a posterior tilt, which creates a rounding of the low back, taking the natural curve out of the lumbar spine, leading to potential low-back pain.
Do this instead: If you feel low-back pain, or especially if you’re new to the posture, bend your knees to deepen the fold in the front of your hips and lift the back of your pelvis higher to bring more eccentric movement into the hamstrings. Your down dog should resemble a triangle with your tailbone at the highest point. “The long muscles of our hamstrings are much more malleable and receptive to long stretches as opposed to the short ligaments of our low backs,” says Girard. And keep working at it: eventually learning how to straighten your legs is a very important aspect to the practice.
Common mistakes: Sitting on the hip of the front bent leg can create an asymmetry in the hips, torqueing the spine and putting unnecessary pressure on medial side (the inner part) of the back knee, Girard explains. “A healthy knee joint is held together firmly by strong ligaments; we don’t want the medial or lateral ligaments to become too lax that they can’t hold the joint in place.”
Pigeon should never be excruciating, she adds: “There should be a balance of engagement and length happening in all postures, which is approachable and manageable.” If you feel acute, sharp, or isolated pain (meaning you can put your finger on it), it’s time to adjust alignment.
Do this instead: Sit the glute of your bent leg on a prop, like a bolster or folded blankets, to bring your hips higher. “Therefore, we can adjust the back leg into neutral extension from the hip.” Point your front foot rather than flexing it, too. “This actually frees up the back leg so we can roll onto the anterior shin alleviating any torqueing of the front knee.”
Since your hips will be higher, you can readjust the front, bent leg's hip so the pelvis is level side-to-side, front and back, Girard explains. “This creates an even stretch across the whole hip and avoids any knee sensation.” Like bending your knees during down dog, this another fix that should be temporary. As you continue practicing, you can learn to align your hips without the prop.
Common mistakes: Keeping your weight in the heels of the feet and trying to straighten your legs could cause your knees to hyperextend and overburden your hamstring attachment. “If you can lift the balls of your feet off the floor without disturbing the pose too much, you know you have too much weight in the back of your feet.”
Do this instead: Shift more of your weight toward the front of your feet. This might mean you have to bend your knees, but you'll be lengthening your hamstrings and decompressing your spine. Feeling the sensation in the backs of your legs is a good thing, she notes. After working for a while with legs bent, start to engage your quads to work your legs toward straight.