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Yoga Pose Primer: How to Get into Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana)
Gomukhasana, or Cow Face Pose (go = cow, muhk = face, asana = pose), is one of those seated yoga postures that is more challenging than it appears (or the fun name suggests). Perhaps that is because it’s as equally intense on the shoulders as it is on the hips.
Benefits of Gomukhasana
Cow Face Pose is a surprisingly deep hip opener that stretches the piriformis and gluteal muscles, as well as the outer legs and IT band. When you practice with the traditional arm variation, the backs of the arms and rotator cuffs also get quite the stretch. The seated pose also opens the chest and thoracic spine.
Together the hip and shoulder opener can sometimes be too much, and I often forgo the shoulders and forward fold to get deeper into the hips in this yoga pose. You’ll also find that teachers will use Gomukhasana arms in standing poses such as Warrior II to throw in an extra chest and shoulder opener.
Steps for Getting Into Gomukhasana
Start seated with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. Reach your left arm around, under and through your left leg and grab your right ankle with your left hand.
Bring your right foot outside your left hip, crossing your right leg under your left. Then cross your left leg over the right, so that the left knee is stacked on top of the right, and bring your left foot outside the right hip. Situate both heels equal distance away from the hips and sit evenly on both sitting bones.
Flex both feet and strongly press the outer edges of your feet down into the mat, straightening the ankles and lifting the outer anklebones away from the floor. Keep this action to protect your knees and deepen the hip opener.
Inhale and reach both arms up overhead. Bend your right elbow and place your right palm on your upper back toward the middle of your shoulder blades. With your left hand gently press down into your right elbow and move it toward the midline.
Inhale, reach your left arm back up and open to the side shoulder height with the palm facing forward. Internally rotate your straight left arm, turning the palm down and then back, pointing the thumb down. Exhale, bend your left elbow and bring the back of your left hand up the center of your back.
Hug your left elbow into your left side and slide your left hand further up the back towards the middle of your shoulder blades. If your hands happen to meet, hook the fingers together. If they don’t meet, you can hold a yoga strap in your right hand, dangling it down your back, and then grab it with your left hand to connect your hands.
Inhale and lengthen up through the spine. Exhale and press your head back into your top arm, keeping the chest open. Next inhale, lengthen up through the left side of your body and gently draw your left shoulder back as you exhale. Forward fold to deepen the pose and take five to six breathes.
To release, exhale, extend your left arm back down toward the floor. Turn your palm forward, lifting your left arm back out to the side. Inhale and extend your right arm back up to the ceiling; exhale and lower your arm to your side. Stretch both legs out straight and repeat on the second side.
Common Misalignments in Gomukhasana
Problem: In Cow Face Pose, students will often place their feet too close to their hips.
Solution: To bring both heels equal distance away from the hips, tug the left foot (or whichever leg is on top) closer to your right hip and press your right foot away from your left hip. Remember to keep the feet flexed and pressing down through the pinkie toe side.
Problem: With one leg wrapped on top of the other in Gomukhasana, it can be difficult to get both sitting bones down to the floor and sit evening through the pelvis. It’s common for students to have one hip higher than the other and only one sitting bone down.
Solution: To sit evenly on both sitting bones, place your palms on the floor outside of your hips, press strongly down into your hands and lift your bottom up off the floor. Move your bottom to the right and place your right sitting bone down (or whichever leg is on the bottom). Then anchor down through your outer left hip and sitting bone.
Problem: The top arm in Gomukhasana (especially if you forward fold in the pose) will inevitably press the head forward, flexing the neck.
Solution: Continue to firmly press your head back into your arm, keeping your neck in line with the rest of your spine.
Problem: The bottom arm position in Gomukhasana is quite a challenging shoulder opener. You will need to create (and maintain length) through the side body of the bottom arm.
Solution: As best you can, anchor down through the outer left hip and inhale as you lengthen up through the armpit, bring your shoulders square across the top. Exhale and press the elbow forward slightly, lightly drawing the head of the arm bone back.
Modifications and Variations of Gomukhasana
First and foremost, never force the wrap of the bottom arm in this yoga pose. Most likely you will need to use a strap or towel between your two hands, leaving the back of your bottom hand lower on your back. You can begin to walk that bottom hand up the strap as the shoulders become more open. Or skip the bottom wrap and only do the top arm and shoulder opener, leaving your left hand on your right elbow.
If one sitting bone is still much higher than the other, slide a blanket or towel under the sitting bone that is down, lifting that side up and lowering the other sitting bone down to the floor. If both of your knees are really high you can always sit with both sitting bones on a block or folded blanket. If your sit bones are still not level, you can straighten your bottom leg, practicing with just the top knee bent. This is also a great variation to use if the knee of your bottom leg is uncomfortable.
If you can’t get your feet outside of the opposite hips, simply sit cross-legged with one shin in front of the other (in this case the left since the left leg was on top), flex both feet and sit evenly on both sitting bones. You may want to sit up on a blanket or block here as well.
The bottom half of Gomukhasana can be performed on your back with the legs in the air, and is a nice hip opener right at the end of class. Lying on your back with your legs up, cross your left leg over your right. Reach down and grab opposite heels with your hands. As best you can, flex both feet and lift both heels away from the floor bringing the shinbones parallel to the floor. Keeping both heels lifted, lengthen your knees away from your belly.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (500 ERYT) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com, as well as on Facebook.