We often think of simple seated forward bends as “beginner” poses. But in 34 years of teaching, I’ve actually found these to be some of the most challenging for my students. They may look simple, but there are a lot of elements that have to fall into place in order for them to support, rather than compromise, the spine. Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) is no exception.
Gomukhasana is one of the 15 poses described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the text that outlines the centuries-old physical practices of yoga. Cow Face Pose stretches the deep hip rotators, gluteal muscles and abductors of the legs. Over the years Cow Face Pose has made its way into my list of “staple” yoga poses. It confers many of the benefits of Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose), but without the risks.
Not everyone’s skeletal structure is built for Cow Face Pose. The pose requires quite a bit of external rotation in the hip joints. Our individual hip joints are all structured differently. Some hip joints externally rotate easily; others don’t. Still, we can all benefit from practicing the actions that warm and stretch the appropriate muscles for moving into Cow Face Pose.
Gomukhasana Prep Poses
Here are some of the poses I’d suggest for preparing your body for Cow Face Pose:
- Warrior Poses: The Warrior Poses (I and II), Viparita Virabhadrasana (Reverse Warrior Pose) and Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) all help to warm up the muscles that need to stretch in Gomukhasana.
- Quadriceps Stretching: While the quads are not rotators or abductors, stretching the quads does seem to support preparing for Cow Face Pose. I’m guessing that this is partly due to the knee flexion required in the pose. Ardha Virasana (Half Hero Pose) is very effective for stretching the quads. But the knee flexion may be too extreme for some people. The most knee-friendly way to stretch the quads is this: Lie face down on a yoga mat. Bend the right knee and reach your right hand back to hold the right foot. (If you can’t reach, use a yoga strap to connect the hand with your right ankle.) Draw the foot in toward your buttocks. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths, and then release and switch sides.
- Jathara Parivrttanasana (Revolved Belly Pose): This lying-down twist gently stretches the glutes, hip rotators and abductors. This is especially true if you extend your legs out straight, at a 90-degree angle to your torso.
- Supta Ardha Padmasana (Reclining Half Lotus Pose): This pose most directly mimics the effects of Gomukhasana. I especially like this pose because when you’re lying on your back, the floor gives you a helpful reference point for your alignment. This can be a great alternative to Cow Face Pose for people who struggle to sit upright in Gomukhasana. It can also be an alternative for people whose experience knee discomfort in Cow Face Pose.
How to Practice Gomukhasana
Now that you’ve prepared your body for the pose, here’s how to practice it:
- Begin by sitting on a yoga mat. You might want to have a firm blanket or a couple yoga blocks handy.
- Bend your right knee and then place your right heel next to your left outer thigh with your knee on the floor, pointing straight ahead. Bend your left knee and place it directly on top of your right knee with your left foot next to your right outer thigh.
- You may find that your left knee is unable to rest atop your right knee. Not a problem. This is a perfectly legitimate Gomukhasana, as long as your ischial tuberosities (sit bones) are evenly grounded. However, if your left ischial is nowhere near the floor you’ll need to modify. If your ischial tuberosities are not contacting the ground evenly, the rest of your torso will have to distort itself in order for you to keep from falling over. Place a folded blanket or yoga block under your sit bones. If your sit bones are still not evenly grounded, straighten your right leg out, letting it rest flat on the floor with your left leg still bent on top of it.
- Another reason you might want to try the above variation of Gomukhasana (bottom leg straight) is if you feel any discomfort in your right knee. Discomfort in your knee is never a good thing. Knee discomfort means that ligaments and tendons are being stretched. This is a recipe for destabilizing your knee joints. No yoga pose is worth destabilizing your joints.
- If both sit bones are resting on the floor evenly and your right knee feels fine, you might enjoy interlacing your fingers in between your toes. My students who are familiar with Chinese meridian theory say that this hand-to-foot relationship stimulates all the meridians simultaneously.
- You can either sit with your torso upright, or you can bend forward from the pelvis, placing your forehead on an upright yoga block if it will reach. If you have two blocks, you can stack them up to meet your forehead. Resting your forehead can help quiet your brain.
- Breathe deeply, expanding your back body on your inhalations. Allow your body to settle on your exhalations.
- After 5 to 10 deep breaths, allow an inhalation to lift your torso back up to vertical. Uncross your legs, stretching them both out in front of you on the floor. Feel the residue of the pose—the sensations in your legs, the natural rhythm and depth of your breath, the character of your mind. Then repeat on the other side.
- It is quite common for the sides of the body to be very different. Even if you bent both knees on the first side, you may need to practice the straight-leg variation on the second side or vice versa. Remember that the awareness that allows you to adjust for your own body’s variations is a far greater indication of yogic depth than what your pose looks like.