Gomukhasana (cow face pose) is a complex posture. It combines a deep hip opener with a deep shoulder and chest opener through flexion, external rotation, and adduction of the hips, flexion of one shoulder, and extension and internal rotation of the other shoulder. Because of its complexity, gomukhasana offers numerous benefits for both the upper and lower body, including improved posture, functional movement, and accessibility to other poses that incorporate deep shoulder openers or binds, and deep hip openers like eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged king pigeon pose).
The areas gomukhasana targets (shoulders/chest and hips) can be particularly troublesome, especially for those of us who sit a lot—the glute muscles get weaker and tighter as we passively sit on them throughout the day, while the chest and shoulders (particularly the anterior deltoids—the fronts of the shoulders) get tighter with all the typing, eating, pushing, steering, and texting we do. Cow face, with some specific tweaks, is a wonderful option to address all these issues.
The areas this pose targets (shoulders/chest and hips) can be particularly troublesome, especially for those of us who sit a lot.
Let’s start from the ground up. Begin on your hands and knees, and pull your right leg forward to cross your right knee directly in front of your left knee. Now bring your left foot out toward the right—your heels should be wider than your outer hips. Walk your hands back and sit your hips down toward the floor. Your left hip will touch down first, followed by your right. Move slowly—if you’re having trouble getting both hips down, try straightening out your left (bottom) leg in front of you or elevating your hips on a blanket.
Make sure you’re not sitting on your left heel and that both your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) are grounded down into whatever you’re sitting on. Try to stack your right knee on top of your left one, but don’t force it; it’s okay if they’re not perfectly stacked. Sit up tall, and lift your rib cage away from your pelvis, lengthening your spine. To ensure that your lower back isn’t flexing (rounding forward), roll your pelvis forward and stretch your sit bones back behind you. In doing so, make sure you don’t lose your connection to your core muscles; keep your belly gently drawn in and up; avoid over-arching through your low back and jutting your rib cage forward. Lift your chest, and lengthen through the crown of your head.
To add the upper body component, reach your right arm straight up and your left arm straight down alongside your body. Bend both elbows so your right palm and the back of your left hand both rest against your back. Try to reach your fingertips together (without forcing it). If they don’t meet, use a strap or towel to make the connection, or simply rest your hands on your back. Notice what happens to your posture when you crawl your fingers toward each other. Make sure your chin doesn’t lift or lower too much; keep your chin parallel with the floor, and lengthen through the back of your neck.
Most people think gomukhasana is about the lifted arm, when in actuality we can get more benefit in the shoulder by focusing on the lowered arm, strengthening the rotator cuff muscles (particularly subscapularis) as well as the rhomboids, and stretching the notoriously tight pectoralis muscles and anterior deltoid. To do so, make sure your shoulders are parallel with the floor; the tendency will be for your right shoulder to hike up. By making sure your shoulders are level, you ensure that you’re stretching through the shoulder girdle instead of laterally flexing (side bending) through your spine to accomplish the bind. Next, try to roll your left (bottom) shoulder back while gently guiding your shoulder blades toward each other. This will deepen the stretch in your left anterior deltoid (the front of your left shoulder), a place that is notoriously tight for most of us who live in this technological world. You may have to bring your hands farther apart to achieve this, but it will be more beneficial in the long run. Hold this posture, and breathe.
Try to relax through your jaw and lengthen through the crown of your head. Feel how this posture allows you to draw more energizing breath into your lungs! Remember to keep your core engaged to maintain integrity in the spine and rib cage.
The great thing about gomukhasana is that you can choose to do both the upper and lower body components, or you can do one or the other and really focus on opening up that area of your body. To intensify the stretch in the hips, for example, you could hinge forward at the hips while keeping your spine straight (try to avoid rounding forward in the spine because that takes away from the range of motion in the hip joint which is what we are targeting) and focusing on “shooting” your sit bones back behind you.
The upper body component is a great stretch to incorporate throughout the day, especially if you are desk- or chair-bound for most of it. Performing this stretch a couple of times daily during your breaks will greatly improve not only your posture but your energy levels because it allows more oxygen to be taken into the lungs.
Gomukhasana is also a beneficial preparatory pose for many other postures. The upper body component will prepare you for binds in poses like utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose) and svarga dvijasana (bird of paradise pose). The lower body component will help prepare you for deeper hip openers like pigeon, baby cradle, eka pada galavasana (flying pigeon) and agnistambhasana (fire log pose).
Focus on these small tweaks in your gomukhasana, and watch your improved hip and shoulder range of motion propel you deeper into your practice!