Expressive and aesthetically pleasing, mermaid pose is a favorite among yogis to practice and capture in photos. You’ll see this beautiful shape featured prominently on yoga websites, gracing the covers of magazines, and showing up regularly on Instagram. Because it’s “easier” to access than eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged full king pigeon), some teachers may offer mermaid pose as a modification. A deep hip opener and chest stretch, this pose resembles the grace and fluidity of the mystical sea creature it’s named for.
The first time I was introduced to mermaid pose, I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to get into it. Mermaid pose felt great in my body, allowing me to release stored emotions and physical tension, and I continued to practice it for years—until one day in yoga teacher training when my teacher, Mark Stephens, asked us to think about possible risks with this pose. As we spouted out answers regarding the knees, shoulders, hips, and low back, we all still missed the point he was about to make. Yes, the knees, shoulders, and hips can be at risk, but what he wanted us to consider were the anatomical movements of the spine in mermaid pose (extension and rotation) and why we should be concerned with the combination. Extension is bending the spine backward (the opposite of flexion, which is bending the spine forward toward the legs). Rotation is twisting or turning the spine right or left.
Yes, the knees, shoulders, and hips can be at risk, but what he wanted us to consider were the anatomical movements of the spine.
Adding rotation when the spine is in extension can put unnecessary strain on the lumbar spine and overload the lumbar joints. When someone is properly aligned in one-legged king pigeon, with the hips square to the front of the mat, the spine is in extension but there’s no rotation. This full expression of mermaid pose requires the hip adductors of the front leg and the hip flexors of the back leg to be open, as well as the abdominals, chest, and shoulders. When the practitioner's body isn't ready to put all those pieces together, the asana may morph into mermaid pose (or something which resembles mermaid pose); with the bottom arm in search of the back foot, the back hip begins to splay out. And the spine, by this point, is now in both extension and rotation.
The backbend in mermaid pose is deep and already pushes the spine to its edge (or end range of motion). We then push the spine even further by adding rotation when we reach back to grab the back foot or place it into the bottom arm’s elbow crease. According to chiropractor Dr. Keri Linane, the combined pressure of extension and rotation can irritate or inflame the lumbar discs and tear the tissues of the joint capsules.
Now, here is where the debate comes in. Many yoga teachers, movement specialists, and trainers argue that the combination of extension and rotation isn’t risky if you have a healthy spine (which could explain why so many expert teachers and yogis are still practicing mermaid pose). My intention, though, is not to settle a debate, but instead to urge you to think about what defines a healthy spine and consider: if you decide to teach this pose or offer it as an alternative to full king pigeon—how many of your students really have healthy spines?
Many adults have compromised their spines to some degree, and very few people actually have a spine that’s healthy all the time. Even as yogis and generally healthy people, we still hunch our backs when we’re tired; spend hours sitting at computers or in cars; stare down at our phones for long periods of time; can sleep in a manner that irritates the spine; and we may even put our spines at risk during yoga practice and other physical activities with quick, jarring movements, overstretching in forward folds, or forcing our way into backbends.
Now consider the rest of the population. If you are a teacher, think about the students who show up in your classes. According to a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic, back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor or miss work, and it is the leading cause of disability worldwide (read the study). In any given class, you can have students with a range of conditions that you may or may not be aware of, including but not limited to stiffness, back pain, scoliosis, stenosis, bulging discs, and herniated discs. Extension and rotation with these conditions becomes risky, especially when done repeatedly.
As a teacher, how do you determine who in your class has a spine healthy enough to risk the potential harm mermaid pose can cause? As a student, how do you know if your spine is healthy enough? Do we just forgo mermaid pose altogether?
Well, that’s definitely an option, and arguably the safest way to ensure you aren’t putting your students or yourself at risk. But one could argue that the appropriateness of extension with rotation depends on context and the practitioner.
As a teacher, reflect on why you are teaching mermaid pose to begin with. Is there another pose or set of poses that could achieve its same effects, but with less risk? If you still opt to offer mermaid pose when teaching a class, or if you opt to take it while practicing yoga, understand the biomechanics of this shape. Approach it with caution. Consider what level class you are teaching, closely observe your students as they move through practice, properly prepare the body, and emphasize a concern for safely exploring the shape.
Know that the condition of your own spine varies day to day, and it’s imperative that we listen to our bodies as we practice.
Let’s not forget, as students we are also each responsible for own individual safety. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to skip a pose while in class. Be cautious and move slowly as you feel it out. Know that the condition of your own spine varies day to day, and it’s imperative that we listen to our bodies as we practice. Deeper is not always better. Yoga is about tuning in and learning to pay attention to the subtle nuances of the body, especially when practicing complex modifications like mermaid pose. Keep in mind, the pose is not the goal. As teachers and students we must remember (non-harming) and to first and foremost practice safe yoga.