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Yoga's #1 Shoulder-Opening Pose: How to Practice Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose)
Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana) is a staple in my morning yoga classes. Years ago, several of my students made up unflattering names for it—Cow Pie, Mad Cow, etc.—because it was so challenging for them. Now those same Cow Face naysayers have turned into Cow Face converts, even sometimes giving up a bit of their Savasana to do it if I don’t offer it in class. The Cow Face arm position is another story, however. It can be quite a challenge, but with a yoga strap, anyone can reap the benefits. It’s a great pose to open your shoulders and expand your chest.
Gomukhasana is quite complex. It stretches all the glutes—maximus, medius, and minimus—as well as the piriformis and the tensor fasciae latae. My students—the ones who like it—find it very grounding, making it a helpful pose toward the end of a practice.
Cow Face Pose also offers an opportunity to open the shoulders. The classic arm position, with one elbow pointing upward and the other forearm wedged behind your shoulder blades—said to look like one raised and one lowered ear on a cow’s head—creates a strong triceps stretch in the upper arm and a strong biceps and deltoid stretch in the lower one.
While the leg and arm positions are traditionally practiced together, they can also be beneficial on their own if you’re interested in putting more attention into either your hips or shoulders.
Today’s blog will focus on the shoulders. While the traditional position calls for connecting the hands of your upper and lower arms in the upper back, the reality is, many people’s shoulders just won’t allow this.
There are many possible reasons for this, including the construction of the shoulder joints. Some people’s shoulders are formed for stability. They may not be able to reach their elbow straight up toward the sky because their humerus bones will “hit” the back of the scapula before the arm gets to vertical. This is within the normal variations in the range of motion.
Others will find that when their dominant arm is the lower one, that their hands can’t touch, even though they may connect when the dominant arm is the upper one. This is probably due to increased strength and stability in the dominant arm’s biceps and deltoids. Or there could be some other reason.
In any case, a yoga strap can help. It can bridge the gap between your hands, creating a connection. Connecting the hands is important for energizing the arms in Gomukhasana. Whether you connect your fingers or use a yoga strap to connect your hands, your Gomukhasana will be more dynamic if your hands are able to connect.
How to Open Your Shoulders with a Yoga Strap
If your hands don’t connect in Gomukhasana, try this:
Extend your left arm out in front of you, turning your palm outward. Swing your arm around behind your back. Bend your elbow and place the back of your hand on your low back. Now scoot your hand up your spine any amount—anywhere from the lower ribcage to between the shoulder blades.
Hold a yoga strap in your right hand. Dangle it over your back. Turn your right palm to face inward, toward your head. Bend your elbow.
Find the yoga strap with your left hand and grip it firmly. Walk your right and left hands toward each other. If you’d like to add some extra energy to your shoulder experience, “stretch” the strap, pulling upward with your right hand and downward with your left.
Stay for 5 to 10 deep breaths. Let go and let your arms relax. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths before practicing your other side.
Reprinted with permission from Charlotte Bell/Hugger Mugger Yoga Products.
Charlotte Bell began practicing yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. She was certified by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1989 following a trip to Pune. In 1986, she began practicing Insight Meditation with her mentors Pujari and Abhilasha Keays. Her asana classes blend mindfulness with physical movement. Charlotte writes a column for Catalyst Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. She is the author of three books: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press; and Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain, published by Shambhala Publications. She also edits Hugger Mugger Yoga Products' blog and is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, she plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk sextet Red Rock Rondo whose 2010 PBS music special won two Emmys.