Taught most commonly in its ‘arms only’ version, full Gomukhāsana is a marvellous pose, and one that for me embodies the yogic principle of harmony in body, mind and breath.
I will begin with the actions of the legs and hips. The crossing of one thigh completely above the other is not a common action in yogāsanas. Perhaps the nearest to Gomukhāsana in this is Garuḍāsana, though with a different orientation to gravity. Once entwined, however, the balance is easier in Garuḍāsana, because the standing foot is firmly flat on the ground. In Gomukhāsana, one is seated and the toes must point backwards with the tops of the feet on the floor, as in Vīrāsana but without the symmetry or groundedness.
The lower of the two legs has to be the main ‘anchor’ leg, with the shin and foot much as in Vīrāsana but the weight thrown more onto the outer shin. The upper leg has to negotiate the whole breadth and depth of the lower leg. This means that the upper leg foot will be further forward than the lower leg foot, but still has to point back and be parallel to it, with only the top of the foot and front ankle able to press into the floor. Also, the upper leg hip will be higher than the lower leg hip, causing the side waist to be shorter, and the whole trunk on that side (including the shoulder joint) will tend to swing forward compared to the other side. As we will see below, when we come to the arm action, this is not a bad thing!
Most Iyengar yoga practitioners have been conditioned to go for evenness at all costs, and we are unsurprisingly discombobulated, both mentally and physically, by this blatant unevenness. We want to sit down to make a firm and even base to the pose, and are shocked to find there is no even base to be had; so we find ourselves rather hovering, if not actually falling out of the pose, and with our breathing all over the place. Somehow, we have to squeeze our outer hips together (uneven as they are), lifting the spine strongly up, and then find a way to ‘land’ the buttocks, like a helicopter alighting on uneven ground.
“Most Iyengar yoga practitioners have been conditioned to go for evenness at all costs, and we are unsurprisingly discombobulated, both mentally and physically, by this blatant unevenness.”
Geetaji, ever pragmatic, suggests in Preliminary Course that: “The simple version of sitting position in this āsana is to cross the thighs on each other so that one knee remains on the top of the other and the feet remain on the sides of the buttocks”. That version will help bring flexibility to the ankles and strengthen the knee ligaments, and allow the breath to be steady, but it tends (in my experience) rather to stretch the outer hip muscles than to help them to grip inwards, which is what is required. I find this ‘simple version’ a better preparation for Padmāsana than I do for Gomukhāsana. Bringing flexibility and strength to the feet and ankles for the performance of Gomukhāsana is best helped, in my experience, by the Vīrāsana preparatory sequence given by Guruji in Light on Yoga (plates 85-88). The final Vīrāsana there remains very compact, and the squeezing inwards of the outer hips is that needed (even more strongly) for the balance in Gomukhāsana.
The other element that brings balance and harmony to Gomukhāsana is completing the full āsana with the arm action. This is because, when the left leg is underneath, the left arm is the upper one, and when the right leg is underneath the right arm is the upper one. In the full pose, there is thus a crisscross action between the arms and the legs that brings equilibrium both to the trunk and to the mind. This is shown wonderfully by Guruji in Light on Yoga (plate 80). For some reason, plate 81, taken from the back, shows Guruji with both right arm and right leg on top, which does not show the criss-cross action, or the resulting contrast in length of the two sides of the trunk.
The much better known Gomukhāsana arm action is introduced to beginner students in Tādāsana, after Ūrdhva Hastāsana, Ūrdhva Baddhānguliyāsana, Namaskārāsana and Ūrdhva Namaskārāsana, all of which open the shoulder joints and armpit chest and extend the sides of the trunk evenly. The action in Gomukhāsana, as we all know, is very different for each arm. The upper one has to open the shoulder and armpit chest, very like the previously learned poses, but with the elbow bending to drop the hand down between the upper shoulder blades. The other arm has to come from below with the upper arm extending down, the elbow at waist level and the forearm coming behind the back and up for the hand to clasp the fingers or ‘shake the hand’ of the descending other arm. The clasp of the hands is then used to open the chest further and expand the range of breath. The two arms might be referred to as the ‘Śīrṣāsana arm’ and the ‘Sarvāṅgāsana arm’ respectively, as the shoulder joints have to perform similar actions to what they do symmetrically in those inversions.
The upper arm has to learn to extend the triceps, to enable the elbow to come above the level of the head and behind it. The extension is initiated by spreading the bottom armpit at the back outwards. The lower arm has to learn to bend with an inward rotation of the humerus, whilst keeping the front armpit and shoulder broad and open. The collarbone has to remain wide when the arm comes back. When, say, the right arm is to be the lower arm, you can learn the feel of how its front shoulder should be by taking the arm behind your back and putting the back of the right hand against the outer left waist. Bring the left palm to the right palm and press them together firmly. This broadens the right front shoulder and then the arm can slide up the back more freely.
As is normal with so many different body types and degrees of joint tightness and looseness, some people find the arm actions of Gomukhāsana quite easy to perform, whilst others struggle with them all their lives. Many of us find one side easier than the other. Anyone with a shoulder injury needs to be very careful with this pose, and one should never stress the injury. The shoulder joint is of course a ball and socket joint; but because of the huge range of movement required by the arm, its socket is fairly shallow. With some actions, it is easy for the humerus head slightly to misalign and not be centred in the socket, leading to long-term wear and tear, as well as to local discomfort or pain. We have to learn to find the balance between freedom in the joint and proper firmness in the musculature supporting it. Assuming there is no injury, if we are very strongly right- or left-handed, we may well find that the stronger side is happy to do the very active movement of the upper arm while the more passive side is more able to perform the softer, surrendering action of the lower arm.
“We have to learn to find the balance between freedom in the joint and proper firmness in the musculature supporting it.“
Because arms-only Gomukhāsana is so much taught and practised, there are numerous well known ways to work for those having difficulty. The default, especially in a busy class, is to use a yoga belt to bridge any gap between the two hands. Working on opening the shoulder joints in all the other standing āsanas, and in the inversions, will gradually enable most diligent students to gain sufficient mobility to improve in the pose. I am one of those who finds Gomukhāsana arms easy to perform when my right (strong) arm is the upper one and my left (passive) arm is the lower one. On the other side, it is quite another matter. I have tried many approaches over the years, but lately I find that to help the lower arm it is useful to imitate the actions of Sarvāṅgāsana II (see image opposite) viz:
(a) clasp the hands behind the back with palms facing inwards, and extending them back and slightly up, whilst keeping the wrists well apart;
(b) turn the clasped hands so that the palms face outwards, still extending them back and slightly up (cf. Light on Yoga, plate 235).
These actions bring the humerus heads firmly into the centre of the shoulder socket.
(c) Then, with the hands still clasped, but allowing the arms to bend as needed, take them across the back – say to the left. This puts an angle on the line of the shoulders (right shoulder dips down) and shortens the right-side waist.
(d) At this point, release the clasp, and slide the right hand up between the shoulder blades. Bring the left arm up and the hand over to clasp the right.
And, of course, then repeat on the other side.
Using this method of preparation for Gomukhāsana arms is interesting, in that it temporarily creates the same shortening of one side of the trunk and slight forward movement of the lower arm’s shoulder as the leg position does (see above). A corollary to this dipping and forward movement of the shoulder is that the shoulder joint itself is released and gains some freedom of movement whilst also ‘remembering’ the firm centredness it had from the previous clasped extension. In the full pose, bringing the arm action needs to be done with as much freedom as possible, so as not to lose the balance. The unevenness of the trunk actually facilitates the arms to go into their respective actions, giving an activated upward impetus to the upper arm and a freeing flexibility to the lower one. Once complete, the Āsana finds its inner equilibrium and harmony.
Meg Laing taught for over 40 years in Edinburgh and was given her teaching certificate by BKS Iyengar himself in 1977.
Please note: those who have had hip replacement surgery in the last two years should avoid the leg actions in this pose.
Published in IYN Autumn 2022