(Arms of) Gomukhasana ( Cow's Face Pose ) - Issues and solutions
List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:
· Upper trunk and thoracic spine
· Hands and wrists
On paper, this exercise looks as if it does not particularly involve the neck. However, many (maybe most) tend to move their head forwards, which
can put a stain on the neck – particularly for those with an already compromised neck. When I practise, I need to consciously remind myself to keep the
neck aligned with the rest of the spine and the head facing forwards and upright. Practised this way, the neck remains in a neutral position – and the pose
then poses no particular difficulties for the neck area.
Upper trunk and thoracic spine
Stiffness and excessive curving (kyphosis) of the upper back can greatly limit one’s ability to get the hands to connect in cowface position. For those with a mobile
upper back, the reasons for this can be directly experienced : With a long straight upper back, place your arms into the cowface position without making the hands
clasp one another – and then flex the upper back and observe what happens to the position of the hands relative to each other. What one observes, if one does this
(or someone else demonstrates for you), is that the hands move away from each other as the upper back flexes – and, conversely, the straighter the back, the easier
it is to get the hands to touch or clasp each other. The long-term solution to this issue is to develop greater upper back flexibility (with regard to extension) and greater
upper back strength. A short-term solution would be to place a sock or a small towel or a strap in the hand of the upper arm and then to grasp the sock (or towel or
strap) with the hand of the lower arm. This enables a feel of the pose for those whose hands do not meet.
This position, because it encourages the upper back to be in relative extension (backbend relative to the normal natural position of the spine when standing), also
encourages the rib-cage to be in relative expanded position. This will tend to have an impact on breathing – disfavouring thoracic breathing and favouring diaphragmatic
breathing. For most people, this is beneficial, but makes the breathing feel restricted – which can feel uncomfortable for asthmatics until they get used to it. This position
also seems to encourage the heart to beat more strongly (and I often find the position quite warming) – I believe this is due to the combination of the rib-cage position
(and this breathing) and the arm position. Again, for most people, this is beneficial, but those whose circularity system is already compromised (e.g. high blood pressure
and/or heart problems) may need to be aware of this issue and only hold the position for a short time if at all, or could try practising just the bottom or top arm part of
the arm position of cowface pose.
In this position, the shoulders are taken into an extreme position – and, for most people, it is limits in flexibility at one or both shoulder joints that limits how far
into the pose they can go. A long-term solution to this is of course to work on increasing flexibility at the shoulders (for example, supine twists with arms in different
positions, or twists from lying on the side where the arm is moved around in a semi-circle). A short-term option that makes the position accessible to most is to place
a sock or a small towel or a strap in the hand of the upper hand and then also grasp the sock (or towel or strap) with the hand of the lower arm. When one wears
thick jumpers or a large number of layers on one’s trunk this mimics the effect of having tight muscles around the shoulders – one solution is to remove clothing
layers, but another is to simply accept that one will not go so far into the pose.
The arms themselves are not in particular stress in this position – one may, however, feel the pose in the upper arm as the muscles which control the position of the
shoulder joint are stretched.
Hands and wrists
The wrists are in traction - which is good for them. The fingers , however, gripping in a flexed position and this can become tiring – a solution for this is to hold only
for a short time and, afterwards, to counter pose with spreading the fingers wide and drawing the fingers backwards. Those with fingers folded into each other in the
fireman’s grip can often find that finger nails press painfully into hands. Possible solutions to this are : cut one’s nails, wear gloves, place cloth between one’s hands.
Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester
there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this).
Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.
This arm position has an impact on both breathing and the circularly system. As the fetus grows, it takes up some space that is usually used to allow diaphragmatic
breathing and so one becomes more dependent on thoracic breathing. This pose depresses one’s ability to use thoracic breathing – so, if one finds this pose restricts
breathing too much or feels uncomfortable, it should obviously not be practised. Similarly, during pregnancy, the heart is already having to work much harder than
when one is not pregnant so the extra work of the heart which this pose encourages may not be helpful.
I think a more serious aspect of this pose is the increase in body temperature that the pose often encourages. A major issue during pregnancy for the body (and
particularly for the fetus) is not getting the fetus too hot. Activities that tend to elevate body temperature are thus not recommended during pregnancy. Therefore
if you feel that this pose raises your body temperature then you should not practise the full arm position while pregnant. However, releasing tension around the
shoulders, particularly in the muscles holding the weight of the breasts can feel a wonderful boon during pregnancy. So practising just the bottom or top arm part
of the arm position of cowface pose may well feel really good.