Mission Possible


By Julie Gudmestad  |  

Whenever I announce that we’re going to work on our arms in Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), my students look at me with reluctance—and reach for their yoga belts. Behind their resigned determination, I suspect they’re wondering, What makes this pose so challenging? Why is it so hard to clasp my hands behind my back? I work on my shoulder flexibility often, so why doesn’t this pose get any easier?

The simple answer is tight shoulder muscles. The more complicated explanation is that Gomukhasana requires shoulders to move into positions they never assume in daily life. They’re not even visited very often in other yoga poses. In Gomukhasana the “up” arm moves into full shoulder flexion with external rotation and full elbow flexion. The “down” arm moves into full shoulder internal rotation with extension.

If that description thoroughly confused you, you’ll understand why you need to learn the anatomical principles of flexion and extension, as well as internal and external rotation, before working on your limitations in Gomukhasana. Start by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your arms by your sides. Bring your right arm forward and up overhead. When you do this action, you’re flexing your right shoulder. With the shoulder in flexion, bend (flex) the elbow, so that your palm touches your upper back, with your fingers pointing toward the floor. Next, reach your left arm behind you, creating extension in your left shoulder. Bend your left elbow and slide your forearm up your back. If you can, reach up between the shoulder blades to grasp the right fingers, hand, or wrist.

Now, to understand the concept of rotation, return to Tadasana with your arms by your sides and palms facing your thighs. Rotate your right arm so the palm faces forward; this is external rotation of the shoulder. Hold this rotation and flex your shoulder to 90 degrees (your arm will be parallel to the floor with palm up). Continue to hold this external rotation and lift your arm overhead into full flexion. If you’ve managed to hold the external rotation, your palm will spiral toward the wall behind you and your elbow callus and triceps brachii muscle (on the back of the upper arm) will be facing straight ahead, not out to the side. Next, keeping your left arm by your side, rotate it so your palm faces backward and keep rotating until the palm faces out to the side, with your little finger forward. This is internal rotation of the shoulder. Bend the left elbow and bring your forearm and hand around and up your back to clasp your right hand, fingers, or wrist.

Trouble Spot No. 1

Now that you know the joint positions and terminology and the way your shoulders are supposed to move in Gomukhasana, let’s see what’s preventing you from making the clasp and what you can do about it. As with any other joint, moving your shoulder in one direction can be difficult because of tightness in the muscles that move it in the opposite direction. In the case of the “up” arm, moving your shoulder into full flexion with external rotation can be limited by tightness in the muscles performing extension and internal rotation. These are the latissimus dorsi (the broad sheet of muscle that originates in the low and midback and sweeps up and across the rib cage and through the armpit to attach to the upper humerus, or upper arm bone) and the pectoralis major (the major muscle covering the chest, originating on the collarbone and breastbone and also attaching to the upper humerus). These strong muscles might be tight and short from strengthening activities like chin-ups or rowing, or from a rounded posture or a lack of stretching. You can stretch them by lying in a supported backbend—over a rolled blanket, a therapy ball, or a block placed beneath the upper back—and relaxing for a few minutes with your arms reaching overhead. Be sure to hold the external rotation of the shoulders in these stretches, with palms parallel and triceps facing forward.


Trouble Spot No. 2

The triceps (the muscle on the back of the upper arm, between the callus on the elbow and the back of the shoulder) can also be a limiting factor in the movement of the “up” arm in Gomukhasana. The triceps assists with shoulder extension and also extends the elbow. If it’s tight, it can significantly restrict your ability to flex the shoulder and elbow at the same time, which is the desired position of the up arm in Gomukhasana.

While you may already be practicing stretches that facilitate shoulder flexion, chances are that if Gomukhasana’s arms are difficult for you, you aren’t working on stretches that combine shoulder flexion with elbow flexion. Try doing Gomukhasana’s “up” arm one at a time after working on poses that bear weight on the arms, like Sun Salutations, when the pecs, lats, and triceps are warm and tired. Start by standing in Tadasana. Externally rotate your right arm and flex the shoulder to 90 degrees. Grasp the back of the upper right arm with your left hand, to help hold the external rotation as you fully flex your shoulder until your arm is overhead. Still holding the upper arm near the elbow with your left palm on the triceps, keep the triceps facing straight ahead as you bend the elbow and bring the right palm to your upper back. Your left forearm will be in front of your forehead. Don’t grasp the right elbow as you may have been taught in some yoga classes, as this will release the external rotation. Hold the stretch for a minute or two as you visualize lengthening from your back waist to your shoulder (the lats) and from your shoulder to your elbow (the triceps), but don’t collapse the left side of your waist.

Keep the right arm next to your ear without letting it splay out to the side or pulling it behind your head, which will lose the rotation. Keep your chin level, and don’t bend your head to the side. Don’t overarch your low back; if you tip your torso backward it can make you think your elbow is pointing straight up when it isn’t.

If you have very tight or muscular arms, give yourself support to help yourself stay in the stretch longer. Stand in a doorway with your right arm up in the stretch. Place your right triceps on the doorjamb, with your body and face looking through the doorway. Gradually press your armpit into the doorjamb, so there is less and less space between your armpit and the doorjamb, and your elbow moves up toward the ceiling. Again, don’t overarch your low back. In this position, you should find a good stretch of your right shoulder and triceps.

Trouble Spot No. 3

Now let’s work on the “down” arm, with the shoulder in extension and full internal rotation. The muscles that limit movement into this position are those that perform external rotation and flexion of the shoulder. The muscle primarily responsible for shoulder flexion is the deltoid (the shield-shaped muscle that forms the “cap” over the shoulder), assisted by the clavicular (originating on the collarbone) part of the pectoralis major, and the biceps brachii and coracobrachialis (both are muscles of the front of the upper arm). The prime movers in external rotation are the teres minor and infraspinatus. Both originate on the scapula, cross the back of the shoulder joint, and insert on the upper outer humerus.


To help stretch and lengthen the shoulder flexors and external rotators, spend one minute twice a day with your forearms stacked behind your back and your hands reaching toward your elbows. Keep your chest lifted and open, and breathe into your upper chest and front shoulders. As the stacked-forearm position becomes more comfortable, start to work one hand up your back, gradually moving it up between the shoulder blades. Again, keep your chest lifted and your shoulders back and down. Once you can get your hand up between your blades, you have a shot at catching the fingers with the “up” arm.

To put the pieces together, stretch your right arm forward and up, maintaining external rotation as you flex your elbow, and bring the right hand down onto your upper back. Take your left arm out to the side and internally rotate it so your thumb points down and to the back. Then quickly swing your hand in and up between your shoulder blades to catch your hands. It’s fine to use a belt between the hands until they meet naturally. Stand tall, with your chest lifted, shoulders broad, and both sides of the waist lengthening evenly. Practicing this pose a little bit two to three times a week goes a long way. The next time your teacher announces, “Gomukhasana,” you’ll be the one smiling while everyone else is looking apprehensive.

A physical therapist and Iyengar Yoga teacher, Julie Gudmestad runs a physical therapy practice and yoga studio in Portland, Oregon.