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Boat Pose: The Complete Guide

Yes, Paripurna Navasana builds core strength, but it will also take you on an inward journey from the periphery of your body to the core of your being.


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Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) works your hip flexors, adductors (inner thigh/groin), and the core muscles that stabilize your spine. But it also works your other “core”—the very center of your being.

Learning to coordinate the work of your limbs and your torso while strengthening your spine also teaches you about your breath, your attention span, your emotions, and your very nature—your innermost core. That may be why many yoga teachers love including Paripurna Navasana in class: the mental fortitude and resiliency that you must cultivate to voluntarily hold a pose that makes you as uncomfortable as Boat Pose is a practice in and of itself. As you progress to the full expression of the pose, you’ll come to realize that you’re capable of more than you may have ever thought possible—both in your practice and in your life.

Although Navasana works your core muscles, it’s no gym crunch. Instead of bringing your chest and pelvis close together and shortening the front body, you’ll pull your ribs away from the abdomen to lift the chest—all while balancing on your buttocks. You’ll discover how to engage and stretch the abdomen simultaneously. Lengthening the front body like this is an essential action for many asana and pranayama techniques. It supports the entire chest cavity (as opposed to a tight, short front body, which puts pressure on the lungs, internal organs, and lower back), and it can facilitate smooth and efficient breathing as you do your asana practice or go about your day.

In Boat Pose, everything draws toward your center: The abdomen moves toward the spine, the spine moves forward to support the front of the trunk, the shoulder blades move down and in toward the chest, while the chest spreads, and the arms and legs stay firm. Your attention likewise has to draw inward to maintain stability—if your mind wanders, the inner firmness you’ve cultivated will waver and you’ll lose your balance. So keep your face soft and your breath relaxed.

The nature of Boat Pose grounds into your Muladhara (Root Chakra) while also stimulating your  Svadhisthana (Sacral Chakra). Connecting to these lower chakras will help you feel stronger, balanced, and more confident in general. Last but not least, nothing brings out mental toughness more than a pose that will shake you to your core (literally).

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Boat Pose basics

Sanskrit: Paripurna Navasana (par-ee-POOR-nah nah-VAHS-anna)

Pose type: Seated

Targets: Core

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Benefits

Boat Pose builds focus and body awareness. It can boost energy and fight fatigue, and can help build confidence and empowerment. It also improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting and doing computer work by strengthening your core and thighs.

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Boat Pose: Step-by-step instructions

  1. Begin in Dandasana (Staff Pose), pressing forward with your big toe mounds to engage your legs.
  2. Extend your sternum away from your navel.
  3. Engage your core and move your shoulder blades in and up to lift and open your chest.
  4. Bend your knees and come on to the tips of your toes, holding the backs of your thighs.
  5. Tilt your torso back slightly and feel the back edge of your sitting bones pressing into the floor; keep your spinal muscles engaged so your back does not round.
  6. Raise your feet so your shins are parallel to the floor.
  7. Release the hold on your thighs and straighten your arms so they are parallel to the floor.
  8. Draw your shoulders back to lift your chest. straighten your legs and balance on the back edge of your sitting bones.
  9. To exit, bend your knees, release your feet to the floor.
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Explore the pose

Beginner’s tips

  • Don’t let your back round. Instead, lengthen more through the front of your torso.
  • You can prepare for this pose throughout your day without even leaving your chair. Sit on the front edge of a seat with your knees at right angles. Grab onto the sides of the seat with your hands and lean slightly forward. Firm your arms and lift your buttocks slightly off the seat, then raise your heels (but not the balls of your feet) slightly off the floor. Let the heads of your thigh bones sink into the pull of gravity and push the top of your sternum forward and up.

Partnering

  • A partner can help you bring the shoulder blades into your back and lift your sternum by placing his/her hands gently on your back and upper chest to give you something to lift from.

Be mindful!

  • Avoid strong core engagement like in this pose if you are pregnant, particularly in the second and third trimesters. Consider modifying to a gentler version held for a shorter amount of time.
  • Use caution if you have a hernia, or any back pain, injuries, or surgeries.

Deepen the pose

  • You can intensify the pose by lowering both your legs and your upper back closer to the mat.
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Boat Pose variations

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Bent-Knee Boat Pose

Try with your knees bent to lessen the effort and take pressure off your low back. You can bring your hands behind you on the floor for support.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Boat Pose with a Strap

Try with a strap around the soles of your feet. Press into the strap with your feet as you pull it with your hands to lift your low back forward slightly into a mostly neutral spine and engaged core. Be careful not to unintentionally squeeze your shoulders.

Photo: Christopher Dougherty

Half Boat Pose

Try just lifting one leg at a time. You can keep the lifted leg bent or straighten it. You can hold onto the back of your thighs for extra support or bring your hands behind you on the floor. Try transitioning back and forth between legs with your breath; try exhaling to switch legs. Repeat as many times as you can, then rest.

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Preparatory and counter poses

Before undertaking Boat Pose, you want to stretch and challenge your body in the same manner demanded by this challenging pose. That means stretching your hamstrings and low back, engaging your abdominals, and lifting your chest without overarching your low back.

Preparatory poses

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Plank Pose

High Lunge

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)

Utkatasana (Chair Pose)

Dolphin Plank | Forearm Plank

Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)

Dandasana (Staff Pose)

Counter poses

Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)

Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja’s Twist)

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Your body in Boat Pose | Anatomy

Navasana is, technically, a forward fold since it flexes your body at the trunk. However, as anyone who has ever attempted Navasana knows, this pose is more of an isolated strengthening of your core and less a focused stretch. Unlike most forward bends, it requires constant muscular effort to maintain.

In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.

An anatomy drawing of a body in Boat Pose (Navaasana)
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

When you contract the rectus abdominis at the front of your abdomen, you activate all the layers of the abdominals, including the transverse abdominis and the oblique abdominals. They work to flex your hips. But you also need to activate the psoas and its synergist hip flexors. The psoas, pectineus, sartorius, and rectus femoris muscles bend your hips and flex your trunk to lift your legs.

When your back rounds in Navasana, it means you are relying entirely on the abdominals and need to engage the hip flexors to tilt your pelvis forward. All of these actions are required to attain optimal alignment in this challenging pose.

To feel the psoas engage, bend your knees with your feet on the ground and place your hands on your thighs. Resist with the hands while you attempt to draw your knees toward your chest. Look for this same feeling while in the full expression of the pose. Or simply stay here and, as you gain strength, work toward the classic expression of the pose.

An anatomy drawing of a body in Boat Pose (Navaasana)
(Illustration: Chris Macivor)

The trapezius muscles combine with the rhomboids (which connect the shoulder blade to the spine) to draw your shoulders back and down toward the midline of your body to open your chest. Once your scapulae are constrained in this fashion, you can contract the pectoralis minor, located under the pectoralis major on your chest, to lift and expand your rib cage and open your chest.

A cue for engaging these muscles is to hold the shoulder blades back and then attempt to roll the shoulders forward. The shoulders won’t move but the contractile force of the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior will be transmuted to your ribcage, lifting it upward.

The erector spinae and quadratus lumborum lift and slightly arch the back. The quadratus lumborum acts synergistically with the psoas major to support the lumbar spine.

Squeeze your knees toward one another to engage the adductors in your legs. Plantar flex the ankles and point your toes to stretch the tibialis anterior muscles and toe extensors. This activates the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles in the calf, which are attached to the heel by the Achilles tendon. The peroneus longus and brevis slightly evert your ankles and turn your feet slightly outward, opening the soles of your feet.

Excerpted and adapted with permission from The Key Poses of Yoga and Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses by Ray Long MD.

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Put Boat Pose into practice

This is a great pose to build heat. Include it during the heat-building portion of class or as a respite from intense standing poses. Practice this posture in the beginning of class to fire up your core for the rest of your practice. Counter core work with gentle twists or backbends.

Boat Pose Made Easy

How to Build a Strong Core Without Sit-ups

7 Poses to Work Those Easily Overlooked Lower Abs


About our contributors 

Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.

Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.