Facing the cow.
—by Charlotte Bell
It’s common knowledge that cows hold sacred status in India. To ancient nomads and farmers, cows represented wealth, nourishment and nurturance. While they are valued for their milk that yields staples of the Indian diet—ghee, yogurt and cheese—cows are not slaughtered for their flesh. Only when a cow dies of old age can her hide be made into shoes.
In Hindu mythology, Nandi the bull is a constant companion to Shiva, the Lord of Yoga. Nandi not only provides Shiva with ground transportation, but he also shuttles Shiva and his wife Parvati around the Universe.
The cow has not always enjoyed exalted status in my yoga classes. Cow Face Pose was at one time given nicknames such as “Mad Cow” and “Cow Pie.” There was even a longstanding cow-related knock-knock joke. Over time, the same folks who were initially cowed by the pose have come to revere it. If I do not teach Cow Pose in my morning classes, some students will sacrifice a few minutes of their Savasana (Relaxation Pose) to practice their sacred cow.
Gomukhasana is one of the 15 poses described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the text that outlines the centuries-old physical practices of yoga. It stretches the deep hip rotators, gluteal muscles and abductors of the legs, making sitting more easeful. One Cow Face convert claims it transports her—perhaps like Shiva and Parvati—to an alternate universe.
Gomukhasana traditionally incorporates both shoulder and leg positions. For this column, I’m going to focus on the base—the leg position. Practiced without the shoulder stretch and with an added forward bend, Gomukhasana grounds and settles your nervous system, making it a wonderful pose to counter the often agitating effects of backbends, or to prepare you for Savasana.
Begin by sitting on a mat, with a firm blanket or a couple yoga blocks handy. Bend your right knee and then place your right heel next to your left outer thigh with your knee on the floor, pointing straight ahead. Bend your left knee and place it directly on top of your right knee with your left foot next to your right outer thigh.
You may find that your left knee is unable to rest atop your right knee. Not a problem. This is a perfectly legitimate Gomukhasana, as long as your ischial tuberosities (sit bones) are evenly grounded. However, if your left ischial is nowhere near the floor you’ll need to modify. If your ischials do not contact the ground evenly, the rest of your torso will have to distort itself in order for you to keep from falling over. Place a folded blanket or yoga block under your ischials. If your sit bones are still not evenly grounded, straighten your right leg, letting it rest flat on the floor with your left leg still bent on top of it.
Another reason to try this variation of Gomukhasana (bottom leg extended) is if you feel discomfort in your right knee. Knee discomfort means that ligaments and tendons are being stretched. This is a recipe for destabilizing your knee joints. No yoga pose is worth destabilizing your joints.
If both ischials are resting on the floor evenly and your right knee feels fine, you might enjoy interlacing your fingers in between your toes. In my experience, this seems to close a circuit, creating a loop of energy movement throughout the body.
You can sit either with your torso upright, or you can bend forward from the pelvis, placing your forehead on an upright yoga block or two. Resting your forehead can help quiet your brain.
Breathe deeply, expanding your back body on your inhalations. Allow your body to settle on your exhalations. After five to 10 deep breaths, allow an inhalation to lift your torso back up to vertical. Uncross your legs, stretching them both out in front of you on the floor. Feel the residue of the pose—the sensations in your legs, the natural rhythm and depth of your breath, the character of your mind. Then repeat on the other side.
It is common for the sides of the body to be different. The awareness that allows you to adjust for your own body’s idiosyncrasies is a far greater indication of yogic depth than what your pose looks like.
For years I wondered why Gomukhasana was named Cow Face. In Downward Dogs & Warriors, author Zo Newell suggests looking downward at your legs while sitting upright in Gomukhasana. There you might see the suggestion of a cow’s face—your knees as the nose and your feet as the ears. I like this. Not only does Newell’s suggestion provide the most cogent explanation I’ve heard so far, it also reminds me that yoga poses are not about what they look like from the outside. Gomukhasana teaches us to look inward, to experience ourselves from the inside.