Krishna as a youth and young man was a cow herder, and known by various aliases, Gopala, which means one who protects the cows, and Govinda, which means one who brings satisfaction to the cows. In Hindu mythology, this task represents the devotion that Lord Krishna has to sustaining the harmony of the world. In Gomukasana, the pose itself is said to resemble the cows face with the arms representing two ears and the cross of the legs the lips of the cows face.
When approaching a pose like Gomukasana, often we groan and grunt and wish our way through it. We are called in the asana to open our hearts while still leaving compassionate and comfortable space for our heads. The asana informs us that we have stay rooted in order to speak the truth of the heart. It represents our willingness to open to receive the insight of our heart without sacrificing our personal foundation. For most practitioners, the practice of Gomukasana is either a really satisfying one or an intense challenge. Some of us can access the necessary freedom in the hips, but find it difficult to stay connected to the earth and others of us struggle with tightness and resistance in our root. The bind of the arms for some is easeful and expansive, but for others is restrictive, painful and sometimes downright inaccessible.
When we work with where we are in Gomukasana, we allow space for self-nourishment, and room for the voice of our hearts to be heard. We no longer seek to hide this tender space from the world because it can feel very difficult and vulnerable, and instead find the strength and flexibility to shine our hearts out while continuing to respect the directions of our mind. Our body holds an armor, an unconscious defense of what we feel needs to be protected. For most of us, we work hard to protect the sacred space of our hearts, and when we begin to explore opening this space, we are met with the sentries of tension, resistance, and sometimes pain. Gomukasana addresses these guards directly through opening the shoulders and chest, and supports our efforts to stay grounded through the opening of the hips and grounding at the root.
In Gomukasana, we seek a neutral spine as the platform from which to do the work. As this pose progresses and our hearts open, a slight thoracic extension (upper backbend) will emerge from the freedom of lifting the sternum and chest while releasing the shoulders. The legs are adducted and externally rotated, stacked knee to knee and the weight of the legs and hips are released into gravity. For those practitioners with limited hip mobility, the stack of the knees can cause strain on those joints, and should be modified for safety. Straightening the bottom leg and stacking only the top knee can help a great deal in providing greater freedom in the pose. Alternatively, a bolster or blanket can be placed under the hips.
The arms and shoulders in this pose are very active. The upper arm is externally rotated, the scapula (shoulder blade) is rotated upwardly accessing the deep layer of muscles beneath the scapula called the rhomboids, the triceps are lengthening and the pectoralis muscles are stretching which contributes to the chest expansion and heart opening. The bottom arm is powerfully internally rotated accessing the subscapularis muscles, the deltoids, and the latissimus dorsi as the scapula rotates downward. Due to the intensity of the shoulder rotations of both arms, it is important not to overmobilize the shoulder joint to achieve the bind. A strap can be used to open the shoulders gradually and maintain freedom of movement in the neck and head.
Gomuksasna provides an opportunity for us to see how we are nourishing our own hearts and how willing we are to open that space to others. In practicing this asana, our resistances and limitations often evidence themselves first, but with patient and sustained practice, we are able to move through these spaces to find freedom. As our practice of Gomukasana evolves, we find in our lives that there is much more freedom in opening the heart than in moving through the world with our heads in the lead. We experience directly that sustenance and sustainability are always within us, and the more we tap into that knowing the more easily we can open our hearts to the world.