How to make mermaid pose a part of your world

June 9, 2023 0 Comments

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Seeing references to The Little Mermaid everywhere inspired us to revisit one of the most graceful poses in yoga, The Little Mermaid Pose. You know one. This is a version of pigeon pose in which your knee is bent so that your leg rests in the crook of one elbow and your hands are clasped behind your head. This is often the best pose for yoga photos because of its elegant shape. But this sitting pose is more than just a pretty face. It provides a strong back arch, a deep quad stretch, and wide openings in the hips and shoulders.

Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig calls this pose “the perfect confidence booster.” However, this is far from a newbie’s attitude. Like many other dramatic poses, performing the Mermaid safely requires a careful, step-by-step approach.

Preparation for Rusalka

Because of the intensity of Mermaid Pose, you want to slowly build up to it, stretching and challenging yourself in poses that move your body just as this elegant asana requires. This includes practicing backbends, stretching the hip flexors, and training the shoulders.

Yoga teacher Noah Maze, founder of the Labyrinth Method, offers a sequence that encourages a slow approach to Mermaid pose. Beginning with meditation and breathing, his sequence includes the practice of Marjaryasana-Bithilasana (Cow Cat), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), ​Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) with Back Bend.

You can also practice backbends such as Ustrasana (Camel Pose) and Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose). Try hip flexor stretches, including warriors and half or full splits. To prepare your shoulders, practice Salabhasana (Locust Pose) and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose).

Safe Mermaid Pose Practice

When you’re ready to explore Mermaid Pose, you have a few elements to focus on. One of the important focuses of the pose is your spine, as the Mermaid involves a rather intense arching of the back. And as you reach back to grab your foot, you may be tempted to simultaneously rotate your spine in the direction of the lifted leg. Instead, try to keep your hips and chest pointed forward.

Budig suggests spending some time learning Pigeon Pose as a foundation for your Mermaid. In particular, she recommends experimenting with how far you bring your front leg closer to your pelvis. You don’t want to overextend your hip or knee. You’ll want to practice keeping your hips straight and balancing. “Spend as much time as you need here,” she says. “This move is critical to releasing the psoas so that you can fully arch back.”

And remember, there’s a difference between feeling stretched and feeling tight, and you want to avoid the latter. If your back leg doesn’t reach the elbow or your arms don’t reach each other, spend more time practicing preparatory poses to develop mobility. Feel free to use a strap around the back foot to pull it close to the body and close the gap between the arms.

Here are Budig’s instructions for getting into the pose:

  1. From Downward Facing Dog, step your right leg to the front of the mat. Pull the right heel towards the body and straighten the back leg. Work on aligning your hips and encouraging your left hip to drop toward the mat. Grab onto your fingertips with straight arms and work on lifting your upper pelvis and heart. Carefully move your shoulders back and stay in the pose for 8 breaths.
  2. Bend the left knee, bringing the heel to the back. Reach your left arm back and grab your leg. Thighs and torso look forward. If contact with the foot is intense, stay here and breathe or do strap exercises to increase your flexibility.
  3. Slowly bend your left elbow to pull your leg closer to your body. Prepare by keeping your right toes on the ground in front of your body and pressing your right ankle and lower leg into the mat. Feel as if you are pulling your inner thighs together.
  4. Keep your left elbow bent and walk your left leg along your forearm until it lands in the crook of your elbow. Press your toes into your hand and press the top of your foot into your hand.
  5. Engage your core by lifting your abs and chest so that you can lift your right hand off the mat without lurching forward and falling into your lower back. Extend your right arm back to wrap around your left.
  6. Raise your clasped hands above your head, then let them slide slightly behind your skull so that your right elbow points straight up toward the ceiling. Look forward and try to straighten your hips and chest towards the front of the mat. Lift your chest as you lower through your hips. Relax the right shoulder in the hollow. Stay here for 8 breaths.
  7. To come out of the pose, release the clasp and place your hands on the mat in front of you. Return to pigeon pose and bend forward to straighten your back.
A woman in light tights and a green crop top practices the one-legged king-pigeon pose.  She is on a plum-colored mat;  the wall behind her is painted in brown spots, and beyond that is a potted palm tree and a paned window.
(Photo: Elina Fairytale/Pexels)

Mermaid variation

To protect your spine, you can practice One-Legged King Pigeon II Pose, which has similar form and benefits to Mermaid. The pose challenges shoulder mobility and balance. But by extending both arms above your head and back toward your feet, you’re more likely to keep your torso forward.

  1. Assume a pigeon pose with your left leg extended behind you. Place your hands on the floor in front of you for support.
  2. Bend the left knee so that the shin is approximately perpendicular to the floor. Press into the mat with your foot and lower leg and lift your hips so you don’t squeeze your lower back.
  3. Inhale, raise your left arm up and reach back to take your left leg in your hand. You can keep your right hand on the floor for support, or reach out to grab your leg, keeping it firm. Lift your chest and look up, allowing your head to drop back toward the sole of your left foot, but keeping the length at the back of your head. Keep your hands to the midline of your body and your elbows to the ceiling.
Woman lying on her side and stretching in yin yoga
(Photo: Tamika Caston-Miller)

An alternative to the lying mermaid

You can experience the same stretch without the balancing act of the Mermaid. YJ member Tamika Keston-Miller offers a version of Lying Mermaid Pose in her Yin Yoga sequence for deep release. Even mermaids need time to relax.

  1. Lie on your back with a support under your lower back and a block at the middle level or a firm pillow under your head. Lower the soles of your feet to the floor, bending your knees. Stay here for 5 minutes.
  2. Allow your knees to drop to your left side and allow your body to follow with it, keeping the support under your ribs and the block under your head. Your left hand will be trapped between the block and the roller.
  3. Reach up and place your right hand next to your right ear. Reach your right leg into the space behind you to create more sensation along the front of your right thigh and right side. Stay here for 3 minutes.
  4. Slowly roll onto your back, then repeat the pose on your right side.

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