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How to be a Mermaid: a Naginyasana tutorial
By Dr. Ariele Foster
Itâs a variation of the ever-popular pigeon pose (eka pada raja kapotasana), so Naginyasana involves deep backbending and hip opening. Although it is challenging, itâs fairly accessible.
With the right preparation and focus, naginyasana is also potentially therapeutic. (More on that in a moment).
Itâs also my âsignature poseâ [tongue-in-cheek] because my name is Ariele, and I have red, wavy hair. (It was a mildly cruel coincidence that Disneyâs The Little Mermaid was released when I was emerging into adolescence).
In addition to being a mermaid at heart, Iâm a doctor of physical therapy, and I must preface that this pose is NOT for everyone. Before proceeding, please first have an active (legs isometrically pulling toward one another) pigeon pose that is totally pain-free on both sides.
Pain-free means no discomfort other than muscular effort. Itâs never worth gambling your well-being on a yoga pose.
The potentially âtherapeuticâ qualities of this pose are the active hip extension (the antedote to sitting in a chair), and the pulling action of the arm, which may help balance the high ratio of pushing actions in asana.Though remember chocolate is also "potentially therapeutic" - we must beware of our limits!
The principles that weâll apply when playing with this shape are focused on preparing the back leg and spine. Please warm up with multiple sun salutes and lateral hip openers to prepare the front leg as well. I recommend at least 20-30 minutes of active asana practice prior to attempting this shape.
- Strong buttocks engagement (to create active hip extension)
- Quadriceps opening (particularly the tricky rectus femoris, which crosses both hip and knee)
- Active backbending (using the muscles on either side of your spine to lift the heart)
1) Locust pose, fingers interlaced.
Benefits: active engagement of scapular retractors, spinal extensors, hip extensors
Begin face down, fingers interlaced above your sacrum, firm your legs and actively reach through the toes back and up, heart forward and up and hold for 10 seconds. Protect your low back with a gentle drawing in of your navel in this and all following backbends. Repeat three times.
2) Half Frog pose / Ardha Bekasana
Benefits: rectus femoris stretch, scapular stabilizing with serratus anterior (front arm)
Propping yourself up on your right forearm, reach back with your left hand to catch your left foot. Please aim to catch the foot from the inside arch with your thumb up like you are hitchhiking. Draw the heel in as close as possible to your outer buttock and simultaneously engage your gluteal muscles to press your left side pelvis firmly into the floor. If reasonable for your body, spin the hand that is on the foot like you are turning on a faucet and point fingers in the same direction as your toes. Hold for about 30 seconds, or count breaths.
Repeat on the other side.
3) Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Benefits: Gluteal, spinal extensor, scapular retractor and hip stabilizer engagement
From kneeling with toes curled under, please place your hands on your buttocks, fingers pointing outward and begin to lift your chest and press your hips forward. Imagine your ribs could telescope up and away from your pelvis. It is this length that will keep your spine safe, and the backbend as even as possible throughout your spine.
4) Pigeon pose variations
Benefits: warms the thighs, shoulders, back and hips for our peak pose
From table, slide your right knee forward and slightly out to the side, while lowering your pelvis to a hover over the floor. If your pelvis makes it all the way to the floor, I recommend backing off -- you are probably not using your legs enough to stay stable. Press both knees down and slightly toward one another (isometrically). This is harder for the flexible among us, but it will build crucial hip stability, and prevent you from hanging out in the end range of the joints where bone starts to contact other bone.
Bend your back knee and catch that foot with your hand for a little âarm wrestleâ back and forth motion. When the thigh is warm, spend about 3-5 breaths with the back heel drawn in close to the buttock as in ardha bhekasana. Repeat on the other side, or move through the next two poses on the same side before switching.
5) The Firm Handshake
Benefits: nearly all of the benefits of Naginyasana, with slightly less demands on the upper back and shoulders
Turn toward your back foot with gratitude and grace. How wonderful it is to have a left leg that works for you! (Frankly, though sadly, legs are much more practical than a mermaid tail.) Sweep your right arm across your chest to catch the foot, and hold it while you bring your foot into your left elbow. With both forearms parallel to the ground, hook fingers and smile. Hold for 10-20 seconds, with an emphasis on squeezing your left buttocks to press the left hip forward even as the knees firmly continue to draw in.
6) Naginyasana: Be the Mermaid
Sustaining all of the actions of stage 5 âThe Firm Handshakeâ, please begin to lift your hands upward, push your left foot firmly into your arm, and eventually peer under your arm.
BONUS Variation *wearing the White Goddess Yoga Capris
Once expressed fully on the ground, this pose can also be attempted in standing. Have fun, and stay focused.
May this playful pose brighten your day, keeping you afloat and in remembrance of your eternal, joyful, and singing self.
Dr. Ariele Foster (PT, DPT, E-RYT 500) is a DC-based doctor of physical therapy, a yoga teacher, founder of the Yoga Anatomy Academy, and anatomy faculty for yoga trainings and 90 Monkeys online continuing education. She has a passion for creative, intelligent yoga instruction and for making yoga anatomy accessible. Learn more about Ariele here.