How to Make Mermaid Pose a Part of Your World


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Seeing Little Mermaid references everywhere inspired us to revisit one of the most graceful postures in yoga—Mermaid Pose. You know the one. It’s a version of Pigeon Pose in which your back knee is bent so that your foot is held in the crook of one elbow, and your hands are clasped behind your head. It’s often a go-to pose for yoga photos because of its elegant shape. But this seated pose is more than just a pretty face. It offers a strong back bend, a deep quad stretch, and ample opening in the hips and the shoulders.

Yoga teacher Kathryn Budig has called this pose “the perfect confidence booster.”  It’s far from a beginner’s posture, though. Like many dramatic poses, Mermaid requires a careful, step-by-step approach to be practiced safely.

Building Up to Mermaid

Because of the intensity of Mermaid Pose, you want to slowly build up to it by stretching and challenging yourself in poses that move your body in the same ways this elegant asana demands. This includes practicing backbends, stretching your hip flexors, and preparing your shoulders.

Yoga teacher Noah Maze, founder of the Maze Method, offers a sequence that encourages a slow build toward Mermaid Pose. Starting with meditation and breathwork, his sequence includes practicing Marjaryasana-Bitilasana (Cat-Cow), Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), ​Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) with a 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).

Safely Practicing Mermaid Pose

When you are ready to explore Mermaid Pose, you have several elements to focus on. One important focal point of the pose is your spine, as Mermaid involves a fairly intense back bend. And, as you reach back to grasp your foot, you may be tempted to simultaneously rotate your spine in the direction of your lifted leg. Instead, try to keep your hips and chest facing forward.

Budig suggests spending some time exploring Pigeon Pose as a foundation for your Mermaid. In particular, she recommends experimenting with how far you bring your front foot toward your pelvis. You don’t want to overdo the stretch in your hip or torque your knee. You will want to practice keeping your hips level and finding balance.  “Take as much time here as you need,” she says. “This step is crucial in getting the psoas muscle to release to allow you to go into the full backbend.”

And remember that there’s a difference between feeling a stretch and experiencing a strain—and you want to avoid the latter. If your back foot doesn’t reach your elbow or your hands don’t reach each other, spend more time practicing the preparatory poses to develop mobility. Don’t hesitate to use a strap around your back foot to draw it toward your body and to bridge the gap between your hands.

Here are Budig’s instructions for how to enter the pose:

  1. From Downward-Facing Dog, step your right shin to the front of the mat. Bring your right heel in toward your body and extend your back leg straight. Work on squaring your hips and encouraging your left hip to release toward the mat. Come onto your fingertips with straight arms and work on lifting the top of your pelvis and heart. Gently roll your shoulders back and stay in the pose for 8 breaths.
  2. Bend your left knee, drawing your heel toward your back. Reach your left hand back and grab your foot. Keep your hips and torso facing forward. If making contact with your foot is intense, stay here and breathe or practice with a strap as you increase your flexibility.
  3. Slowly bend  your left elbow to draw your foot closer toward your body. Brace yourself by keeping your right fingertips on the ground in front of your body and pressing your right ankle and shin into the mat. Feel as if you’re drawing your inner thighs toward one another.
  4. Keep your left elbow bent and slide your left foot along your forearm until it lands in the crook of your elbow. Press your toes so they hold onto your arm and press the top of your foot against your arm.
  5. Engage your core by lifting  through your abs and chest so you can lift your right hand off the mat without rocking forward or collapsing in your lower back. Reach your right hand back to clasp the left.
  6. Lift your clasped arms above your head then lightly let them slide behind your skull so your right elbow points straight toward the ceiling. Gaze forward and try to square your hips and chest to the front of the mat. Lift your chest as you root down through your hips. Relax your right shoulder in the socket. Stay here for 8 breaths.
  7. To come out of the pose, release your clasp and bring your hands to the mat in front of you. Come back into Pigeon Pose and fold forward to straighten your back.

 

A woman wearing light tights and a green cropped tank, practices One-Legged King Pigeon Pose. She is on a plum colored mat; the wall behind her is mottled brown and there is a potted palm and a paned window behind her.
(Photo: Elina Fairytale/Pexels)

Mermaid Variation

To protect your spine, you can practice One Legged King Pigeon Pose II, which offers a similar shape and benefits of Mermaid. The pose challenges your shoulder mobility and your balance. But by reaching both arms overhead and back toward your foot, you are more likely to keep your torso facing forward.

  1. Come into Pigeon Pose with your left leg extended behind you. Place your hands on the floor in front of you for support.
  2. Bend your left knee so that your shin is approximately perpendicular to the floor. Press into the mat with your foot and shin and lift out of your hips so as not to compress your lower back.
  3. Inhale as you lift your left arm up and reach back to take your left foot in your hand. You can keep your right hand on the floor for support, or reach up to grasp your foot, holding it firmly. Lift your chest and look up, allowing your head to drop back toward the sole of your left foot, but maintaining length at the back of your neck.  Keep your arms toward the midline of your body and your elbows reaching toward the ceiling.

 

Woman lying on her side stretching in yin yoga
(Photo: Tamika Caston-Miller)

Reclining Mermaid Alternative

It’s possible to experience the same stretch without the balancing challenge of Mermaid. YJ contributor Tamika Caston-Miller offers a reclining variation of Mermaid Pose in her Yin Yoga sequence for deep release. Even mermaids need time to relax.

  1. Lie on your back with a bolster under your lower back and a block on its medium level or a firm pillow under your head. Bring the soles of your feet to the floor with your knees bent. Stay here for 5 minutes.
  2. Allow your knees to fall to your left side and let your body go along with it, keeping the bolster under your ribs and the block under your head. Your left arm will be cradled in between the block and the bolster.
  3. Reach up and rest your right arm alongside your right ear.  Reach your right leg toward the space behind you to create more sensation along the front of your right hip and your 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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