Fish pose, known as matsyasana in Sanskrit, is a slight, but powerful inversion that combines the heart lifting benefits of a back bending posture with the relaxing effects of a supine posture. By gently stretching the stomach muscles, fish pose benefits the abdominal organs to relieve constipation and discomfort.
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In yogi wisdom, fish pose is an incredibly powerful posture. The pose is named for the deity Vishnu, who Hindis credit with assuming the form of a fish to save the sages from a great flood. Resultingly, tradition gives the pose somewhat life saving properties. The yogi Swarmi Satyananda Saraswati, for example, prescribes fish pose to increase youthfulness and vitality.
Fish pose stretches the muscles in the front of the body, from hips to neck. Since the abdominal muscles are compressed and stretched, fish pose benefits digestion. According to Saraswati, drinking three glasses of water and performing fish pose is a cure for constipation. Stretching through the anterior neck stimulates the thyroid and thymus for faster immune responses.
Fish pose lengthens the intercostals and the throat muscles that aid respiration. As a result, it has a profound effect on the practitioner’s breathing patterns. Regularly practicing the pose deepens breathing in and out of the pose and, according to Saraswati, relieves the symptoms of asthma and bronchitis.
Do not attempt fish pose if you:
- are pregnant
- are seriously ill
- have heart disease
- have peptic ulcers
- have a hernia
Yogis conventionally incorporate the pose as a counter to shoulder stand (sarvangasana), since it stretches the opposing neck muscles. While modern wisdom favors a less intense counterpose, like cobra pose (bhujangasana), many yoga teachers still pair shoulder stand and fish pose to positive results.
To counter the intense anterior neck stretch in fish pose, pair it with either shoulder pose, plow pose (halasana), or a less intense neck stretch like prostration pose (naman pranamasana). Prostration pose also incorporates a forward fold, making it an effective counter pose for fish pose’s backbend as well.
Anterior neck muscles. The anterior neck muscles include the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and hyoids in the front of the neck. These muscles are associated with, among other things, extending and rotating the head. Fish pose lengthens these muscles.
Abdominal muscles. The abdominals are located in the lower belly, between the ribs and the pelvis. They control the tilt of the pelvis and the curve of the lower spine. Fish pose lengthens the rectus abdominus (the six pack) and the obliques (the muscles deep in the sides of the abdomen).
Intercostals muscles. The intercostals muscles run between the ribs. They control the motion of breathing. Opening the chest in fish pose lengthens the intercostals for better breathing.
Pectoral muscles. The pectoralis major and minor connect the front walls of the chest with the upper arms and shoulders. These muscles draw the arms towards the body. Opening the chest towards the sky in fish pose stretches the pecs.
Latissimus dorsi. The latissimus dorsi muscles are located in the mid-back. They rotate and extend the shoulder joint. Fish pose strengthens the lats, which engage as the chest rises and the shoulders open.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles are closely linked with posture. Back bending poses, like fish pose, engage the erector spinae.
How to do the Matsyasana Pose
- Begin lying supine on the mat. Bring your knees and ankles together and extend your legs straight towards the front of the mat.
- Tuck your fingers, palms down, under your buttocks to support your hips throughout the pose. Keeping your forearms close to your body, plant your elbows by your sides.
- Inhale. Lift off of your elbows and arms to raise the stomach and chest and arch your back against the mat.
- Depending on the flexibility of your back, plant either the back of your head or the top of your head against the mat. To avoid compressing your neck in fish pose, don’t put unnecessary weight on your head in this step. Instead, take the weight in your elbows, buttocks, and heels. Keep your mouth closed.
- Push your chest upwards to open the heart and deepen the backbend. If, however, you feel any strain in the neck, stop.
- Breath and hold the pose.
- Exhale and untuck your head. Slowly, lower your head and your spine onto the mat. Hug your knees to your chest to counter the backbend.
Modifications and Props
Cushion the head with a folded blanket. Regardless of what part of your head you plant on the mat, placing a folded blanket beneath your head cushions the impact and helps prevent neck compression.
Bolster up a weak back. Take pressure off your lower back and rib cage by placing a bolster, block, or rolled up blanket along your spine. This prop supports the back muscles in backbend, preventing strain. If possible, position the prop so that you can lean your head back over the top to open the throat and, ideally, make contact with the mat.
Bring the bottoms of your feet together to open the hips. Traditionally, the legs are crossed in fish pose, which opens up the hip joints. Get the benefits of this hip opener, without the strained knees, by bending your knees to the sides and bringing the bottoms of your feet together in step five (above). Press your knees towards the mat in step six.
Swarmi Satyananda Saraswati’s Fish Pose (Matsyasana). This variation is the full, traditional pose. Instead of extending the legs in step one (above), bring your legs into lotus pose (padmasana) by crossing your legs, right over left, and placing your feet in the creases of the opposite hip joints. In step five, take your hands out from under your hips and take ahold of your feet with the opposite hand. Repeat the pose with the left leg crossed over the right.
Swarmi Satyananda Saraswati’s Fish Pose, Variation I (Matsyasana). This variation provides more support for the head, but also puts more weight onto the head, buttocks, thighs, and heels. In step five (above), take your hands out from under your hips and, interlocking your fingers, place them underneath your head.
Swarmi Satyananda Saraswati’s Fish Pose, Variation II (Matsyasana). This variation is halfway between the traditional fish pose and the modified version we practice most commonly in the west. In step one (above), bring your legs into half lotus pose (ardha padmasana) by crossing your legs, right over left, and tucking your right heel into your left hip crease. In step five, take your hands out from under your hips and take ahold of your right foot with both hands. Repeat the pose with the left leg crossed over the right.
Flying Fish Pose (Matsyasana). This variation is a strengthening pose that builds greater strength in the back, relative to the normal pose, and engages the thigh and upper arm muscles, which the normal pose does not. In step five (above), lift the feet approximately 45 degrees off the mat. Then, raise your arms. Like your legs, angle them at 45 degrees relative to the mat. Breath and hold the pose.