Matsyasana, or Fish Pose, is an excellent release of the upper back and neck. Expanding the muscles and fascia surrounding the vertebrae of both the thoracic and cervical spine as well as expanding and opening through the front body, this heart opening posture can certainly be challenging to execute safely and properly.
Anatomically there are a lot of actions occurring in this fundamental posture that need careful and considered attention to keep the body safe.
There are many common misalignments that can occur during Matsyasana, so next time you're practicing this posture, either as a stand-alone posture or as a counter pose to Shoulderstand, look out for these common anatomical misalignments:
Placing Too Much Weight On The Head
Fish Pose, like Headstand, is one of those tricky postures where weight is actually placed onto the head. And anytime you are actively bearing weight on your head, you need to very consciously engage the supporting muscles so that the mass of your body does not become a “dead” weight pushing your head down against the floor.
How to fix it: Very gently, softly and consciously rest the weight of your head against the mat. Fully support your weight by activating into the surrounding muscle groups.
Try to maintain less than 20% of your weight in the head and the other 80% of your weight supported by the arms, neck, upper back and core. Even your legs should actively press against the floor to stimulate the engagement of your whole body so that your head can softly make contact with the floor without jamming down against it.
If you're still feeling pressure on the head, you can take a rolled up blanket and place it under your back to support the backbend while resting your head against the floor. You can also do the same supporting your weight using a block underneath your shoulder blades, and your head either resting onto a second block or down to the mat.
Disconnecting Your Head From the Floor
In stark contrast to placing too much weight on the head, some other practitioners do not even make contact between their heads and the floor. And while this may seem beneficial (at least there isn't too much weight on the head), it actually causes excess strain in the neck and back as you levitate too much weight in the air (your head is alarmingly heavy!).
How to fix it: Follow the steps above. Very gently, softly and consciously rest your head against the floor, maintaining full engagement of the surrounding muscles to support your weight.
Overarching The Lower Back
The lower back, or lumbar spine, is significantly more mobile than the upper back, or thoracic spine. This is due largely to the fact that the upper back is connected to the ribcage (designed for stability and protection), therefore decreasing mobility while the lower back is a free floating entity supported solely by the muscles of the integral core system.
While this is great for mobility in day-to-day life, it can sometimes be dangerous in a yoga practice. This can occur when practitioners tend to backbend by simply “hinging” from the hyper mobile lower back without creating any arch in the upper back.
And while this may work for a period of time without consequence, this repeated motion can start to wear and tear on the disc fluid between the vertebrae causing serious pain or injury.
When practicing Fish Pose, a common misalignment of the body is to do just this: overcompensate for stiffness in the upper back by overarching through the lower back and hardly arcing at all in the upper spine.
How to fix it: Actively engage your core during Fish Pose (and any backbend) to protect the fragile discs of your spine. Envision wrapping a corset around your whole waist drawing in the inner muscles of your core and hugging your belly button back toward your spine.
Also, focus on the actions of the upper back (your thoracic spine). Imagine peeling your heart open as you draw your shoulder blades toward each other. Try to expand your chest up toward the ceiling to feel a stretch through your chest and upper back.
Work to create an even arc throughout your whole spine rather than a “bend” at one point.
Overstraining The Neck
Another hypermobile part of the spine is your neck, or cervical spine. While the range of motion here varies from person to person, some practitioners are able to greatly “drop” their heads back collapsing into the back of their necks.
People often view this as a deep backbend when, in actuality, they have created no bend into the back itself, simply a “hinge” at the neck.
This is a common misalignment in Fish Pose as the neck is deeply arched in this position to create a stretch through the front of the neck (as a direct counter to Jalandhara Bandha, or Chin Lock).
How to fix this: Again focus on the action of creating a full arch throughout the whole spine, rather than hinging from one particular point on the spine. Instead of throwing the head back to see further behind you, close your eyes.
Elongate the crown of your head away from your feet and, keeping this length, slowly start to relax the crown of your head toward the floor. Try to create a full arch into the neck rather than collapsing into the point where your head meets your torso.
Continue to elongate the back of your neck throughout the duration of your hold in Fish Pose.
Matsyasana is an excellent posture to “reset” the spine or to counter Shoulderstand or Chin Lock. Opening the heart and neck, this asana is powerful and delicate all at once.
Practice kindness toward your body as you play with Fish Pose. And while you work toward creating the most anatomically sound position accessible to your body, remember that no two bodies are the same and no ONE physical cue can apply to every practitioner.
Be sure to listen to your breath as your own internal teacher to find the best variations for your own very personal practice.