By Jessica Stickler

Navasana, or “boat pose,” is traditionally done while seated with the legs and torso lifted to create a V shape and the arms extended alongside the legs. The pose strengthens the trunk and the hip flexors, produces heat in the body, and brings focus and resolve to the mind. Navasana is often considered to be a “core strengthener,” by which people mostly mean the muscles along the front of the torso are engaged. However, success in the pose requires strong back muscles as well.

We might want to retrain our minds to see the “core” not just as the more visible muscles of the front body, but also including the muscles of the back that support the spine, and especially the deeper muscles of the abdomen. As we’ll see, a successful navasana depends on having strength in both the front and the back of the body.

Navasana Do’s and Don’ts

Ideally, your balance is quite a bit forward⁠ on your sitting bones⁠ in navasana. In fact, sit as far forward on them as possible. Keep your knees bent if necessary to maintain the forward tilt of the pelvis, keep your chest lifting, and keep your spine long (avoid rounding your back). Make sure you can breathe effortlessly.

If you are able to maintain an elongated torso, that means you are recruiting your deeper abdominal muscles, in particular the transversus abdominis (TA), which is the deepest abdominal muscle and aids in the stability and strength of the trunk. Think of the TA as a corset: The muscle fibers wrap around the circumference of the torso, therefore stabilizing the midsection.

Rounding the lower back, and thus putting weight on the sacrum, is not an optimal position for navasana. Doing so indicates that the muscles on the front of the body⁠ are dominating—in particular, the rectus abominis⁠—and that the back body is not supported. The rectus abdominis (think “six-pack”) is a very strong muscle for spinal flexion but not a great stabilizer. When contracted, it shortens the front of the body as it flexes (rounds) the spine.

Flexion of the spine plus that strong rectus abdominis contraction can stress the vertebrae, especially in the lower spine, which over time can lead to pain or even damage to the padding/tissue between the vertebrae. If you are taking the pose with a strongly flexed back, it’s also likely that the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscles on the front of the neck will have to work hard to hold your head up, creating unpleasant neck tension. If the SCM’s are bulging out, it’s probably a signal that your back is too rounded.

Contraindications

Do not practice this pose if you have a hernia, a prolapse, or a lumbar herniation. Consult with your healthcare provider and practice with caution if you have lumbar bulges or lower back pain.

3 Tips and Variations to Explore

1. Get That Tailbone UP!

Sitting on the floor with your legs extended out in front of you, bend your knees until your feet are about where your knees were. Point your toes so that they’re the only part of your feet touching the floor. Slide one hand behind each knee. Without moving your feet or legs, pull against your thighs with your hands in order to lift your chest fully and lengthen your spine.

From here, reach back with one hand to find your tailbone (yes, touch it!); check that it is lifting, not rolling onto the floor. Use your index finger to help it lift off the floor, then bring your hand back behind your knee. Keep working with your hands behind your knees and your toes on the floor until you can keep your tailbone lifting.

When you’re able to maintain that, practice lifting your toes off the floor and slowly work on lifting your feet higher, eventually bringing your shins parallel to the floor—ankles and knees at the same height. Keep working with your feet at the height where you can maintain the lift of your tailbone while breathing well. (Yes, reach back there and check!) Make sure that you are still balancing toward the front of your sitting bones.

If you can keep your tailbone up with your shins parallel to the floor, then release your hands and practice reaching your arms alongside your legs.

If you are honest about keeping your tailbone lifted while maintaining lift in your chest and extension in your low back, you’ll probably find that extending your legs into “full” navasana is incredibly challenging, albeit almost impossible. It is very difficult to keep the legs lifted against gravity without calling on your strong frontal abdominals for help.

Given that, my feeling, both as a teacher and as a student, is: Don’t push it! Yearning to “achieve” that classic form of navasana often leads to either a) misalignment or b) overstraining in the neck or abdomen. To me, it’s not worth it. It’s always interesting to contemplate our own tendencies and habits in these moments, to ask ourselves, “Is my ambition to perform the pose according to some image I have of it in my head more important than doing the pose with respect for my body?”

For most of us, it’s very challenging to straighten our legs in navasana without rounding our backs.

2. Use Your Arms: The Blocks Method

This variation strengthens your abdominal muscles and hip flexors while helping you to maintain optimal alignment.

Have two blocks nearby. Come into navasana with your shins parallel to the floor. Rest each heel on a block on its highest setting. Extend your arms alongside your legs. Actively reach your arms forward and notice how that action makes it feel as if your upper body is being hauled forward in space.

3. Modification for Injury: The Blanket Method

I had a freak accident two years ago (non-yoga related) and I fractured my sacrum. Recovery was long and slow, and getting back to practice was even slower. Navasana is a pose that can still be scary and uncomfortable for me, so some creative propping has been very helpful. You might find this variation useful if you have an extra long tailbone (some people do!), or have had an injury, or if you just want to explore.

To set up for it, fold a blanket into an extra-long rectangle. Then fold the ends to make a sort of fortune cookie/open triangle.

If you sit on the blanket with one sitting bone on each side of the triangle and the point of the triangle pointing forward, the blanket creates a sort of cradle, providing more space to the sacrum and tailbone area.

Give one or all of these tips and variations a try and see what you discover. With presence of mind, attention to detail as well as breath, and a little curiosity, we can find the magic in each version of navasana! See a video demonstration of these tips and variations here

Photography: Andrea Killam

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