I tried the Supported Fish Pose for 5 months — here’s what happened to my upper body

I came across the supported fish pose during a hot yoga class around five months ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since. The heart-opening asana (pose) used during yoga classes offers a brilliant shoulder stretch and can be adapted into many variations to suit most people. In short, it’s the best upper body stretch you’re not doing. 

Fish pose, or Matsyasana in Sanskrit, is a backbend, and supported fish pose recruits the help of a bolster, yoga block, or cushion to support the spine throughout. Doing so stretches multiple muscle groups across your upper body and helps strengthen your back while allowing you to breathe and relax into the pose. Despite originating from yoga, I’ve seen the pose crop up all over the place since practicing it. 

I’ve been doing the supported fish pose every week for months. Here’s how to do the exercise safely, when to avoid it and variations to try.

How to do the supported fish pose exercise

Here’s a step-by-step on supported fish pose:

  • Start on your back and place both feet on the mat hip-width apart with your knees bent.
  • Lift your pelvis and back gently from the floor and place a block on the lowest setting lengthways between your shoulder blades.
  • Lower your back and pelvis down. You can add a block beneath your head if you need extra neck support.
  • Your knees can stay bent, or you can extend your legs away from you. Alternatively, bring the soles of your feet together and allow the knees to fall wide or cross your legs into lotus pose if you’re a yogi already familiar with the setup.
  • If you’re not using a block beneath your head, allow the back or crown of your head to gently rest on the mat to help open the thoracic spine.
  • Gently press the elbows down into the mat close to the sides of your body and relax into the block.

I strongly recommend watching the video below for more valuable information on adapting the pose, how to nail the OG fish pose and ways to tweak it. 

If you prefer, use a bolster beneath your body instead of yoga blocks, ensuring the bolster supports the entire spine from your neck to the top of your glutes. Once you become familiar with the supported fish pose, you could play with the height setting of your yoga blocks. 

I use one yoga block on the second-highest setting, and I can still rest my head safely on the mat. I then position the bottom end of my block at the same place as my bra strap, between my shoulder blades. To reach an even deeper chest and shoulder stretch, my yoga teacher encourages me to hold my arms in a cactus pose with elbows bent at 90 degrees and palms facing upward (think of an overhead press), opening the anterior deltoids (fronts of the shoulders) and pecs. I also sometimes extend my arms overhead behind me to deepen the stretch in my lats, upper arms and shoulders.

I can’t stress enough that what works for me might not work for you. I’ve been practicing this pose under the watchful eye of a qualified hot yoga instructor for months. We always recommend that you seek guidance from a qualified yoga teacher before trying new asanas or if you’re a yoga beginner, and Eckhart Yoga, Europe’s largest online studio, recommends avoiding this pose if you have neck or lower back issues, blood pressure problems, or glaucoma. 

Other recommended advice follows if you want to strengthen your lower back using a supported fish pose. Keep your feet flat on the floor, use a bolster or the lowest setting of your block before progressing and stop if you experience any pain or discomfort.

I did supported fish pose every week for 5 months — here’s what happened to my upper body 

We've been digging into what an hour of yoga can do for your body, but what could five months of fish pose do for mine?

It feels amazing

Firstly, this stretch feels insanely good. I use the pose to open or close my yoga practice, opting to bring the soles of my feet together and knees wide. I start with my arms by my sides, similar to how fish pose looks, with my elbows pressed onto the mat close to my body, then progress to cactus pose (as mentioned above) and finish with my arms extended overhead. 

It’s the deepest stretch I’ve learned for my shoulders, chest, arms, upper back, neck and lats and there are endless ways to progress or scale the exercise. I’ve stumbled across fish pose in yoga several times, but supported fish pose is my go-to when I’ve been sitting at my desk writing all day. 

Scaling is crucial

No pun intended. 

Any deep backbend should be approached with caution, and I wouldn’t recommend diving into this pose without first learning how to do it and looking at the variations available. If you struggle with sciatica, for example, always ask a teacher for advice.

For example, my yoga teacher says the block should never sit on your lower back, always aligning with your shoulder blades and sitting at the mid to upper back. If you use a bolster, the length of your back should be supported anyway. Getting positioned correctly first is crucial before playing with arm and leg positions.

It helps me open my hips

If I’m feeling tight, I’ll begin by bending my knees and supporting my feet on the floor, only bringing the soles of my feet together when my back starts melting into the block beneath me. If you have a super tight back, the lowest setting of a block is far more beneficial than forcing your spine into a deep backbend. A gentle approach is the perfect way to set up for wheel pose later in your practice.

The supported fish pose stretches my hip flexor muscles, intercostal muscles, abdominals, chest, shoulders, neck and back, and after a few calming breaths, my muscles begin to relax. I start the pose with my arms far away from the ground, and by the time I finish, my hands always touch the floor behind me. I notice the difference immediately, and I even feel taller afterward.

The pose prepares me for movement

Done properly and over time, supported fish pose can build posture and back strength by stretching and strengthening the muscles responsible for good posture, like your mid and upper back, neck, spine, chest and shoulders. As most of us sit slumped for periods over desks or laptops, the hunched position (shoulders rotated internally with a sloping forward posture) is becoming increasingly common. 

In fact, I spend more time than ever with clients working on strengthening the back muscles and stretching out tight chest muscles to help open the upper body and pull the shoulders back — which this pose helps me to do for myself. 

I try to hold the pose for several minutes with my knees bent and arms by my sides, before transitioning to deeper variations for several minutes at a time, breathing deeply with my eyes shut. It’s incredible how the body first resists and tightens before gradually melting toward the mat, relaxing and opening up the body.

The highly respected Yoga Journal recommends using a thick blanket for extra support and ensuring ‘your head rests comfortably on the floor and your throat is soft.’ Try to breathe calmly, using your exhale to soften deeper into the stretch. Start with 20-30 seconds and build up to longer holds as you progress.

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.