A rock climber scaling the side of a mountain peak finds the courage to reach for the next handhold from knowing she’s safely tethered to her guide rope. It’s the same with yoga. You can dare to explore challenging poses if you know how to safely enter and come back out of a pose whenever you want.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) is an invigorating backbend that can feel like an exciting journey. But if you tend to create most of the bend in your lower back, it can cause compression and pain, and excitement is quickly replaced by fear. Since the lower spine is naturally more flexible than the upper spine, it’s easy to overdo the arch there. Ideally, you work toward an even bend along the whole spine, including your neck. It helps if you learn to work carefully, making conscious choices each step of the way.
To create an even, pain-free Cobra Pose, learn to engage your abdominals in the pose—they act as the guide rope that keeps you safe. The abdominals can support and protect your lower back while you reach for more opening in the upper back. Once your lower back is stable, you can focus on contracting your upper-back muscles and pressing your shoulder blades into your back to create space in the spine and open your chest. As long as you feel supported, you can keep going deeper, continuing to press your upper spine in toward the front of your chest and coiling—like a snake—into a big, healthy backbend.
When you’ve found your ideal alignment in Cobra, you can use it to strengthen the upper back and the backs of the legs and to stretch your chest and shoulders. The backbending action is powered by the muscles of the back of the body. But the pose is also a powerful way to tone the abdominal muscles: They get stretched as you move into the backbend and contracted as you control the movement and return to your starting point.
Cobra will invigorate you energetically as well. It stretches the intercostal muscles (the ones between the ribs), which allows your rib cage to expand and thus can increase your breathing capacity. It’s also thought to gently squeeze the adrenal glands, giving you a feeling of alertness and vigor.
Bhujanga, the Sanskrit word for “snake,” is derived from the root bhuj, which means “to bend or curve.” The king cobra, revered in Indian myths, can glide forward while lifting the upper third of its body upright. Try to emulate this animal’s powerful yet fluid motion when you practice. Imagine your legs as the snake’s tail, reaching long behind you as you curve your spine to lift your chest majestically.
Refine: Press your hands into the mat while pulling them back against the resistance of the surface. This can help you lengthen your waist. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and press your shoulder blades forward into your chest. Gently lift your navel, pulling it toward your lower back.
See if you can lift your chest farther off the mat. Think of creating space by lengthening your spine first, reaching your tailbone back. Once you’ve created space, use the strength of your upper-back muscles to move your spine forward as you broaden and lift the chest. Slowly arch forward and up, maintaining just enough lift in your belly to keep your lower back happy.
Adjust Yourself: Tips for a Pain-Free Cobra
- Make Space First: Your upper back is harder to bend than your lower back. To open it, lengthen your spine, which makes more space between the vertebrae.
- Release Tight Muscles: Instead of squeezing your buttocks, which can compress the lower back, relax them. Roll your inner thighs up to lengthen your tailbone back.
- Exit With Care: Come out of the pose gradually to allow your spine to decompress.
Elements of PracticeYoga, which means “union,” is always a marrying of opposites. As you practice Cobra, you exert a forceful effort to create a big, beautiful backbend. But the pose also calls you to balance this with a hint of the energy of forward bending. You’ll experience this when you round in your belly to support the spine, but it’s also in the feeling you bring to the pose. Forward bends are associated with softness and surrender. Try practicing Cobra with a quiet sense of introspection to temper your willpower and remind you that yoga is always about balance and contentment.