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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. That is particularly true of Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), an invigorating backbend stretch 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.
Build support in Cobra Pose
To create an even, pain-free Cobra stretch, 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. When you have finished practicing Cobra, you’ll want to balance your energy by practicing Balasana (Child’s Pose) or Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) for several breaths until you feel calm again.
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.
Step 1: Balance Your Backbend With a Slight Forward Bend
1. Lie on your belly.
2. Come onto your forearms, with your elbows directly under your shoulders and parallel to each other.
3. Stretch your legs straight back, about hip-width apart.
4. Spread your toes wide and press the tops of your feet into your mat.
5. Firm your legs, and roll your inner thighs up, your outer thighs down. Press your tailbone toward your feet, lengthening your lower back.
6. Press down into your forearms to lift your chest up.
Refine: Continue to push down firmly into your forearms while also pulling back against the resistance of the sticky mat. Though they won’t move, work your forearms as if you were dragging them backward. Reach your chest forward. As you do this, keep reaching your tailbone back, creating traction between the weight of your hips pulling back and the strength of your arms. Let this elongate the sides of your waist as you reach your chest farther forward.
To protect your lower back, lift your navel, engaging your abdominals, almost as if you were rounding your lower back. It won’t actually round, but your lower spine will move into a more neutral position. Focus on these two actions at once: Open the upper back into a backbend as you engage your belly to support the lower back. This will help you find greater opening in the upper back.
Finish: Take several breaths in this version of the stretch, noticing everything you are feeling. When you’re ready, release all the way down to the floor. Relax and breathe into your back.
Step 2: Strengthen Your Upper Back and Open Your Chest and Shoulders
1. Lie on your belly and stretch your legs straight back, about hip-width apart.
2. Bend your elbows and place your hands flat beside your middle ribs.
3. Press down into the tops of your feet. Firm your legs and roll your inner thighs toward the ceiling while rotating your outer thighs down.
4. Lengthen your tailbone back toward your feet.
5. Press into your palms, and use the strength of your back muscles to lift your chest off the mat. You won’t come very far off the floor in this version.
Refine: In this Cobra stretch, 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 as in Step 1, pulling it toward your lower back. But this time only engage the abdominals lightly.
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.
Finish: After several slow, deep breaths, lower yourself down with control. Turn your head to one side and relax your arms beside you. Wiggle your hips to release any tension in the sacrum and low back. Rest for a breath or two.
Final Pose: Bhujangasana
1. Lie on your belly.
2. Place your palms on the floor just behind your shoulders.
3. Firm and lengthen your legs and tailbone back.
4. Gently lift your navel and begin to pull your hands against the mat.
5. Lift your chest forward and up, straightening your arms as much as you can without straining your back.
Refine: You may not be able to straighten your arms all the way. Try working with your breath to go deeper. Inhale as you press into your hands, straightening your arms a little and lifting your chest. As you exhale, ground your feet and legs and reach your tailbone back. Inhaling, press your hands down and pull your shoulders back, coming a bit higher. Exhaling, pause and lift your navel. This may be plenty for you; if so, stay and breathe here. If you want to go deeper, press down strongly into your hands until your arms are nearly straight.
Continue to press your shoulder blades forward into your chest. Inhale into your top chest, lifting it forward and toward the sun. Feel the power of your spine, its tail end fully grounded and the energy coiling forward and up to support your expanding chest.
Finish: If you’re happy here, take one more full breath and, as you exhale, stick out your tongue and hiss your breath out to the sky! Roll down slowly and take a breath on your belly, then press back into Downward-Facing Dog or Child’s Pose.
Tips for a Pain-Free Cobra Stretch
- 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. Come to all fours and move into Downward-Facing Dog, then slowly into Child’s Pose.
- Play With Hand Placement: To make more space for your spine to arch, try placing your hands a few inches farther forward instead of directly beneath the shoulders.
Elements of Practice
Yoga, which means “union,” is always a marrying of opposites. As you practice this Cobra stretch, 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.
Watch a video demonstration of this pose.
Annie Carpenter is the creator of SmartFLOW yoga.