"Few of us have lost our minds, but many of us have long ago lost our bodies," says transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber. It is quite common for human beings to live in a disembodied state—for our thoughts to be separate from the experience of our bodies. This loss of the body takes many forms, from not being able to stop the train of thinking mind to catching ourselves hunched over or sick because we haven't paid attention to the many warning signs we were given by our bodies. One of yoga's many benefits is the experience of greater embodiment.
Embodiment is the spreading of one's consciousness throughout the body, from the crown of the head to the toes, the surface to the core. It is learning to listen and understand the language of the body. It is remembering ourselves by exploring and excavating who we are in our own skin. When you begin to take a yoga class or learn from a book or video, the instructor will invite you to move places in yourself that may have been forgotten or never realized: big toes, kneecaps, thigh bones, sternum, and kidneys, as well as places that you may be very aware of due to tightness or pain, such as the lower back or the sides of the neck. The asana that we will explore, Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose), is fundamental not only for embodying your spine but for learning to move as an integrated whole. Bhujangasana is an essential pose for developing the strength and flexibility of the entire back, while toning the legs and buttocks, increasing circulation, and assisting in kidney function. Like many backbends, it is a "heart opener," subtly releasing held emotions within the rib cage to bring greater joy within the body.
Before we begin to do the pose, let's trace some of the important landmarks within the body that are key to activating not only Cobra but many of the asanas. Sitting comfortably in a chair, wrap your hand around the nape of your neck and rest the side of your hand along your occipital ridge, where your spine and skull meet. You will feel two bony points with a hollow space between them. Collapse the back of your head into your hand. This crunching of the neck is something to watch out for in Cobra as well as other poses. Try to extend the back of your neck in alignment with your spine (your chin will drop slightly). Now bring the other hand to your lower back and touch your tailbone, the base of your spine. Turn your tailbone up as if to sway your back like a duck. Feel how this jams your sacrum (the triangular bone of which the tailbone is the base). Then, notice how turning your tailbone towards the earth creates space there. Pause and feel the whole line of your spine—from your tailbone up your vertebrae and nape of your neck all the way to the crown of your head.
Now release your hands and bring your awareness to your shoulders, drawing them up by your ears. This is the consummate tension pattern that we might go into at our desks, in traffic, under stress, out of habit. Bring your awareness to your shoulder blades, those wings that slide up and down your back with the movement of your shoulders. Now rotate your shoulders, consciously drawing your shoulder blades (scapulae) down your back. Maintain the downward grounding of your shoulder blades and feel the space between your neck and shoulders. Touch your sternum (the bony plate between and below your collarbones) with one hand. Feel it spreading open as you move your shoulder blades further into the body. Finally, straighten your right leg, lift it slightly off the floor, and put your right hand on the top of your right thigh. Now point your toes, firm your kneecap, and feel how your entire leg comes alive. The ability to work your legs is essential for supporting the spine in backbends. Press your thigh bone back and activate your right leg even more. Remember the sensations of these landmarks in the body to assist you in greater embodiment in Cobra, other asanas, and life in general.
Coming Into Cobra
Let's come to the floor and find the pathways between these landmarks within Bhujangasana. Lying flat on your belly, bring your hands under your shoulders with your forehead touching the floor. Begin some of the actions of the full pose while you are still in the starting position: Draw your shoulder blades down your back, lifting the shoulders off the floor and creating space around your neck. Hug your elbows back and into your body. Now activate your legs by pointing your toes away from you and pressing the tops of your feet into the floor. As you firm the tops of your thighs and ground your feet, let only your knees lift off the floor slightly. Then press your pubic bone (the bony point several inches below your navel) into the floor to stabilize your lower back and broaden the sacrum. Pause for a moment and feel your awareness spread throughout your body.
On an inhalation, begin to lift your chest off the floor while maintaining your connection through your pubic bone to your legs. Coming into Cobra, it's tempting to go for height and push the torso up with the strength of the arms, but height isn't the goal; the goal is extension in the spine and opening in the chest. To find the height at which you can work comfortably and strengthen the back instead of straining it, take your hands off the floor for a moment, so that the height you find will be through extension. Replace your hands under your shoulders, squeeze your elbows in, breathe into your chest, and on an exhalation lower down. Try several rounds of inhaling slowly up into this basic Cobra and then exhaling down to the starting position. As you do this, see if you can feel all of the alignment landmarks coming alive—sternum to pubis, crown of the head to your toes, until it feels as if there is one current running up the front of your spine and down the back of your legs. You can also stay for five to 10 breaths in this basic backbend, strengthening your back, opening your heart, and relaxing more deeply into the pose even though it is quite active.
Eventually, with the guidance of a teacher, you can begin to press down through your hands, straighten your arms, and extend up into a full Cobra. But beware: It is easy to get drawn into the allure of height in a backbend before the necessary strength and flexibility are in place, and to jam the lower back. So be patient. Think of creating extension within your spine first and foremost. When you are done with the pose, rest on your belly with your head to the side and enjoy the positive residuals of Bhujangasana, when the entire body is like a dry field freshly irrigated.