Bhujangāsana

Bhujangāsana, or cobra pose, is a prone back-extension (back-bending) pose which invigorates the body and tones the muscles of the back.

Functions of the Pose

Back strength and flexibility

Bhujangāsana strengthens the upper and lower back, and helps develop flexibility in the back as well. Building flexibility and strength in this area can relieve pain for those who tend toward kyphosis in the thoracic spine (rounding of the upper back).

Move the thoracic area

The movement of the prāṇa region increases a feeling of vitality and can improve energy, appetite, mood and space for inhale. Building flexibility and strength in this area can help relieve chronic back and neck pain (as long as the lower back and neck are not strained by the movement).

Finding the Pose

  1. Lie down on your belly, keeping ankles close and tops of feet on the floor so that toes point directly back from your body.
  2. Place your palms close to your torso, so that the wrist is at the level of your navel, with forearms nearly parallel to floor and arms close to the body (appropriate arm placement varies for each person--see notes below)
  3. Using the strength of your back, lift your upper body away from the floor, keeping arms and shoulders relaxed.
  4. As you exhale, return the floor.

Tips and Modifications

 "Classical" version of pose, with wrists at level of navel.

"Classical" version of pose, with wrists at level of navel.

The most common thing to watch out for is pulling the head back as you lift. Keep the back of the neck in a neutral position, so that the posterior line of the body, from the back of the skull to the heels is a long, relatively even curve with no strong breaks. The lifting of the upper body should come from the breath and the center of the thoracic area, not the head.

 Variation of  bhujangāsana  with arms in "goalpost" position gently targets upper back area from about base of neck to shoulderblades--adjusting height of elbows changes strength emphasis.

Variation of bhujangāsana with arms in "goalpost" position gently targets upper back area from about base of neck to shoulderblades--adjusting height of elbows changes strength emphasis.

Bhujangāsana asks for a lot of upper back strength, but students must also develop flexibility in the upper back to be able to lift off the floor without straining the lower back. Take care to lengthen and strengthen evenly, without letting the curves of the neck or lower back collapse or engaging others (like the external hip rotators) to the point of strain. If there is a feeling of strain in the lower back, or too much tension in the hips/gluteal muscles, students should do an arm variation which requires less strength.

 Variation with hands by shoulders and elbows pointing back to strengthen mid to lower back.

Variation with hands by shoulders and elbows pointing back to strengthen mid to lower back.

This is an especially challenging pose for students with stiffness in their lower back and neck. Focusing on breath and allowing the inhale to create a feeling of lift helps students find ease and space in this posture. There should always be a feeling of the breath having enough space to move even at the top of the pose.

 Lifting one leg while lifting upper back adds more lower back strength requirement.

Lifting one leg while lifting upper back adds more lower back strength requirement.

Most modifications for bhujangāsana place the arms wider or higher on the floor to make more space in the upper back. Students can also bend their knees or lift one or both legs to further increase the emphasis on back strength in this pose.

Using the arms to push into this pose deprives students of the main purpose--the development of back strength and flexibility. It also tends to strain the neck and shoulders as the upper back collapses. Try to keep the arms stable but relaxed.

Muscle Actions

  • Erector spinae lift the upper body.

Benefits

  • Strengthens erector spinae muscles, especially in upper back, which can help alleviate back pain due to common postural issues. Also said to strengthen lower vertebral bones, which may prevent or reduce severity of osteoporosis.
  • Expands prāṇa region of the body (thoracic region), which improves appetite, focus, energy levels and breath.
  • Can strengthen neck and help with neck strain for some students.

Precautions

Avoid during pregnancy once pressure on the belly is no longer comfortable, usually by the second or third trimester. For pregnant students, a good substitution could be cakravakāsana or a vajrāsana variation, which both emphasize back strength.

Although bhujangāsana is sometimes recommended to strengthen the back after injury, students with history of back pain--and especially with diagnosis of disc herniation or rupture, degenerative disc disease or arthritis--may need avoid prone back-extension movements.

Sequencing Tips

Bhujangāsana is a mild backward-bending pose, and useful to include to prepare the body for and teach elements of more intense backward-bending postures like danurāsana (wheel), ustrāsana  (camel) and urdhva danurāsana (upward-facing wheel).

A mild forward-bending posture like vajrāsana forward bend (child's pose) can be a good counter pose to relieve the effort of the back muscles.

Additional Resources

"Spotlight on a pose: Bhujangasana" by Olga Kabel on SequenceWiz