For most people, the image of a snake can elicit strong feelings. Whether it be disgust or fear, fascination or adoration, snakes make us feel things. If we were to encounter a slithering creature on our path, it would stop most of us in our tracks. We would take it in, perhaps deepen our breath, and narrow our focus. We might feel anticipation or even dread, but we would slow down before moving forward. In yoga class, we encounter the snake in the form of Cobra pose, the powerful spiritual snake of yoga. We often meet it with the same feelings that arise in us at the thought of a snake, either excitement or dread. When we practice Bhujangasana, or Cobra, it’s good to approach this prone backbend with the same sentiment of meeting a snake on the path—slow down and heighten our awareness.
The resistance to the practice of cobra is often a sensational one. Students dread the compression and pain they feel when attempting to lift the chest and bend the back. Understandably so, our modern culture is riddled with back pain, especially in the lumbar spine. We have lifestyles that keep us compressed, bent over and contracted; we’ve lost our freedom of movement and ease. We’ve lost the natural length of our spine. Add to this lifestyles steeped in demand, achievement, worry, and exhaustion, which increase our overall spinal tension, and you have the recipe for pain and disconnection. Luckily, we are waking up to the fact that yoga can help. More and more, health professionals are encouraging their patients to seek out a yoga class to help with their low back issues and the associated stress. So many yogis I know say that yoga has helped them alleviate pain in the base of the spine and hips. Yet, when these yogis are told to roll over onto their bellies to lift and lengthen the spine into the range of possibilities that encompass our practice of Cobra pose, they groan with dread.
Because we have lost the freedom of full body length and movement that the mobile spine allows, we feel unsafe and even threatened when asked to bend our backs. And this fallacy of bending is perhaps the biggest limiting factor in what the practice of Cobra has to offer us. Imagine the movement of snake: writhing, wriggling, fluid and rhythmic side to side, lengthening and condensing without resistance. Truly the movement of a snake is an expression of being unbound. When we constrict our bodies and brace against the natural movement of the spine in Cobra pose, we can experience extreme discomfort. Instead, if we can think of the unbound and lengthening movement that the pose represents, we can actually use Bhujangasana to unlock the freedom and space in our spines that is much closer to the way it was designed.
Be aware that the cobra is no ordinary snake. As the cobra lengthens and rises from the ground, it can expand its hood and broaden its presence. When we approach the practice of this form, we seek to find similar length and broadness of expression. Snakes in spiritual iconography have an image of great power and represent dual expression of good and evil. In yoga, the snake is known as nāgá.
According to Wikipedia, the naga primarily represents rebirth, and death and mortality, due to its casting of its skin and being symbolically ‘reborn.’ Brahmins associated naga with Shiva and with Vishnu, who rested on a many thousand-headed naga coiled around Shiva’s neck. In Hindu mythology, the snake represented freedom because they cannot be tamed.
In our modern asana practices, our practice of Cobra pose has a similar purpose. When we take the form of a snake, we can embody the dichotomy of discomfort and delight. When we grip and guard ourselves, the posture can appear unavailable and even painful, but when we surrender and trust, Bhujangasana can be the gateway to the opening and freedom that is the source of our own expansion.
Only recently have I found a place of true understanding of Cobra. In my supple and flexible youth, I could lift my chest with straight elbows and throw my head back in delight, but after a while, I started to feel the way that this lack of awareness had compromised the integrity of my low back. I had been practicing only one half of the equation, striving for openness without giving equal effort to stability and length. I went from fearlessly disregarding length in an effort to deepen my flexibility to timidly and rigidly coming to Cobra with barely any movement in the pose. This fear prevented me from truly experiencing the full potential of Bhujangasana in my yoga practice.
Understanding the nature of the asana inspired me to approach it differently. Starting with having respect for the discomfort, I stopped turning away. I made a conscious choice to stay with the intensity of the pose and my perceived limits until I could assess what to do next. What I discovered was how in my fear and caution, I was creating my own discomfort by creating unnecessary limitations that were neither helpful nor supportive of the form. I was so resistant to the sensation that my goal was to avoid feeling altogether rather than listen to the messages that my body was sending. When I stopped turning away from the process and started listening and deepening my breath, I began to realize that I could find the freedom and length in Bhujangasana by allowing for the dichotomy of feeling in my pose. Instead of just bending my back, I could create space between my vertebrae to lengthen my spine. I could broaden my chest and collar bones and find the expansion of possibility. I could strengthen my shoulders and core muscles in support of my spacious lifting and the “bend” would all but disappear, but the full expression of cobra would take its place.
The foundation of Cobra pose is found in the strong anchor of the front of the legs and tops of the feet pressing into the floor in prone position. With hands on either side of the ribcage and strong engagement of rectus abdominis and obliques in the abdomen, the serratus anterior activates to maintain the neutral placement of the shoulder blades on the back. The pronators of and supinators of the forearms support the elbows drawing into the sides of the body. The posterior deltoids work to support the opening and lift of the sternum and the pectoralis group lengthens to support the lifting chest and the correct placement of the shoulders. The core strengthens by engaging lowest fibers of the psoas and iliacus. This allows the lengthening of the waist and ribcage and creates space and fluidity between the spinal vertebrae. The entire spinal group works to extend and lengthen the spine. All of the deeper intrinsic back muscles work in concentric contraction to empower spinal extension, and the latissimus dorsi and more superficial muscles lengthen to allow the movement of the sternum, chest and head from the floor.
To access the spinal extension, the sacrum is in counternutation, the hips are in full extension, and the upper legs are in internal rotation and adduction, which allows the tailbone to root down. Legs and feet continue to press down into the floor. The spinal extension should continue all of the way into the cervical vertebrae. Bhujangasana requires a great deal of strength to lead to the freedom of lifting and lengthening the spine.
The snake isn’t just representative of ease and freedom, though. For a snake to grow, it must shed its skin. It must experience the challenge of the discomfort of outgrowing itself, and then commit to creating the self-inflicted friction that is required to release the constriction and find freedom. I realized that I could no longer practice with the same lack of awareness that I used to, and I gave up on trying to recreate the pose that I had once known. Slowly I moved toward discovering an entirely new approach. One that would support expression of both the challenge and the freedom of the pose.
This exploration led me to exploring more front body length than back body bend. I would lift my legs, one at a time, off the floor slightly and stretch back through my thighs as much as I could. I could feel the front of my body opening and when I released my legs back to the ground, I actually found it. Instead of pulling away from the support beneath me, I opened to it. I allowed more breath in the pelvic bowl and belly instead of hardening in protection of my sensitivity. These seemingly tiny shifts opened up a window of possibility in the pose, and when I inhaled and lifted my chest away from the floor, I worked to respect the ease I had found in the surrender rather than railroad it with the height of the lift. Then, I started to feel it. The “dual expression” of anchor and lift, the potential of experiencing great strength and great ease simultaneously. It was a challenge to outgrow my old ways of trying to achieve Cobra, but as I found the strength and confidence in my shoulders to support the tenderness of my chest to open completely, my cobra moved from difficult and inaccessible to free and empowering.
Through the work of surrender coupled with effort, I have found the unity of opposites. The practice of Bhujangasana has become the practice of yoga by challenging me to grow beyond what I thought was possible and discover a new path to freedom by slowing down, turning inward, and being present in the experience.