The image of a serpent can trigger strong emotions in most people. Snakes can make us feel various emotions, including disgust, fear, fascination, or admiration. Most of us would be stopped if we encountered a snake on our way. We would stop, take it all in, deepen our breathing, and focus our attention. We may feel apprehension or fear but will slow down and move forward. We encounter the snake as the mighty spiritual serpent of yoga, Cobra Pose. It is often met with the same emotions we feel when thinking of snakes, excitement, or fear. We must slow down and increase our awareness when we do Bhujangasana or Cobra.
Many students are afraid of the pain and compression they experience when trying to bend their back and lift their chest. Back pain is a common problem in our modern society, particularly in the lumbar region. Our lifestyles keep us hunched over, bent forward, and contracted. We’ve lost the freedom to move and feel comfortable. Our spine has lost its natural length. We’ve lost the natural size of our spine. Yoga can help. Fortunately, more people are becoming aware of this. Health professionals are encouraging more and more patients to attend yoga classes to relieve stress and low back pain. Many yogis claim that yoga helps relieve pain at the base of their spine and in their hips. When these yogis hear that they must roll onto their stomachs to lengthen and lift their spines, they are filled with fear.
We feel insecure and even threatened if asked to bend our spines. This is because we no longer have the full range of movement and length that the mobile spinal allows. This fallacy is the most significant limitation of what Cobra can offer. Imagine the snake’s movement: fluid, rhythmic, side-to-side, writhing, and wriggling without resistance. The movement of a serpent is a true expression of freedom. We can feel extreme discomfort when we tighten our muscles and resist the natural movement of our spines in the Cobra pose. Bhujangasana can liberate the space and freedom in the spine by imagining the unbound, lengthening motion that the pose represents.
The Cobra is not an ordinary snake. The Cobra can broaden and expand its presence when it extends its neck and rises. We seek similar expressions of length and breadth when we practice this form. In spiritual iconography, snakes symbolize power and the dual expression between good and evil. The snake is called Naga in yoga.
Wikipedia says the Naga symbolizes rebirth and death because it casts its skin. Brahmins also associated the Naga with Shiva as well as Vishnu. Shiva rested upon a thousand-headed snake. The snake symbolizes freedom in Hindu mythology because it cannot be tamed.
Cobra pose is a modern asana with a purpose similar to our ancient practice. We can embody discomfort and pleasure when we assume the snake form. The posture may seem painful and unattainable when we guard and grip ourselves. But, if we trust and surrender, Bhujangasana becomes the portal to freedom and opening that are the source of personal expansion.
Cobra is something I only recently began to truly understand. I was a young, supple, and flexible woman who could raise my chest by straightening my elbows, and I would throw my head forward in joy. But after some time, I realized my lack of awareness compromised my lower back’s integrity. I was only focusing on one side of the equation. I tried to achieve openness but did not give equal attention to stability or length. After ignoring length to increase my flexibility, I approached Cobra rigidly and timidly with little movement. This fear kept me from experiencing Bhujangasana’s full potential in my practice.
I was inspired to change my approach after realizing the nature of this asana. I made a conscious decision by respecting the discomfort and not turning away. I decided to remain in the pose until I better understood what I wanted to do. In my fear and caution, I created discomfort by creating unhelpful limitations that did not support or help the form. I was so resistant to the feeling that I wanted to avoid it altogether rather than listen to my body’s messages. After I stopped turning my back and began listening to my body and deepening my breath, I realized that I could achieve the freedom and length of Bhujangasana if I allowed the dichotomy in feeling. Instead of bending backward, I could create space between my vertebrae and lengthen my spine. I could expand my chest and collarbones and discover the possibility of expansion. If I strengthened my core and shoulders to support my expansive lifting, the “bend,” pronounced bend in my body shape, would almost disappear. Instead, the full expression of the Cobra would appear.
In the prone position, the foundation of the Cobra is anchoring the front legs and the tops of the toes into the floor. The serratus anterior is activated by placing hands on either side of the ribcage, with strong abdominal muscles, rectus, and obliques engaged. This maintains the neutral position of the shoulder blades. Pronators and supinators in the forearms help to draw the elbows into the side of the body. The pectoralis muscle group is lengthened to support a lifting chest and correct shoulder placement. The core is strengthened by engaging the lowest fibers of the iliac and psoas. This lengthens the waist and ribcage, creating fluidity and space between the vertebrae. The entire spinal group is involved in extending and lengthening the spine. The deeper muscles of the back work together in concentric contractions to extend the spine. The latissimus and superficial muscles also lengthen, allowing the head, chest, and sternum to be moved from the floor.