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Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) - Issues and solutions

List of some of the issues that can be relevant for practising this pose:

Bhujangasana Pose Potential Problem Areas Image
            · Neck

            · Shoulders and Wrists

            · Chest (2 issues)

            · Lumbar Spine

            · Hip Joints

            Pregnancy




Neck

In the full version of this pose the neck is in full extension; some teachers also advocate taking the neck into extension in the early stages of the pose. This can be problematic in standing poses (e.g. warrior 1) or in poses like camel where the weight of the head has to be taken by the neck flexors. In cobra pose this rarely causes problems because it is the strong neck extensors that have to do the work of controlling and maintaining the neck position. However, where the neck is already compromised or discomforted, practising with careful awareness - and stopping before the neck is discomforted - is obviously a good idea. In my own practice and teaching, I tend to draw the chin in towards the neck and emphasize lifting the back of neck (rather than head), which happens to keep the back of the neck long and thus reduces likely problems of over-extending the neck. But my primary reason for practising in this way is that it encourages extension in the thoracic spine.

The other issue to consider is the possibility that the thyroid gland will be “stimulated” by stretching in the front of the neck (especially if practised before or after a pose that squeezes the front of the neck). I am not sure that such “stimulation” actually occurs and, for most students, it would be desirable but for some thyroid disorders (over-active thyroids) stimulating the thyroid gland is not a good idea.


Shoulders and Wrists

The arm position for cobra pose varies greatly in different versions. In some versions, hands are placed on the floor level with shoulders or close to the waist; in others, the hands are clasped behind the back and lifted towards the feet; while, in still others, they are relaxed on the floor alongside the trunk. When the hands are placed on the floor, one has the option of the arms being weight-bearing or passive – in the latter case, the back muscles supply the lift. When the arms are weight-bearing, this weight goes through the wrists. This is usually fine when the hands are on either side of (or forwards of) the shoulders – but, the closer the wrists are to waist level, the more extreme the extension of the wrists is, and, for some, this can be uncomfortable. A good solution is to practise with hands sufficiently forwards for the wrists to feel comfortable – it can also be helpful to actively press hands down through the heels of the hands, pads of fore-finger joints and pads of little finger joints. With the hands clasped behind one’s back, the shoulders are in an extreme position of extension, but, since the shoulder muscles themselves are holding the arms in this position, this is rarely a problem for the shoulder joints – and where it is, one can simply practise a different variation of cobra pose.


Chest (2 potential issues)

Breathing. When holding this pose, the breath is heavily restricted. It is restricted in the upper and middle part of the lungs since the spine and ribs are held in an extreme position. It is also restricted somewhat in the lower part of the lungs, due either to the weight of the body resting on the abdomen or the abdomen being pulled taut so that the diaphragm has to work harder when it contracts. This is generally beneficial due to the muscles of respiration either being stretched (which helps to improve their elasticity) or having to work hard against resistance (which strengthens them). However, some people may find this uncomfortable at first and feel that they can’t breathe (cf. asthma) – such people need not hold the pose, but can move in and out of it until they feel comfortable holding it.

Heart. This pose encourages the heart to beat harder and faster. This is generally beneficial for the heart as it gives it a bit of a “work-out” – helping it to stay fit and strong. However, for those with an already compromised heart, there is some danger that the heart will be asked to do more than it can cope with – such people should listen/feel to how their hearts are responding and should only hold the pose for short periods (if at all) until the heart has built up its strength and stamina again. Moving in and out of the pose is not intrinsically more strenuous for the heart than moving in and out of a forward bend.


Lumbar Spine

Generally this pose is thought to be good for those with back problems – and in particular the type of back problems arising from straining the back when the spine is in a flexed position. However for those with lumbar lordosis (excessive inward curving in the lower back), or for those with a highly mobile lower back, care needs to be taken to avoid over-arching of the lower back. This need not be a problem as long as one practises the pose so as to keep the lower back long. Consciously attempting to point the lower tail-bone downwards (or press the pubis downwards) and / or keeping the abdomen squeezed inwards helps keep the lower back long, as does consciously directing the back bend into the upper back (rather than lower back). As always, you should practise with awareness of how the lower back feels and avoid lifting (or pressing) up so far that the lower back is discomforted.


Hip Joints

In the full version of the pose, the hip joints are taken into extension. In practice, it is rare to take the pose this far and, where one does, tight hip flexors will limit how far one goes into the pose rather than actually causing problems. However, it is still worth preparing the ilio-psoas muscles as they can pull on the lumbar spine if they are tight and so force the lumbar spine to go into extension, rather than peeling off the floor in a way that takes the hips into extension. In other words, with tightness in the hip flexor muscles, trying to lift further into the pose than is appropriate is likely to cause problems and discomfort in the lower back - see the above advice for keeping the lower back long.


Pregnancy

Practising yoga in the first trimester is considered by most yoga teachers to be contra-indicated. The only explanation I have heard for this is that in the first trimester there is a fairly high tendency for spontaneous miscarriage and this could in principle be exacerbated by yoga (although, as far as I know, there is no evidence for this). Possibly a mid-wife or an expert pregnancy yoga teacher might be able to give a better explanation.

In the later stages of pregnancy, lying with weight on one’s abdomen is not an option : – usual alternatives offered are sitting fish pose (from sitting, lean backwards, place hands on floor and then lift chest) or standing cobra (from standing, clasp hands behind back, draw hands downwards while rolling shoulders backwards, and then lift arms away from one’s back, encouraging chest to expand forwards). Other options to consider would be practices like cat breathing (from all fours or standing cat) or leaning into a wall in a way that encourages backwards bending of the upper back.

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