Sitting in front of a computer all day slouches your back, leaving you with back pain at the end of the day. Cobra pose (Bhujangasana) can be a great counteraction to stretch out your spine and chest throughout the day. Although this asana can bring more flexibility to your spine and open your chest and heart, it can also cause back pain itself if not practiced correctly.

1. How Do You Get Into Cobra Pose Without Back Pain?

Cobra pose can cause back pain.

Cobra pose can cause back pain. Photograph by Katee Lee on unsplash.

  1. Lie down on your belly with your legs straight and the feet hip-width apart. The good news is that your hip is narrower than you think.
  2. Press all ten toe nails into the ground. This will engage the muscles in your legs.
  3. Bring your palms on the ground next to your rib cage so that your forearms are vertical.
  4. Outwardly rotate your forearms, which means that the index fingers are facing forward.
  5. Bend your knees slightly and lift your pelvis off the floor. Widen the sitting bones.
  6. Pull your pubic bone to the navel and roll up the spine.
  7. Place your pubic bone back on the ground. You want to put it forward as far as possible.
  8. Lengthen through your thoracic spine and also lift up the shoulders and armpits.
  9. Bring your shoulders backward and outwardly rotate your upper arms.
  10. Rotate your scapulae (shoulder blades) so that the tips of shoulder blades move towards each other.
  11. Push your chest forward and upward. This means that you want to reach your collarbones forward and up.
  12. Lift your chin up slightly but avoid hyperextending the neck. There should be no wrinkles on the backside of your neck.
  13. As a last step, lift up your knees and engage our thighs by inwardly rotating the thighs.

If you now want to try Cobra pose at home in your living room, you can practice with Desirée Rumbaugh and Andrew Rivin in this short video. If you want to take your at-home practice one step further, check out their Building Blocks for a Transformational Home Practice on TINT. They have even created two sequences specifically aimed at backbends that will, among other things, guide you safely through the proper alignment in Bhujangasana.

Let Desirée Rumbaugh and Andrew Rivin take you through Cobra pose step by step.

2. What Is Your Body Doing In Cobra Pose?

2.1. What Are the Joints Doing?

In Bhujangasana, your spine is extended, as in all prone backward-bending poses. The elbows are slightly flexed and the forearms pronated.

In your lower limbs, the sacroiliac joint moves into counternutation so that the top of the sacrum tips backward and bottom tips forward. The hip is extended and adducted. The knees are extended and there is plantar flexion in your ankle.

2.2. Which Muscles Are Engaged?

Let's start with the upper body to examine the muscles engaged in Cobra pose: In the spine, the spinal extensors are contracting concentrically in order to extend it. The thoracic spine, in particular, extends with the support of the serratus posterior superior. The abdominal muscles and the psoas minor are contracting eccentrically to prevent over-mobilization of the lumbar spine.

The serratus anterior helps to stabilize the scapulae on the rib cage while the rotator cuff muscles stabilize the shoulder joint. The biceps brachii keep the elbow flexed while the pronator quadratus and teres effect the pronation of the forearm.

Never push yourself into Bhujangasana.

Never push yourself into Bhujangasana. Photograph on unsplash.

You may think that the legs are not active in Cobra pose, but the contrary is true: They perform numerous actions to keep the joints in alignment. The hamstrings and the adductor magnus contract concentrically to extend, adduct and internally rotate the hip. The vastii muscles in the thigh extend the knee. The soleus (a powerful muscle in the calf) effects the plantar flexion of the ankle.

It is important in Bhujangasana that the deeper intrinsic back muscles effect the extension of the spine. Using the latissimus dorsi and other more superficial muscles would inhibit the movement of the ribs and, thus, interfere with breathing. In general, the latissimus dorsi are not beneficial to extend the spine, since they only flex the upper back and internally rotate the arms.

If the pronators of the forearms are weak or the supinators are short, the elbows may flare out to the sides, which affects both the elbow and shoulder joints. Try to keep the forearms parallel to each other for the best alignment for your spine.

If you're looking for answers to general other common alignment questions in yoga, check out our free ebook. It will give you a basic understanding of alignment principles that can be applied to any pose and will make a huge difference to your yoga practice.

3. How Can You Avoid Back Pain in Cobra Pose?

1. Bend Your Elbows

The first issue might be straightening your arms. As a result, you will have less range of motion in your shoulder if you keep your arms straight. This is because this position creates a joint lock in your shoulder.

If, on the other hand, you bend your elbows slightly, you will have more range of motion in your shoulder. So, keep your elbows slightly bent so that you can move your shoulders further backward.

2. Bring Your Forearms Vertical

Another common misalignment is that you place your hands under your shoulders. If you lift up your trunk from this position by pushing the ground away, all the force created by the arms is going backward. This leads to compression in your lower spine.

To avoid this, bring your palms further back so that your forearms are vertical. If you come up from this position, all the force is directed downwards into the floor, helping you to lift your chest higher without compression in the lower back.

3. Lift Your Chest Up

Don't push your scapulae downward towards your lower back since this will create compression. Instead, bring the tips of your shoulder blades towards each other and lift your chest forward and up.

4. Bring The Legs Closer Together

When the distance between your legs is too wide and the thighs are outwardly rotated, this also creates compression in your sacrum. This is why you want to bring your legs closer together and inwardly rotate the thighs. The midlines of your feet should be hip-width distance apart. This will eliminate any compression in your sacrum.

5. Create More Space In Your Lower Back

Usually, if you have back pain in Cobra pose, it's your lower back that hurts. To avoid this, you have three options:

  1. You can push the lower body down and back.
  2. You can move the upper body up and forward.
  3. You can do both to decompress your back.

To bring the bottom part of your body down, you need more range of motion in your hip. To achieve this, bend your knees so that your buttocks lift up. Then, pull up your pubic bone to your navel and suck your navel into your spine. Round your back and push your upper body away. Now it's time to press your palms into the mat and lift your torso up so that you can push your chest forward and up.

6. Keep Your Neck Long

Another common mistake in Cobra pose is that you hyperextend your neck so that you have wrinkles on the outside of your neck. Note that this means that you also have wrinkles inside your body, compressing your airway. Rather only keep a gentle curve in your neck and create length. This will allow you to breathe more freely since your airway is not compressed.

7. Push Your Thighs Away

The last thing you need to think about when you come up into cobra is that you push your thighs away. So lift your knee caps up and push your thigh bone (femur) backwards to create more space for the hip flexor.  

Understand how to avoid back pain in Cobra pose.

Understand how to avoid back pain in Cobra pose with Inside Yoga Alignment on TINT.

4. How Can You Incorporate Cobra Pose Into Your Yoga Practice?

Cobra pose is probably most often practiced as part of Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar), where you transition from Plank pose into Bhujangasana and, subsequently, into Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). It can also be practiced as an alternative to Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) in further Sun Salutation variations.

Cobra pose can be an alternative to Upward-Facing Dog.

Cobra pose can be an alternative to Upward-Facing Dog. Try it in Budokon Yoga on TINT.

If you're new to yoga, approach this asana by opting for the low Cobra variation, also called Baby Cobra, since this requires less flexibility in the spine, while the high Cobra option is appropriate for more advanced students.

You can also practice Sphinx pose as an easier variation of Cobra pose.

However, you should always take it slowly and never push your body into a deeper backbend. In case you feel discomfort or even pain in your back or neck, lift your chest only as high as you can without feeling pain.

If your spine is very stiff, or if you're pregnant, try practicing Cobra pose standing up rather than on the floor. Face a wall in front of you and place your hands against the wall. Hug your elbows into your rig cage. As you start pressing against the wall, apply the same alignment as described above, i.e. keep your elbows slightly bent and bring the bottom sides of your shoulder blades together. Then lift your collar bones up and forward.

If you feel stronger in the back strength and want to challenge yourself in Bhujangasana, you can deepen this yoga pose by lifting your palms off the floor while you keep the chest lifted. Keep the hands and arms in the same position as they were on the floor and maintain this pose for a few breaths.

Learn how to do Cobra pose.

Learn how to do Cobra pose with Desirée Rumbaugh and Andrew Rivin's Transformational Home Practice on TINT.

When you practice this variation, the action of lifting really comes from the back muscles rather than from the arms pushing into the ground. So you avoid lifting yourself up by simply pressing the body away from the mat.

To avoid pain in your yoga practice, proper alignment is essential – especially when it comes to your back. There are some basic yoga alignment principles you can apply to keep your body perfectly aligned in any asana. Our free yoga alignment ebook summarizes some the most important alignment principles so you can use it as a reference guide for your practice.

5. What Are the Benefits of Cobra Pose?

Even though Bhujangasana can cause back pain, it actually is a great yoga pose to soothe back pain and relief and mobilize your spine. Due to the strong muscular engagement, it strengthens the spine, the legs and buttocks, and the arms and shoulders.

Since Cobra pose is a backbend, it stretches the entire front of the body, from the chest and lungs, to the shoulders, and abdomen. It thus opens the heart and lungs and can help you breathe more freely.

If you spend the day hunched over a computer or desk, this pose is a great stretch for the muscles in your shoulders, chest, and neck, and can, thus, relieve tightness in the upper body.

Due to the prone position, it stimulates the abdominal organs and can thus help with digestive issues.

Now it's time for you to feel the great benefits of Bhujangasana. There are several programs on TINT where you can experience this asana in the context of a well-rounded class such as Barbra Noh's Bamboo Backbends or Kristin McGees Yoga Flow. So, roll out your yoga mat and slither through soothing backbends!

Practice Cobra pose in Kristin McGee's Yoga Flow on TINT.