Let’s say you are constrained (by whatever reason) to pick just one Yoga asana to do every day – Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose) would be a very wise choice.
The human backbone has probably never endured as much stress in its 200,000 years of evolutionary history as it does on a daily basis today. Long hours of sitting, constant hunching over computers and mobile phones and no physical activity put tremendous pressure on the back bone.
The back bone plays a very important role in our overall health. It houses the spinal cord – an extension of the brain – that transports signals from the brain to all parts of the body. Back problems can cause nerve compression – and the affected nerves can lead to numbness, pain as well as loss of function of any other part of the body.
The back bone also holds the body erect, and provides the stability and flexibility required for all the body’s movements. A strong back relieves pressure from the entire musculo-skeletal framework, allowing it to efficiently and easily bear loads that it is built for. Conversely, a weak back passes additional load on to other parts of the musculo-skeleton. That’s the reason why back pain is often followed by pain in all the joints – shoulders, knees and ankles.
Its likely that in another 100,000 years, human beings will evolve to have a stronger back that can handle whatever we throw at it – but for now, we have to manage and give our back all the help we can, for our own sake.
So, we come to the Bhujangasana. Simply put, Bhujangasana is an elixir for your back – it will make your back smile again. It stretches the entire spine – cervical, thoracic and lumbar portions – relieves stress, relaxes and restores both strength and suppleness. This is one asana that is recommended by physiotherapists across the world for all kinds of back and spine related problems.
How to do the Bhujangasana
1. Lie down on your stomach and relax
Lie down in prone position (on your stomach). Keep your feet joined – from your hips to your toes.
Make sure that your feet, ankle downwards, are horizontal along the floor, and not positioned vertical to the floor. This small, very common mistake, can change the amount of load that your back will bear during the asana, and can lead to significantly sub-optimal results.
In the relaxed position, fold your arms, one palm on the other and place your chin on top. Breathe normally. Observe how your back (and your entire body) moves in concert with your breathing. Try expanding and compressing your back to find the position where your back muscles are relaxed and your back bone holds its natural curvature.
2. Lift your head up
Place your palms below your shoulders, with hands folded at the elbows. Gently lift your head up, while breathing normally. Look forward. Hold this position for half a minute – breathe normally as you do so. Feel your cervical spine expanding and your upper back muscles stretching to hold your weight.
You can control the amount of weight on your back by transferring weight from your back to your arms and vice versa. Try it out!
Go back to position 1 (relaxed position).
3. Lift your upper body up, chest upwards
Place your palms adjacent to your chest, with hands folded at the elbows, and touching the sides of the chest. Slowly lift your chest up, while breathing normally. Look forward. Hold this position for half a minute – breathe normally as you do so. Feel your thoracic spine expanding and your upper back muscles stretching to hold your weight.
Most of us favor one arm over the other, so your weight might be skewed to one side of the back. Bring both your arms into play so that you feel the pressure in the center of your back along the back bone.
Go back slowly to position 1.
4. Lift your upper body up, waist upwards
Place your palms adjacent to your body, between your chest and waist, with hands folded at the elbows. Slowly lift your chest up, and then your stomach up, while breathing normally. Your lower body is now in contact with the floor, while your upper body is arched.
Look up. Hold this position for half a minute – breathe normally as you do so. Feel your entire spine – cervical, thoracic and lumbar – stretch.
Resist the urge to straighten your arms – your elbows must remain bent. Straightening the elbows will take the weight off your back – nullifying the asana’s benefits.
Also, notice if you are involuntarily pushing your elbows out – if you are, bring them back in, closer to your body. It is in this position that the spine, and the muscles around it, get the best workout.
Remember that you can control the load on your spine by transferring some of it to your arms. Also, keep breathing normally, throughout.
Go back slowly to position 1.
5. Supta Bhujangasana – The Final Frontier
As your back muscles get more and more supple, and as the back becomes more flexible, you can arch your back more and more.
Arch your back fully and fold your legs at the knees. In the final position, your feet will touch your head.
If you are able to reach this final frontier, you don’t have to worry about your back any more – its in perfect shape!
Looks impossible, doesn’t it?
It is not. If you do this asana every day, you will be able to arch your back, say a centimeter further every day. In about 3 months, you will be able to do the Supta Bhujangasana, with ease!
6. A Variation
There is a variant of the Bhujangasana, where you can straighten your elbows.
Start in position 1, where you had your arms folded, one palm on the other, with your chin resting on top.
Interlock your fingers, and then push your elbows up till they straighten fully. Your back will arch automatically. Feel the stretch in your your lower (lumbar) spine and surrounding muscles going to the hip and waist.
- You would have figured out by now that the poses are just stepping stones. The objective is to strengthen and stretch the spine – gradually. Don’t try to force yourself into reaching a position, based on seeing someone else doing it, assuming that reaching the position is vital. It’s not. The poses are just intermediary steps in a continuum. You are your best guide. Stretch only as much as you can – with a smile on your face. If you are grimacing – you are overdoing it.
The thumb rule is – if you feel slight amount of pain, which subsides as you hold a pose, its fine. If the pain remains constant, or increases as you hold a pose, you are probably stretching too much.
- The arm positions are indicative. As long as your elbows are bent, your arms are close to your body, and your feet are joined, you can experiment with where you place your hands – below your shoulders, slightly ahead of your shoulders, anywhere between your chest and waist, adjacent to your waist. Try these positions, and observe how the weight shifts to different parts of your spine, stretching it and working out the adjacent muscles.
- Keep breathing normally, throughout. Don’t breathe in as you go up, and don’t breathe out as you return to the base position – go up and go down slowly, while breathing normally. Don’t try to hold your breath to achieve a better stretch. Yes, you can stretch more, if you hold your breath. But then, you will not know if you are over-extending yourself, till you actually start breathing normally.
Most Yoga injuries happen because people hold their breath and overextend themselves, trying to reach “that final position”. If you keep breathing normally throughout, it is pretty much impossible to reach a position which is too painful to sustain.
Who Should Avoid Bhujangasana
- Those who have had serious spinal injuries, or have undergone spinal surgeries, should certainly be very careful to not over-extend themselves while doing this asana.
- Pregnant women should avoid this asana – indeed any asana that is done in a prone position.
- Those suffering from hernias or stomach ulcers
- Restores elasticity and natural curvature of the entire spine – cervical, thoracic and lumbar
- Strengthens the back muscles, and adjoining muscles – neck, shoulders, lower abdomen, hips and groin.
- Relieves stress from arms and legs.
- Corrects postural problems
- Expands the chest
- Relieves headaches whose origins might lie in spinal problems, especially in the cervical region
- Improves digestion and relieves constipation