Deepen Your Backbend Joint by Joint with
Yoga Cobra Pose

cobra yoga pose (bhujangasana)

My usual method for teaching cobra pose is to start with locust pose.

The idea of using locust pose as a start is to learn how to feel the spinal erectors activating. These are the muscles that run up and down along either side of the spine. They can be used to bend the spine backwards.

Feeling the Spinal Erectors Activate

In the case of locust I'll have students start by lifting their head only (keeping shoulders and ribcage on the floor) and either lengthen the sides of the neck, or lengthen the neck and then bend it backwards.

lifting head and lengthening neck while pronecobra prep, lifting head only while laying down

When bending the neck backwards there will be a noticeable feeling of contraction at the back of the neck. This is the spinal erectors activating (the portion that acts on the neck.)

The next step is to then lift the ribcage and at the same time bend it backwards.

In this case I usually have students keep their neck straight (but long) and focus on lifting the ribcage and bending it backwards. It can be a challenge particularly if not used to bending the thoracic spine backwards.

Increasing Spinal Awareness

For more awareness I'll sometimes teach students to bend their neck backwards one vertebral joint at a time, then bend their thoracic spine backwards one vertebral joint at a time. So that this is more accurate I'll have them count vertebrae.

So for example, when bending the neck backwards, I'll have them bend backwards in seven steps since the neck has seven vertebrae. (The head could be thought of as an eighth "larger" vertebrae.)

When doing the ribcage and thoracic spine I'll divide the ribcage into an upper part and lower part.

The upper part contains 7 vertebrae and corresponds to the ribs that attach to the sternum. Another useful landmark is the shoulder blade. The bottom tip of the shoulder blade is at about the level of the 7th rib (if the shoulder blade is not elevated or slid towards the head).

The lower half of the thoracic spine has 5 vertebrae. The top three of these ribs form the arch at the bottom front of the ribcage. The bottom two are floating ribs whose ends float free from any bony attachment.

The idea is to bend backwards one joint at a time, and usually I'll do this with the breath, so inhale, bend backwards at one joint, exhale, then inhale, moving to the next joint. I'll have students focus on bending the upper ribcage backwards one vertebrae at a time. Then rest. Then repeat the upper ribcage and follow it immediately with backbending the lower half of the ribcage one vertebral joint at a time.

I now have students additionally focus on expanding the ribcage, reaching the ribs away from the pelvis. This then activates the intercostals, the muscles that lay between adjacent ribs.

lifting and backbending upper ribcagelifting and backbending lower ribcage

Upper ribcage bent backwards. Upper and lower ribcage bent backwards.

Glutes and Hamstrings

Other muscles that I like to teach students to activate for cobra pose are the glutes and hamstrings. While not strictly necessary in cobra pose since the pelvis is kept on the floor, activating the glutes and hamstrings can be good training for upward dog pose which I often teach after first having students do cobra.

A simple way to practice activating glutes and hamstrings is to lift only the legs while laying down.

Leg lift to activate gluteus maximus and hamstrings.

Using Spinal Erectors in Cobra Pose

To emphasize the use of the spinal erectors I'll have students lay on their bellies with hands on the floor beside their chest. I'll then have them lift their head and lengthen their neck. Then I'll have them lift their ribcage and bend their thoracic spine backwards. So that I know their spinal erectors are activating (and so that they can feel them activating) I'll then have them lift their hands. To make this easier I'll have them move their shoulder blades towards each other. Then I'll have them hold this position for a few breaths.

The next step is to put the hands on the floor and use the arms to lift the ribcage.

My understanding of cobra is that the pelvis stays on the floor. So the arms will probably have to stay bent unless the hands are moved forwards so that then the elbows can be straightened while keeping the pelvis on the floor.

The arms bent variation is harder on the arms but can be used as an arm strengthening exercise.

Now I can't say that there is a problem if the elbows point out, but nonetheless I currently have students point their elbows back in this pose if for no other reason that it trains them to be aware of what direction their elbows are pointing in.

cobra prep, bending backwards and lifting handscobra pose

Shoulder Actions in Cobra Pose

Basic shoulder actions in cobra pose can include spreading the shoulder blades (protraction) which activates the serratus anterior. You could also focus on externally rotating the upper arms. You may find that this helps to draw the bottom tip of the shoulder blade outwards.

Another option with the shoulder blades is to retract them (draw them towards each other.) You may find that it is then easier to lift and open your chest. This is because with the shoulder blades retracted, the serratus anterior muscle are lengthened giving them more room to help open the chest.

cobra pose with scapulae protractedcobra pose with scapulae retracted

Activating the Back of the Body

For the back of the body, I'd suggest activating the gluteus maximus (the butt muscle) and hamstrings. This may cause a feeling like you are pressing your legs into the floor. From there try to activate your lumbar spine erectors (the muscles that bend the lumbar spine backwards) and the thoracic spinal erectors. Then focus on making the sides of the neck long. You may find that this final action helps you to open your ribcage even more.

Straight Arm Cobra

If you do the version with hands forwards and elbows straight (but hips still on the floor) use your shoulders to push your ribcage upwards and backwards. You'll probably find that your shoulder blades will spread as you do this.

cobra pose with elbows straightcobra pose with elbows straight

Shoulders Relaxed. Using shouldes to push ribcage backwards and upwards.

Elbows Pointing Outwards Cobra?

Once you are comfortable with the elbows pointing back version, do yourself a favor and experiment with pointing the elbows back. Try it with shoulder blade protracted and then retracted.

(And don't forget all of the other points, activate: glutes, hams, spinal erectors and intercostals. In other words, squeeze the butt, hamstrings and back of the spine. Lift and open the ribcage.)

Muscle control for better flexiblity active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook active stretching ebook

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Backbending Type Poses

In locust pose lay on the belly with the hands back. Lift your head and then bend your thoracic spine backwards to lift the ribcage. Lift your legs also while keeping the knees straight. In this backbending yoga pose you can feel your spinal erectors and back of the thighs activating. In cobra yoga pose, lay on the belly with knees straight and feet about hip width. Bend the spine backwards and press your hands into the floor to help lift your ribcage. To keep your pelvis on the floor you may have to keep your elbows bent. Point them back and look forwards keeping the neck long. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. In upward dog, start in a belly down position with feet hip width. To enter this backbending yoga pose, bend the thoracic and lumbar spine backwards and then use the arms, push up style, to lift the ribcage. Initially start with neck straight. Straighten the knees and push the feet into the floor. Pull the pelvis forwards and down. Use the arms to push the ribcage up and back. Spread the shoulder blades and externally rotate the arms so that biceps move outwards. Make the neck feel long and if comfortable tilt the head backwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. yoga poses, backbending yoga poses, cat pose with back bend backwards. For cat yoga pose, start of on all fours. In the back bending version, tilt the pelvis forwards and bend the lumbar and thoracic spine backwards. You could focus on making your neck feel long and straight or you can keep it feeling long while bending it backwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. In puppy dog junior back bend, start of with knees and hands on the floor. To make it easier to touch your chest to the floor move your hips forwards, ahead of your knees. Then bend your spine backwards and keep it bent as you bend your elbows and lower your chest to the floor. Reach your chin forwards and move your upper body forwards more if you need to to get your sternum to the floor. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. For puppy dog backbending yoga pose, start of in cat pose. Then reach your hands forwards. Tilt your pelvis forwards and bend your spin backwards as you sink your chest to the floor. Reach your chin forwards. back bending yoga poses, bow pose. For Bow yoga pose, grab the feet behind your back while prone. Bend the spine backwards then lift the feet. Push up with your inner thighs. One way to learn frog pose quad stretch is to focus on one leg at a time. Laying on the belly prop your chest up with one elbow. Grab the same side foot with the free hand. Try to press the heel to the floor and turn the hand so that the fingers point forwards. Use your spinal erectors to help bend your ribcage backwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. Laying on your belly, bend your knees. Try to place your hands on your feet with fingers pointing forwards. You'll have to bend your spine backwards first then press the feet upwards against your hand one foot at a time. Once you have your hands on your feet you can gradually reduce the upwards pressure on your feet and instead focus on pressing the arms down. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. for hero pose (virasana) knee with the feet separated and let your buttocks sink down between your feet. Lengthen your spine upwards. You can rest the hands on the floor or reach your arms upwards (not shown.) Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. For reclining hero pose (supta virasana) kneel with feet separated with butt on the floor between your feet. Slowly lay back and rest your crown then your upper back on the floor. You could also rest on your elbows. (not shown) Once you are on the floor reach your hands past your head and then grab your elbows. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. back bending yoga poses, camel pose, ustrasana. In camel pose, I like to start with my hands on the floor. Press the hands into the floor then use the legs to push the pelvis forwards and up. The option is to start with the pelvis lifted and then from there lower the hands to the floor behind you. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. backbending yoga poses, extended cat pose. In extended cat pose start on all fours with knees over the hips and shoulders over the wrists. Tilt the pelvis forwards and activate spinal erectors to bend lumbar and thoracic spine backwards. Lift one leg keeping the knee straight and pointing down. To activate adductor mangus let the outer thigh roll down and pull up on the inner knee. To activate hamstrings focus on squeezing back of the thigh. You can also use gluteus maximus. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. In high lunge back bending yoga pose, reach one leg back while standing. Reach toes back so that top of floor is flat on the floor (or tuck toes under, not shown). Bend the front knee and sink the pelvis down. Separate the feet far enough that the front shin is nearly vertical. Torso upright, sink the hips to stretch the front of the hip. Arms can hang down or then can reach up and back (not shown.) Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. Warrior 3 can be turned into a back bend by tilting the pelvis forwards while bending the spine backwards. Activate spinal erectors and then to bend the hip backwards, activate the back of the thigh and butt. To add difficulty reach the arms forwards. In this back bending front to back splits the upper body is upright. Both knees are straight with the back knee pointing down. The back leg arm is reaching towards the back knee. The front leg arm is reaching upwards.Upright pigeon back bending yoga pose. One leg is back the other leg forwards with knee bend and shin on the floor. Press the front knee down so that pelvis is level from left to right. Tuck the back toes under and lift the back knee. Sink the Pelvis. Use the arms to help lift the ribcage. Use spinal erectors to bend the spine backwards. You can look straight ahead and keep the neck long. Not shown, you could also tilt the head backwards. Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses. In table top back bending yoga pose, start in a seated position with hands on the floor behind you. Squeeze shoulder blades together and open the chest. Then press feet into the floor to lift the pelvis. Position feet so that shins and arms are all vertical. In purvottanasana, or straight bridge, start in a seated position with legs straight ahead. Hands on the floor behind you. Press heels down to lift the hips. Reach your toes forwards. Squeeze shoulder blades towards each other (retract) and make your spine feel long. You may find it helps to externally rotate the arms. Fingers point forwards. Look forwards, or relax your neck and look back (not shown.) Neil Keleher. Sensational Yoga Poses.In this version of the back bending yoga pose called bridge pose, the elbows are bent and on the floor with forearms vertical. Press the feet into the floor to lift the hips (shins vertical). Then press the elbows into the floor to help open the chest. You may find that it feels nice to spread and lengthen the fingers. back bending yoga poses, wheel pose, chakrasana, upward facing bow. Wheel pose is one of the more difficult backbending yoga poses because you have to work against gravity to lift up. Use your legs to press your pelvis up and focus on making your spine and arms long. Imagine reaching your spine and arms away from your pelvis.

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