Cobra Pose Thoughts

Question for a reader………

I was wondering what your own take on the Cobra Pose is, and if you think that it can be appropriate in certain specific instances “as is” or if you think that, for it to have any real value in any sitiation, that it needs to be modified in certain ways to prevent its potential upside from being surpassed by any potential darker side.
……have you ever seen benches referred to as the “Yoga Whale?” If so, would it possible for it to have a role in aiding the restoration of T-spine extensibility by using it to hold extended duration stretches, provided you adjusted body position on the bench so as not to allow for lumbar extension (as often seen in pictures of women using the bench) to enable the extended stretch to be “T-spine-centric?”

As we see a well executed Cobra pose above, I think this position is very useful for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, as a screening tool, restrictions through lumbar extension mobility can be very telling. This maneuver, as I believe all yoga positions should, be simple to achieve. Any feeling of restriction or pain is call for analysis and improvement.

Certainly in folks with a confirmed posterior disc problem, this position repeated has good validity in reducing pain. McKenzie would believe there is an anterior migration of the nuclear disc substance central to the IV disc’s annulus outer layer. Stanley Paris I believe does not not share this notion, as he suggests repeated extension in lying creates a slippage of the IV disc back into place. Either way, again, you have great reason to use this maneuver for the right type of back pain.

Where I think this movement should not be used is blindly in the self-treatment of back pain or for yoga enthusiasts that are creating more mobility without commensurate stability. The only difference between these 2 categories are these folks are just not in back pain….yet.

What is debatable is where it fits in for everybody else. I think this technique is very valuable in restoring mobility, and it is a part of 5-7 move package that I give out to most mobility problems (adult males). The way we teach this move is starting prone with hands @ shoulder height. Start by “dialing” the hands externally as if splitting the floor. This should charge the weight of the body into the arms and scapula. Next is to look into the forehead, crinkle the nose upwards, tongue in the roof of the mouth. Then extend the neck followed by the arms pushing up. I would suggest holding for breaths at the top of the move. I use this technique often in my own warmup.

As far as this Yoga Whale, I have no clue. I suspect it is not this.

If indeed the device is as below, there is minimal use for this. For folks that need it, I suspect it would only feed into relative compensatory flexibility. For folks that don’t need it, they are only adding to hypermobility. I’m sure there are times when this device is going to be useful for the right person, but cranking into end range positions with a passive wedge like this is a very slippery slope.

Establishing lumbar mobility in all directions is crucial, flexion and rotation as well. The assumptions are with dysfunctional movement that we lose mobility and segmental spinal stability before all other qualities. To return these qualities, the Cobra Pose has a tremendous role. I suspect most people that use this technique through yoga don’t need it and may be hurting themself by flipping the joint by joint in many cases.

  • July 4, 2010

Leave a Reply 6 comments

Bob Manichetti Reply


Regarding the comment

“Where I think this movement should not be used is blindly in the self-treatment of back pain or for yoga enthusiasts that are creating more mobility without commensurate stability. The only difference between these 2 categories are these folks are just not in back pain….yet”

are you referring to yoga practitioners trying to take things even further than the picture toward the top of your post or more so to the fact that they may not be aggressively progressing anti-extension work over time via some of the more effective methods gaining traction in the strength and conditioning world these days?

From your comments regarding including your version of this in warm-ups, I gather that this is an area where you feel that a bit of regular maintenance work can go along way once you either have or have regained the requisite mobility in the proper areas.

Hope you enjoyed your Independence Day, and one of the things I am thankful for this year is that I live in a country where great folks like you so generously share your knowledge with regulat guys like me. It’s a privilege, and one that I do not take lightly. So thanks again!

Gerard Conlon Reply

Hi, Charlies. I hope that you enjoyed your 4th of July weekend.

Just to be clear, the Cobra Pose as depicted in the first picture above would be perfectly fine for a person to build-up and then perform regularly, either as part of a warm-up or during a separate mini session that may be devoted to flexibility and mobility work? I may have been missing the boat for some time now by ignoring this movement entirely, all the while not even realizing my folly.

As far as that bench pictured toward the bottom of the post, would it be any better. at least relatively speaking, if the person on the bench slid the body down more toward the feet to control/limit the amount of total spinal extension (perhaps gradually sliding up the bench as ROM improved) allowed while performing a longer duration, low load stretch? Or would this still likely not matter for the person with hypomobility in certain areas of the spine? Would you still end up simply promoting motion from the hypermobile segments while doing little to nothing for the hypomobile segments?

Trish West-Low Reply

Hey Charlie,
Ok you know my love for the art of yoga and all of it’s benefits, physical and otherwise. However, as with every other pose, this one carries risk of compensation ESPECIALLY when it’s practiced in the vinyasa or ashtanga styles which are so popular with athletes. The biggest problem my healthy students fall into is dumping the weight of the rib cage toward the floor, and sinking into internally rotated, forward tippped shoulder/scaps. Many people assume cobra or up dog (thighs off the floor) from the “ashtangi dip” crocodile position, placing TONS of pressure on the anterior shoulder joint, and then plough through to the chest lift using mobility at the expense of stability and muscular action. This is an active tricep, serratus, back ext, glute pose. To some extent the quads should even be active since it’s a backbend and back bends need to be well grounded…(oops delving into sorry). What I look for as an instructor is distributed mobility through the anterior hips spine and anterior chest, Neutral foot, knee and hip alignment, active triceps and serrati and of course rythmic breathing. What I see most often is too much flexion at the T spine, hinging at the T-L junction, internally rotated LE’s, breath holding and attempts to access extension from the forehead. As for the yoga whale, I have never seen it and according to Iyengar and Cole, physiologically that sort of backbend has different effects than cobra. Yoga therapeutically, I use either towel rolls or soft yoga bosters placed strategically to stabilize hyper mobile segments and lots of pec opening poses. I think if cobra is taught well, and used approriately, it can have wonderful benefits, but if taught or performed slopilly or used in the presence of acute shoulder, wrist or spine pathology, it can be a huge risk.

Charlie Reply

Bob – My opinion is that many yoga clinicians, and without a doubt this is my opinion and generalization, both are undereducated and probably don’t much care about the people they work with when they are through with the session. Obviously this is not everybody. You can see below in Trish’s post that there are some people out there that do have the background and legwork to make things correct. But pull 100 people out of the crowd that “practice” yoga, and they won’t know what the hell Trish or myself, an outsider critically looking in, is talking about.

I don’t think I am using this movement as maintaining, but rather as correction and improvement. I am looking to improve lumbar extension mobility uninformly through all segments. I use the oral-facial drivers and neck to start the domino effect of extension through my spine. It takes body awareness to know when you are hinging, and I probably would be well served to have someone coach me through this.

Charlie Reply

Gerard – If someone can do the Pressup as perfectly as the girl in the first picture, they don’t need to do it as a corrective exercise. If they do choose to do it regularly, it better be accompanied with equally as aggressive anti-extension choices.
And as well as that picture looks, it may or may not be executed properly with equal segmental contributions.
For corrective purposes, yes, I think it has a fantastic role in warmup and mobility/recovery sessions.

I have never seen this bench, so I really can’t say if manipulating your body to “make it work” is a good idea.
I do know that when you can’t get to a position, cranking on the position is not the premiere unsupervised choice to solve the problem.
People that can’t extend do not suffer from a loss of flexibility in their front side that can be solved with passive stretching. That I would consider a mistake.
I would think with my limitations, if I used that device, I would add to my problems.

Charlie Reply

Trish – Do you think I am out of line if I were to suggest that there are far fewer yoga clinicians that both understand and practice at the scrutiny of your post?

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