Cobra Pose also called Bhujangasana in sanskrit is a reclining back-bending pose that is part of the Hatha Yoga practice. It is commonly performed in a cycle of asanas included in sun salutations.
Since the majority of us spend most of our time in thoracic and lumbar flexion (slumped forward), any posture that encourages spinal extension is helpful in maintaining range of motion and encouraging good posture. Spinal extension involves any position where the spine is moving backwards (or back-bending).
It also happens to be a common rehabilitative exercise prescribed for patients suffering from sciatic pain and lumbar disc injury (bulge/herniation/tear). The cobra pose is part of the McKenzie therapy approach to lumbar disc injury, which includes a sequence of poses including cobra, upward dog and standing backbends (among other techniques).
Age, sustained spinal slumping (flexion) when sitting, improper bending/lifting techniques etc. may all lead to micro-damge of the disc. Over time little cracks develop in the outer (more fibrous) portion of the disc, which allows the inner jelly-like centre (nucleus) to start to travel outwards. Eventually this can create a disc bulge or herniation, leading to back pain, sciatica, or even numbness, tingling or weakness in the back and lower limb.
When a disc herniates or bulges it typically does so in a posterior/lateral direction (backwards and to the side). The McKenzie protocol is based on the theory that when a disc bulges backwards, an extended position (like the cobra) will help to pull the bulging disc back into position. Recent research by Stuart McGill supports this theory by providing evidence that extended postures can drive the inner portion of the disc (the nucleus) that’s migrated out of position back towards the centre of the disc.
There are definitely exceptions to this rule and it’s not an appropriate therapy for ALL disc herniations or all forms of sciatic pain. For example if the cobra position exacerbates symptoms or is uncomfortable it is not the right exercise for you. As always if you have lower back pain, a disc herniation or sciatic pain please seek the advice of a health-care provider for proper diagnosis and treatment before starting an exercise program.
Here is a beginner sequence for cobra pose. This position shoulder NEVER create additional back pain or leg pain during or after.
First position (low cobra): Prop up onto elbows with slight extension through the upper back. If comfortable hold for 30-60 seconds and return to the starting position for 60 seconds.
Second position: If the above position felt good you can try the following position which creates a little bit more extension through the upper back. If comfortable hold for 30-60 seconds and return to the starting position for 60 seconds.
For a more in depth discussion of disc herniations and sciatica please view our conditions page which you can find on the website home-page.