Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bhujangasana Tips and Common Errors

Aiyo! Spot the issues

I want to start by getting you to take a look at the picture to the left.  This very flexible person has taken themselves into Bhujangasana, cobra pose.  We practice this pose a lot in my classes.  I chose this particular photo of it because it highlights some of the concerns I commonly raise  with my students.  Can you spot the issues I would raise about the way this guy is holding the pose?  Hint: there are five main ones.

Let's start with one of the main weight bearing points: his hands (the other is the legs but I will leave those aside for now).

Look closely at how he holds them on the floor.  It is hard to tell but I am pretty sure all of the weight is bearing down through his wrists because I cannot see his fingers spreading at all.

Your hands are like your feet.  They have natural arches in them.  You must cultivate those arches in the hands so that you generate lift.  If you do not, you will sink into the wrists and they will become painful and you won't be able to hold the pose for very long.  To help generate this lift and take away from the wrists you need to press very strongly down through the mounds of the fingers (the base of the knuckles).  Spread wide from the base of the index finger to the base of the baby finger and extend out through your fingers.  As you do this, see if you can suck up the middle of your palm from the floor almost as though you were trying to lift the floor up.  This takes quite a bit of work at first but you will find the pressure on the wrist reduces dramatically.  If you find you seem to be stuck in your wrists and they are hurting then you can always put a little bit of height under the wrists (fold up the end of your yoga mat) which will help you take the weight off the wrists.

Moving up from there let's take a look at the elbows.  Elbow joints come in all forms.  This guy has what I would call really bendy elbow joints. People with bendy elbow joints often think their elbows are straight when in fact they are hyper-extended or over-straightening as I like to say.  The picture below shows a similar issue but from a different angle.

Locked elbows (pose needs improvement)

You can see the inside part of the elbows have spun around to point forwards (you can also see the same hand issue here with the fingers together and weight through the wrists).  What has happened here is that the elbows have locked into position so that the arms are effectively held straight by holding in the elbow joint rather than using the muscles.  Locking the elbow joints when you practice any pose where the arm is weight-bearing (like this one or downward dog or handstand) can lead to injuries in the wrist, elbow or shoulder joints so you want to avoid it.  From what I have seen on the mat, a tendency to lock in the elbow joints is often related to weakness in the biceps or triceps muscles (which are responsible for bending and straightening the elbow joint) so that if you enter a pose which requires those muscles to work with the arm in a straightened position your body chooses the easy way out locks the joint rather than use the muscles.

The problem for many people who tend to lock the elbow joints like this is that the arm 'feels' straight when they lock them.   And what often happens is when I come around in class to put the elbow in the correct position people with this issue will say the elbow now 'feels' bent.   Your body has internal sensors that give you an idea about the position of your joint without having to look at it (which is why we can walk without having to look at our feet).  In this case, the way these people have learned to interpret the sensations from the joint has lead to them mislabeling what is actually straight and what feels straight.  To compensate for this you need to look carefully at the elbows when you are in weight-bearing positions of the arm to check with your eyes rather than rely on the internal sensors.  The inner elbows should end up pointing rather more in towards one another rather than pointing to the front.

In bhujangasana the elbows don't have to be straight.  They can actually be bent.  How much they bend depends on how you do the pose.  There are many ways to do this pose and some people keep their elbows very bent and don't come off the floor all the way.  If you are going to straighten your arms you need to make sure you are not straining in your lower back and most of us will probably find that if we straighten our arms we will need to let the pelvis and maybe even the upper thighs come off the floor.  The photos below show some better elbow positions for this posture.

Elbows slightly bent (good, working with his capacity). 

The photos above shows a man with his elbows ever so slightly bent.  That is fine because he is working to his capacity.  His shoulders are down away from their ears (we will talk about the shoulders next).  His chest is open and expanding--just like a cobra spreading his hood.

If you don't use your hands and elbows properly, it is likely you will end up with your shoulders like the boy in the first photo--shrugged up around your ears.  Aside from making you look like a vulture or buzzard with no neck, this is not good for the shoulder joints.  Some people do use their hands and elbows well but still end up with their shoulders as ear-rings, although the three are often connected. 

Shrugged shoulders (pose needs improvement)
The photo above shows the hands are not working well (you can see the base of the knuckles are lifted off the ground rather than pressing), the inner elbows are pointing more to the front, and that she seems to be hanging in her shoulders.   She has pushed her chin up to give the illusion of a neck but this is just the front of her neck that is long--the sides of the neck are scrunched down into the shoulders. 

Now, look at the two photos below.  In the top one you can see the shoulder shrugging more clearly.  See how the tops of her shoulders seem to be pushing up and the chest is sagging below the shoulders?  It is almost as though her body is hanging down from the high point of her shoulders.  Contrast this with the shoulders in the bottom photo.  See how there is more space between the top of the shoulders and the ears? 

Shoulders pushing up and chest is sagging (pose needs improvement)
Chest is rising (good)
In bhujangasana the chest needs to rise up between the shoulders and expand outwards to give rise to the posture's namesake: the cobra.  To get this flare of the cobra's hood you need to use your hands and arms effectively but also draw your shoulder blades down your spine.  The image below showing this woman from the front clearly shows the expanding and lifting (as opposed to closed and drooping) chest.

Expanding and lifting chest (good)

There are so many variations for the neck in this posture--as you can see from all of the photos above.  I tend to feel that unless you know how to take your neck back properly (if you are wondering what properly is then that is a clue) then you are better off just keeping your gaze directed forward.  Otherwise, you will just scrunch the back of your neck and that is never good.  

Take a look at the picture below of the guy in our first photo at the top of the page.  By now you will will notice the hand and shoulder shrugging problems previously mentioned and the hyper-extended elbows.  Now, look at the spine as a whole and notice the curvature.  Also, draw and imaginary line running from between his shoulder blades to the base of his skull.  What do you notice?

What can you notice about the angle of the neck relative to the rest of the spine?

What you will see is that all of the curve of the spine is coming first from the lower back (he is really flexible there) and from his neck.  In between he is pretty straight.  This is not the way to treat your spine if you want it to remain healthy.

The way I teach bhujangasana (which is not the only way) is to try and have students go for a more even distribution of the curvature of the spine from the bottom to the top.  This means trying to let the curve at the neck follow the curve of the rest of the spine.  You get a better idea of why when you take a look at the full expression of the pose below:

Full cobra with more even distribution of curvature of spine
In the full version of this posture the feet and head touch.  This pose might not be a place where a lot of us will ever get to (and who cares if we never do it anyway?  Will your life be so different?) mainly because it requires a lot of flexibility.  But, if you are working towards it what you need to do is emphasize more lift and open-ness through the thoracic spine (upper back) otherwise you will get scrunching in the lower back and neck.  Many very flexible people who lack the strength to hold this posture correctly may find themselves able to get into the position but experience discomfort in the lower back in particularly if they are not generating the appropriate lift and expansion of the chest.  But more about that in a second.

The neck is a very flexible structure that most of us hold tension in.  In my classes I see a lot of people automatically flopping their heads back when they come into this pose.  I always wonder why because I never teach people to take their heads back and I never do it myself.  If you are doing it and it feels good and there is no tension anywhere along your spine then by all means continue--I am not Uncle Scrooge and don't want to take away a nice feeling!  But if you are doing it because you have seen a picture of someone doing this pose before and their head is back then have a rethink about what you are doing.  If you are doing it because you think you should be doing it then also have a rethink.

Head and neck placement should always be very mindfully considered.  Here is what I would recommend.  If the centre of your breastbone (sternum) is pointing straight ahead then you should look straight ahead too.  Only if the top of your chest can start to turn up to the sky should you consider taking your head back.  If you are going to take it back make sure the curve in the neck follows the curve that is present in the middle of your upper back between the shoulder blades and try and feel that the distribution of the curve in your spine is even.  And remember, taking your head back is actually more about taking it up than backwards.  You need to feel your head lifting off your spine.  I am not going to go into detail here (might leave it for another post) and for the mean-time make sure you have a chat to your teacher if you are not sure about what to do with your head.  The safest thing to do if you have any doubt is to keep looking straight ahead!

Lower back
Finally, we get to the lower back or the lumbar spine.  The flexibility you have in this part of your spine  and across the front of the pelvis and thigh will ultimately determine how you come into this posture.   The main point to consider is that should have not pain or scrunching feeling in your lower back when you do this (or any) posture.

When I look at the guy in our first picture I get the impression he is extremely flexible in his lower back.  You can see there is an almost 90 degree angle between the pelvis and the rest of his spine.  Most of us will not get that sort of curve.  I can't help but feel if he continued to practice this pose as he is he will end up with lower back issues if they are not present already.  It is hard to tell but it seems to me he is locking into his elbows and collapsing into his wrists and shoulders in order to push himself into bending in the lower back to be in this posture rather than using his muscles to support himself there.

In bhujangasana the muscles along the spine need to work to hold us in place, rather than just collapsing into the most flexible parts (lower back and neck).  Nearly everyone I have ever seen in class with a very flexible lower back finds this pose difficult--not coming into it, which they can all do with ease--but holding it because they invariably tell me their back hurts.  This is usually because they are flexible in their spines but not strong.  And this is where the difficulty lies because this pose is as much about strength as it is about flexibility.  The muscles of the spine needs to be strong to bring your torso up against gravity, the muscles of the abdomen need to be strong to prevent collapsing into the lower back, the muscles around the shoulder blade need to be strong to open the chest and prevent you from collapsing into your shoulders, the muscles of the upper arms need to be strong to hold them straight, the muscles of the forearms and hands need to be strong so you don't collapse into your wrists.  This pose is about lifting, expanding and curling your body back onto itself and you will not get these things without using your muscles appropriately.

As I keep saying, there are so many variations of this posture so bear this in mind.  Some people like to practice keeping the pubic bone on the floor and with the arms bent.  Some practice with the arms in front of the shoulders.  Some practice with the arms below the shoulders.  Some allow the pubic bone to come off the floor and straighten their arms.  Some are able to keep the pubic bone on the floor and straighten their arms at the same time.  How you practice will depend on your yoga teacher's style and your own strength and flexibility.  Changing the position of the hands and elbows and deciding whether or not to allow the pubic bone to come off the floor are decisions you can make about your own practice, always bearing in mind that any of these adaptations should be made to maintain or promote freedom in your lower back.

Let's take a look at the photos below, which show adjustments of the hand, elbow, and pubic bone position that will give your cobra a different look and feel.  Each of these poses shows an accommodation for the flexibility in the lower back and across the front of the thigh and pelvis.

Fig 1: thigh bones lifted off the floor

Fig 2: hands moved in front of the shoulders

Fig 3: hands under shoulders and thigh bones on the floor

Fig 4: hands under shoulders, elbows very bent and pelvis on the floor 

Fig 5: hands under shoulders, elbows a little bent and pelvis on the floor

Each of these people is basically working within the limits of their lumbar spine coming into this posture.  Let's go through the figures one by one.  

In Figure 1 the person has straightened her arms fully.  However, because there is not enough flexion in her lower back she has done the right thing, which is to let the pelvis and top of the thighs come off the floor.  The main thing you need to remember if you are doing cobra this way is to make sure you do not  sag into your belly.  You need to keep the belly in very strongly or you end up 'hanging' in your lower back (having said this, all variations of cobra require you to draw in your abdominals--you will just feel the consequences of not doing so more strongly in this variation).  Always come back to the feeling you are having in your lower back and if you feel compression or scrunching then you can try to draw back through the belly and soften the lower ribs back to your spine and if these two don't work, bend the elbows and let the pelvis and thighs come back to the floor. This is the way we usually do the posture in my class (which doesn't make it right but is just the way I teach), and most people will have their pelvis off the floor.  

In Figure 2 the person has kept her pelvis on the floor but taken the hands out in front of the body.  In my classes we don't usually do this--not because it is incorrect but because we come up with the hands behind the shoulders.  If this person tried to bring her hands back under her shoulders she would probably find she would need to let the pelvis and thighs come off the floor like in figure 1.

In Figure 3 you can see the lady has hands under shoulders and elbows straight and pelvis on the floor, reflecting a very flexible lower back and flexibility across the front of the thigh and pelvis.  Most people would find this very difficult but some do not and you just need to make sure there is no scrunching in the lower back.  If there is, accommodate by going for the position in figure 1 or 2.

In Figure 4 the lady has decided to stay in a very low cobra and really use the muscles of her spine.  We  do this position often in my class (but without the hands on the floor) just before we take the hands to the floor and come up to finish with straight elbows (taking our pubic bones away from the floor as required).  This is a really good way to strengthen the muscles of the back and shoulder blades that help you hold this posture in the final version with ease.  You will likely feel the muscles of the lower back working the hardest here but see if you can get more even work throughout the spine so that you can feel work in the upper back as well.

In Figure 5 the lady has bent elbows and the pelvis on the floor.  She is still working the muscles along her spine really strongly and this is a good position to work in to combine strength and flexibility.  If you do not have the flexibility in the lower back the only way to come further up is to push with the arms and let the pelvis and thighs come off the floor, which is fine.  You will end up like the lady in Figure 1.  

I hope this post has been helpful in giving you some insight in the common errors I see in bhujangasana.  You need to carefully consider how you are using and positioning your hands, elbows, shoulders (and shoulder blades), neck, and lower back.  Remember all yoga postures are about lifting not sinking.  You need to generate lift out of all of these parts of your body or you will collapse somewhere else, which will lead to pain and possibly injury over time.  

The whole of your body is working in bhujangasana.  I did not mention the legs but the legs and feet need to be pressing into the floor, the abdominals lift to support your lower back, the muscles along the spine are working to lift you out of your pelvis and generate an even curve, the muscles of the shoulder blades are working to draw them down away from your ears and towards the centre of your spine to expand the chest, the muscles of the upper arms are working to hold the arms in place and prevent buckling into the wrists or pushing into the shoulders, the muscles of the forearm and hands are working to prevent collapse into the wrists.  Remember to carefully position your neck so that the curve is distributed evenly along your spine.  Go to your yoga teacher for guidance.  

As you practice, see whether or not you are falling into any of these common errors.  Look at yourself in a mirror if you can. Always ask yourself whether you are feeling freedom or compression, particularly in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck and lower back.  If the answer is compression then do something to change that.  If the answer is freedom, well done!

Happy and safe practicing.  

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