Yoga Cobra Pose Modifications for Back Pain

woman doing cobra pose

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

The basic movement of the yoga Cobra pose is to arch the spine backward. This pose has benefits that include strengthening your back muscles. However, it may need to be modified or avoided if you have certain back problems.

People with facet joint problems and/or spondylolisthesis would likely do well to take a cautious approach to this movement, or possibly even skip it altogether. This is because in general, facet joint problems are irritated when the spine is arched, and spondylolisthesis could be worsened. Ask your healthcare provider or physical therapist if this pose is allowed for your condition.

If you are in acute pain, the Cobra pose should not be attempted. Otherwise, listen carefully to your pain and allow it to guide you as to how far into the pose to go.

Modify the Cobra for Safety

Use these modifications to Cobra if you have back problems. To modify Cobra for back pain, consider treating yourself as a beginner, regardless of any prior exposure to yoga you may have.

Start From Lying Position, Not Plank

You can follow the instructions for this pose, omitting the plank position. Just start by lying on your belly, and allow the floor to provide you with support. Beginning the Cobra from the Plank position is asking for trouble—the Plank is an advanced move that challenges even those with no back problems at all.

Place Forearms on the Floor

Another way to modify the Cobra for safety is to place your forearms on the floor—not just your palms. When you do so, be sure your elbows are directly under your shoulders. This will allow you to be in control of the movement and will focus the work on your spine and back muscles.

Descend Your Shoulder Blades Down Your Back

As with Downward-facing Dog pose, descending your shoulder blades down your back will help to support your upper spine while its arches. Try also to keep your shoulders open across the front.

Follow With a Gentle Stretch to the Low Back

The yoga Cobra pose can an intense experience for the spine and back muscles. Following it up with a gentle back stretch is usually recommended to keep muscles in balance. Child's pose is ideal for this purpose.

Back Benefits of Cobra Pose

Because the Cobra pose extends your spine backward, it will likely work your back muscles. If you follow the instructions carefully, you will also strengthen pelvic muscles, as well as your lower abdominals. This type of strength work is a matter of position. It may seem like the front pelvic and abdominal muscles are stretching, but with the tops of your feet pressed into the floor, those muscles will be working hard and getting stronger.

Extending the spine back may alleviate some or all of your disc symptoms. The degree to which the Cobra pose can do this will, of course, vary by individual. But if your healthcare provider or physical therapist has cleared you for exercise, a modified Cobra pose done without pain may help you reduce your low back pain.

3 Sources
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  1. Perolat R, Kastler A, Nicot B, et al. Facet joint syndrome: From diagnosis to interventional management. Insights Imaging. 2018;9(5):773-789. doi:10.1007/s13244-018-0638-x

  2. Gothe NP, McAuley E. Yoga is as good as stretching-strengthening exercises in improving functional fitness outcomes: Results from a randomized controlled trial. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2016;71(3):406-411. doi:10.1093/gerona/glv127

  3. Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Cook AJ, et al. Comparison of yoga versus stretching for chronic low back pain: protocol for the Yoga Exercise Self-care (YES) trial.Trials. 2010;11:36. doi:10.1186/1745-6215-11-36

Additional Reading

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.