Like all the asanas, bhujangasana relieves muscular tensions and stiffness, stimulates the endocrine system and has many other important physical and psychological benefits. Even more important, though, are its psychic and spiritual effects. According to tantra, the practice of bhujangasana brings about fusion on all levels with one of the most universal manifestations of cosmic energy- kundalini, the serpent power.
In all traditions, the serpent represents the tremendous power latent within the individual. In Hindu mythology it is respected and honoured as a sacred animal, symbolizing the individual subtle force, intuition and wisdom. The double looped mathematical symbol for infinity is derived from the ancient symbol of the snake with its tail in its mouth, and is an expression of the continuity and eternity of life. By the practice of bhujangasana, we can realize and express not only all of the specific qualities of the serpent, but also its divine essence.
Bhujangasana is a backward bending asana. In the starting position one lies down on the stomach with the forehead on the floor. Classically, hands are placed just under the shoulders with the palms down. Legs should be straight, with the heels together. However, beginners or corpulent individuals may find it more comfortable to practise with the feet or legs separated.
To perform bhujangasana, raise the trunk slowly and smoothly without any jerks, keeping the navel in contact with the floor. Arch the spine, vertebra by vertebra, starting from the cervical vertebrae down to the lumbar, as if the serpent itself were uncoiling within you. In the final position, the trunk is raised and the whole spine is arched. To release the posture, reverse the process by bringing the trunk smoothly back down to the floor, starting the movement this time from the lumbar vertebrae and ending with the cervical.
Beginners can take the support of the arms to raise the trunk but eventually, as the back becomes more supple and strong, the practitioner is able to raise himself by means of the abdominal muscles alone, making use of the arms and legs only for balance. This is represented by the ability of the snake to raise and support himself by his powerful abdominal muscles. By strengthening the abdominal muscles, particularly those at the site of manipura, we may also be able to develop the digestive power of the snake, who easily digests everything he consumes.
The full form of the posture is called poorna bhujangasana, in which the legs are bent at the knees and the back of the head is touching the toes. The whole body is supported by the abdomen. This completes the energy circuit, recreating within the body the ancient symbol of the infinite serpent.
This perfected stage should not be forced or rushed into; it must be developed progressively by unblocking each and every part of the spine. This requires developing both suppleness and strength of the whole back through the practice of the preliminary variations described below. Only by keeping to these conditions will we develop the true knowledge of that divine expression which is bhujangasana.
Inhalation and exhalation should be of equal duration. Usually, inhalation takes place while raising the trunk, and exhalation while lowering it back to the floor. However, if this is too difficult, it may be preferable for some time to exhale while raising and inhale while lowering. Advanced practitioners can do antar kumbhaka (inner breath retention) while the posture is being held, otherwise, normal breathing can be practised.
Practised dynamically, and coordinated with the breath, the posture can be repeated between 3 and 5 times. The static pose can be maintained as long as is comfortable, while continuing to breathe normally.
For maximum physical benefits during the beginning stages, concentrate on the arch in the spine during inhalation, and during exhalation concentrate on the relaxation in those parts which were under pressure. In later stages of practice, awareness can be brought to the flow of breath, or to vishuddhi chakra.
Bhujangasana should not be practised by sufferers from peptic ulcers, hernia, intestinal tuberculosis or hyperthyroidism. It is not advisable for pregnant women, as it automatically becomes uncomfortable at a certain stage of pregnancy.
Personality, lifestyle and environment all influence the structure and mobility of the spine, and every individual is affected differently by these factors. Therefore one should not practise bhujangasana in a standardized or mechanical way. Many people make the mistake of executing bhujangasana directly in its full form and then suffer from lower back pain. Then these people refuse to practise any backward bending postures at all, claiming that they are harmful. In fact, it is just the opposite. The benefits of the posture can be easily negated by overarching an already weak lumbar region, instead of becoming aware at which level of the spine the 'serpent' is not developed, and then practising on from that point.
In India, most people have very supple spines and do not need to prepare for bhujangasana. This is not the case in the west, where, very often, the dorsal part of the back seems to be devoid of life, as if the vertebrae were fused together. In order to loosen this area, preparation and experimentation with the less difficult variations is essential.
The variations of bhujangasana can be adapted to suit every type of body, according to the observation and analysis of the yoga teacher or the practitioner himself. There are nearly as many variations as there are individuals, and creativity is the key to progress. Dynamic practice is most useful at the beginning, while static practice can be developed progressively as the back becomes more supple and strong.
The dorsal part of the back often becomes so stiff that we lose all capacity for sensation at that level. The flow of both prana and consciousness becomes blocked, and fear and suppression become localized within that region. By practising the preparatory variations slowly, with patience and care, the tensions and stiffness can be removed so that life may once again circulate freely. Then the practitioner is ready to 'slip' into and experience the mental state of bhujangasana with all comfort and awareness.
- For preparation of the neck and upper back, arms can be stretched in front of the body, palms together, sides of the hands pressing on the floor. Then the head and upper back are raised. This brings awareness to the neck and upper dorsal region, relieves stiffness and encourages smooth movement. It can be performed either before or after any posture which takes support or requires effort from the cervicals. It can also be used to prevent or relieve neck and shoulder pain resulting from the stress of daily life.
- For preparing the dorsal part of the back, bhujangasana can be practised with both palms and forearms on the floor, parallel to each other on either side of the body (the sphinx pose). Gradually the palms can be drawn in towards the shoulders and the trunk raised higher and higher, until the classic bhujangasana posture is attained.
- Hands may be placed lower than the shoulders only when the whole spine has been made supple and strong, as may be required for the execution of poorna bhujangasana.
- Instead of keeping the hands near the body, they can be moved out to the side, and any of the previous variations practised. This ensures that all the muscles of the back are brought into play.
Strength of the muscles of the trunk and neck, as well as suppleness, must also be developed. For that purpose, instead of using them to support the trunk as previously described, the arms can be raised off the floor along with the trunk. Other possibilities include clasping the hands behind the back as for sarpasana, bringing the hands in namaste behind, or clasping them behind the head.