It looks magnificent when the yoga journal models hold the pose with a lengthened spine, engaged core, and an eloquent upward gaze! It can feel, however, like your low back is about to break, your neck is straining, and you can’t really breathe.
One obvious alternative to the discomfort is to swap cobra pose for Upward Facing Dog pose, but this is often glossed over in class, with the instruction, “inhale-Up-dog or cobra”. Well, without any instruction on what cobra pose is designed to feel like, cobra pose can be just as painful. If that’s the case, we’re often tempted to just pick Up-dog to blend in with the rest of the class, since no one else is complaining of back pain, we must just be inflexible, right? Actually, one of three things is probably happening: they have poor alignment and haven’t developed pain yet, they are pushing through the discomfort just like you, or their alignment is in-check and the pose is comfortable for them.
If you’re going for Up-dog, once your elbows are at 90 degrees in chaturanga, inhale, push your hands into the mat to straighten your elbows, lift your chest forward and up, pull your navel to your spine, and press the tops of your feet into the mat. Your hips will be lifted off the mat. If your hips won’t float off the mat, work on cobra pose until you develop the strength and flexibility needed for Up-dog. You will likely feel a jamming sensation in your low back if you’re pushing through straight arms and your hips are in contact with the floor. Lifting the hips distributes the arch (backbend in spinal extension) through a longer section of the body, and the quads engage to help manage the load. Your gaze is forward, then up. Your neck can extend backwards only as far as comfortable. It’s more about the in-breath and spinal extension, than trying to look as far backward as you can.
With cobra pose, your hips will be touching the mat…but first you need to lower yourself down to the mat. You could lower from chatturanga, with caution to use your core to control the motion (to make sure you’re not relying on the ligaments in the front of your shoulder to get you there). A better option, in my opinion, is to lower sequentially knees, chest, chin, keeping the elbows tucked into the body the whole time. You may wish to reset your hand placement on the mat before pressing up into cobra. They are ideally placed alongside your upper ribs, just below your armpits. This is further back on the mat than you think they need to go, so experiment with this.
Draw your shoulderblades down your back, tuck your elbows close to your body one more time, using mainly arm-strength to roll your head, neck, shoulders, and torso up off the mat. Elbows stay bent in cobra pose, and you don’t need to lift your torso up far as you would in Up-dog. For a safe transition to Downward Facing Dog pose, you can push back into child’s pose, and then tuck your toes under and then up you go to Down-dog.