The Five Differences between a Cobra pose and a Sphinx pose

Have you ever wondered what the differences were between a cobra pose and a sphinx pose? They seem essentially the same and you could easily mistake whether or not your neighbors are just doing the wrong pose. Better yet, were you in the middle of class and wondered whether you are doing it incorrectly or you were doing an entirely different pose when your yoga instructor calls out the pose?

Question no further, as you are at the right place to find to answer all your questions about the two poses and why they are so powerful in their own ways. This review will start out by reviewing the actual asana (physical pose) itself then delve into the deeper understanding of the two poses.

The Physical Pose

Start by briefly visiting both poses. If you would like to feel the differences by your practice, please try them out! Keep in mind that there are contraindications to all poses, which will be briefly discussed in the last section. Always listen to your body and be mindful of what it needs and wants to endure.

Sphinx Pose

Start with a sphinx pose:

  1. Bring yourself to the floor and lay on your belly with your body fully extended
  2. Place your arms so that your elbows are close to your ears and the rest of the arms are extended forward.
  3. With your inhale, bring your upper body up by engaging your core.
  4. As you come up, bring your arms under your shoulders so that your arms are at a 90-degree angle with your elbows lining up under your shoulders.
  5. Engage the space behind your back as you strengthen your pose
  6. Be sure to keep your head in a straight line extending from your spine.
  7. Breathe as you keep your core, legs, feet, and arms engaged.
  8. In this pose you will have a slight arch in your upper thoracic area.
  9. Breathe as you engage your focus (your drshti) on a point ahead of you.

Cobra Pose

Lower your upper body down with your last exhale. Moving into a cobra pose:

  1. Stay on your belly with your body fully extended.
  2. Place the palm of your hands flat on the floor next to your chest.
  3. With your inhale, engage your core and upper back to bring yourself up to a powerful cobra pose.
  4. Your hands will stay under your chest and shoulder as you extend into your back bend
  5. Keep your arms close and engage your back shoulder muscles to bring strength to the pose
  6. Expand from your heart and ensure your head and neck is aligned with your spine as you shift your focus (drshti) forward at a point ahead of you.
  7. Your neck is aligned so the head is not flying backwards to look up but forward.
  8. If you feel strong, you are welcome to extend your arms further to open more of the heart area. Be careful if you have lower back pain as this could add pressure to it as it’s a stronger backbend pose.
  9. Throughout the pose, keep your core, legs, feet, and upper back engaged to bend throughout the length of the back instead of at a single point in the lower back.
  10. Exhale to slowly release.

After either of your poses

  1. Rest your forehead on your hand
  2. Use a counterpose to stabilize your back (After backbends, it always feels good to do a simple forward bend to stabilize your sacrum).

As you may have observed in your own body, a sphinx pose engages more of the strengths from the upper body than the lower back. By placing the hand out-front with the elbows placed right below the shoulder, the arms take most of the load.

In a cobra pose, you go deeper into the back bend as you allow your body the leverage to open up the heart area and bring the bend deeper.  

A Comparison of the Physical Pose

SphinxCobra
Elbows are under the shoulder and the arms lay out aheadHands come below the shoulder and the arms are allowed to extend
Bend is in the upper thoracicBend is throughout the lower back, but often deeper in the lower back

The sphinx pose is a great way to start back bends, but also more available to those that may have wrist pain or injuries. Since the elbows and arms take the weight, it takes the pressure off the hands as it may be the case in cobra.

Although they may be different, they are a variation of one another and have many similarities, which will be encountered in the few sections ahead. In general, there are a few foundational similarities that the two poses share.

Similarities in the Physical Pose

  1. Engaging of the core
  2. Beneficial back bend
  3. Engaging of the leg muscles and core in addition to the main muscles engaged during the pose (such as the back and shoulder)

Despite their differences as asanas, they are both great energetics and medicine to your chakras, which will be discussed further in the next few sections.

Here is a great video, Should I do a Sphinx, Cobra, or Updog, to distinguish the main differences of the poses I’ve described above. Bonus, the instructor also explains the difference between an upward dog pose in addition to a sphinx and cobra pose for those that were wondering that difference too! 

The Sanskrit Name: What’s in the Name?

Yoga asanas are simple modern branches of the true yogic practices. Practicing your poses by calling out the Sanskrit names also brings proper energetics to your poses.

Sanskrit is a powerful language that says so much more in the sounds than just our modern languages. To start out by distinguishing the differences between the two poses, let’s first visit their Sanskrit names.

Sphinx pose, which is Salamba Bhujangasana, differs from the cobra pose, Bhujangasana. So, what does Salamba mean? What does Bhujangasana mean?

 Asana

Asana, as reviewed briefly before, means posture, or often, “seat.” The yoga that is practiced today in Western yoga is mainly of the “asana” practices within the realm of yoga.

Bhujangasana

Now, the word for our cobra pose, “bhujangasana,” can be broken down into two forms, “bhujang-” and “asana.”

In Sanskrit, bhujang(a) means snake, serpent, or cobra. I’ve purposely mentioned in both poses, to bring your focus at a point ahead of you, like a serpent. When you practice either the salamba bhujangasana, or bhujangasana, you are a strong serpent rising with the long back and strong core muscles while looking ahead at a prey or purpose ahead.

Salamba

Now, the difference between a sphinx pose and a cobra pose comes down to the word, “salamba”

Salamba comes from the Sanskrit word, Sālamba, which means “supported” or “with support.” If you see the two poses side by side, you can see that they are both derivatives of a backbend, but one can be a preparation to another. A sphinx pose is a rather “supported” back bend of the cobra pose.

The forearms that are underneath the shoulder are the support to lift the upper body and to provide the backbend of a cobra. Although the word, “sphinx” comes to the pose from the resemblance to the Egyptian statues of the mythological half-lion creatures, the pose really breaks down to a “supported cobra” pose.

With this in mind, although salamba bhujangasana is not necessarily a modification pose of bhujangasana, it can be a beginner’s pose to the yogic practice and a cobra pose variation in order to safely do a full cobra pose. It could be a beginner pose to prep for the future or for those that do not want to do a cobra pose due to injury or pain.

Remember, in both poses, whether you’re a cobra, a supported cobra, or a sphinx, you are a strong warrior looking ahead and opening up your heart with your strong muscles. That brings this article to the next section.

Note: in the following sections, the Sanskrit names will be referenced to properly distinguish between a sphinx pose and a cobra pose. It will help you picture the difference of a cobra and a supported cobra more clearly.  

(Source: Bhujang)

Energetics and Benefits

Although yoga asanas are not necessarily “beneficial” but rather a method to balance out your imbalances, the two poses can also be seen in its different forms of medicine for our bodies. So how do each of them bring different energetics and “benefits”?

Similarities

First to review, both the sphinx and cobra poses are a category of a backbend asanas. They are both great for the sympathetic nervous system.

Backbends are known to be helpful for the digestive, respiratory, and circulatory system and are great to get the heat moving.

Backbends are often used by instructors to bring more expanding and accelerating energy (brahmana practice) to the class. They are known to be energizing, nourishing and heart-opening, which will be visited in the next, “chakra” section.

For those of you that want to balance your doshas and energetics, backbends can be invigorating for both pitta and vata imbalances but are often used for the opposite, depending on the class structure. Always remember that you can always change the energetics of any class or pose by your intention alone.

Sphinx Pose Energetics and Benefits

To generalize, a sphinx pose can be approached as a gentler pose than the cobra pose or furthermore, the upward dog pose. Thankfully, it also brings great benefits such as all backbends do despite it being so simple.

A sphinx pose, salamba bhujangasana, in comparison to a cobra pose introduces strength to the pose. By engaging the core and the upper body in the pose, this pose focuses more on strength than flexibility.

Nonetheless, a sphinx pose helps with the digestive by applying the pressure on the abdomen which further helps to stimulate the digestive organs. Although gentle, it is also a mild heart opening pose.

 A sphinx pose can be more warming to a vata imbalance more than a kapha imbalance (in comparison to a cobra pose). With a vata energy imbalance, you want to calm things down and keep things slow, grounded, and strengthening, which is what you can get from a sphinx pose in comparison to a cobra pose.

Remember that one variation of a yoga pose is never “better” or “worse” than another. If your body needs to cool down, relax, surrender, or even feel more grounded, a sphinx pose will be more beneficial than a cobra or upward dog pose.

That being said a sphinx pose, although engaging, can be used for more of a balancing practice rather than a brahmana practice (accelerating and expanding).

Cobra Pose Energetics and Benefits

A cobra pose is a backbend that further engages all the benefits listed above. This pose helps to strengthen the spine as you also lengthen from the spine which brings strength and flexibility to the back.

A cobra pose, bhujangasana, is great to open up the heart area as the chest, lungs, shoulder and abdomen is stretched. This pose opens the heart space and the chest while strengthening the legs and core.

As well as with the sphinx pose, cobra pose is great to the abdominal or digestive organs as it applies pressure to that area. In addition, the cobra pose also stimulates the reproductive system by stimulating the thyroid and parathyroid glands.

In comparison to the sphinx pose, this could be more welcoming to a person that is suffering a kapha imbalance. If you are wanting more movement, lightening, energizing, or a releasing practice, you may want to pursue a cobra pose today instead of a sphinx. Of course, as mentioned before, with every pose there are contraindications which will be reviewed in the later sections.

Overall, both poses are great to strengthen the legs and core as you awaken the heart area, which will be discussed in the next section.

Effective Chakras

Most backbends are known to be very beneficial for chakras 2,3,4, and 5. Which are, Sacral chakra, Navel or Solar plexus chakra, Heart Chakra, and Throat chakras, respectively.  What does this mean and how does the cobra pose and sphinx pose benefit them?

Sphinx PoseCobra Pose
4th chakra, Heart chakra4th chakra, Heart chakra
5th chakra, throat chakra5th chakra, Throat chakra
 3rd chakra, Solar plexus/navel chakra

 

Sphinx Pose and its Effects on Chakras (Salamba Bhujangasana)

Sphinx pose is known to be very beneficial to both the heart chakra (4th chakra) and also the throat chakra (5th chakra). By opening the heart chakra, one can open the gates to self-confidence, inspiration, and (self) love.

In addition, the heart chakra with the throat chakra can further open each other as both gates open in a sphinx pose. With your throat chakra open, you are able to let go of tiredness and bring purity. If you are suffering to express yourself or are holding something in and are not able to let it out, a sphinx pose is a great tool to open that chakra up.

In combination, a sphinx pose is such as the name, salamba bhujangasana, a warrior that should stand confidently and with strong standing in their voice and beliefs.

Cobra Pose and its effects on Chakras

A cobra pose, bhujangasana, is also a heart-opening pose that benefits the heart chakra (4th chakra), the throat chakra (5th) and additionally, the solar plexus (3rd chakra).

With its full form of a cobra pose, the chest is flared and opened widely in confidence. Along with opening the heart to self-confidence and self-love, the cobra pose also helps the throat chakra by opening up to express our voices and to defend ourselves against verbal abuse and criticism.

In addition to the same benefits of a sphinx pose, a cobra pose also benefits the 3rd chakra, which brings energy to the solar plexus. When one needs the inner power and self-confidence, the solar plexus needs fire. Often associated with the element of fire, the solar plexus or the navel chakra, engages the inner confidence and energy within us.

You may have noticed, but all of these chakras work with each other. When one is blocked, the neighboring chakra may also be blocked. If you are needing confidence and self-love, either poses, cobra or sphinx, will be a great way to start regaining that balance.

Contraindications

To always ensure safety first, here is a quick list of the major contraindications and available modifications to both poses.

Sphinx pose, Salamba Bhujangasana Contrindications :

  1. Injury or severely stiff back
  2. Neck injuries
  3. Pregnancy

Sphinx pose modification:

Sphinx pose against the wall

  1. Use the wall as your floor. Place the forearms on the wall, shoulder width apart.
  2. Press forearms against the wall as your shoulder blades draw into the upper back.
  3. Peel your chest away from the wall

(Source: YogaOutlet)

Cobra pose, Bhujangasana Contrindications:

  1. Back pain or back injury
  2. Neck injuries
  3. Wrist injury or pain (e.g. carpal tunnel)

Cobra pose modification:

  1. Allow space between the feet and legs
  2. Decrease the lift of the torso
  3. Face down instead of forward

(Source: Yoga for the Joy of it!)

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re new to yoga or have practiced for 10 years, you will always come to the question of what the true differences are between poses and whether you are doing them right or wrong.

Always listen to your body and how you are feeling for that day. When you listen to that present moment, you are doing the right pose. If you feel any pain in your joints, always pull out. If you’re feeling agitated but doing more heart-opening poses, make it into a strengthening practice instead. You can always set the intention to your practice and life.

Sita

Mother of three and Yogi of 20+ years and 200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. I am also a Certified Thai massage therapist and I have taught Gymnastics for more than 10 years. In the last couple of years, I've been a big promotor of intermittent fasting.

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