Google “Thai Massage” and some of the top images you see are of Cobra Pose. Why is that? Is it because it’s such an amazing posture that everyone should know about and receive? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s because it looks flashy and special.
From the very beginning of my practice, this pose has never felt right to give or receive. It’s not that I cannot receive it – my body is bendy to a healthy degree and so it can be moved quite easily into this shape. It has everything to do with the safety of the pose. Before I break down the details of why this pose isn’t in my practice or our Navina® teachings, I wanted to start with a question for all the practitioners out there: What is your purpose for performing this posture on someone? It’s time we start the discussion on the use of Cobra Pose and Thai massage safety.
First and foremost, every posture I choose in a treatment is designed to help release tension and relax the client. As we flow through the postures, one of my aims is to move their body without any input from them. This means having them relax fully into my touch, allowing their muscles to release. There are very few people in this culture who can fully surrender and allow you to move their body. Among many other factors, it requires a whole lot of trusting that injury is never going to occur. Relaxation-training is something that we desperately need. In our work, re-training someone to fully relax it’s also something that allows us to easily access deeper tissues.
Relaxation is lost:
To start with, let’s just make the assumption that all of your clients are even flexible enough to receive this posture. (It is really quite unlikely, but for the sake of keeping this post relatively short)… For the vast majority of receivers, Cobra Pose causes activation of the gluteal and back muscles. Understandably, people want to help you get them off the ground. However, our role as practitioners is not to encourage an active asana practice in a treatment. By bringing activation to their muscles, tension develops and they lose their relaxed, meditative state. It seems a shame to bring a client out of that space just to perform a fancy pose. If your client wants an active spinal extension, I would encourage going to a yoga class – not paying for a massage treatment.
And then there’s the safety issue:
Occasionally you’ll get to work with the odd client who can actually release into every pose and allow you to move their body without input. So it’s okay to employ Cobra then right? No. Actually that’s even worse. If you notice, the sacrum is not stabilized at all in this position. When there is no muscular support, the instability of the sacrum can quite easily lead to sacroiliac joint dysfunction. And that’s not even mentioning the shear forces we’re creating in the lumbar spine with a passive spinal extension. Part of the reason people generally activate their muscles here is to distribute the force of the backbend along the full length of the spine, protecting the joints and ensuring that no region of the spine has too much extension. When you’re fully relaxed this doesn’t happen and the compressive and sheer forces all rest in the lumbar spine.
I don’t foster a dramatic environment, and nor do I encourage fear-based communication, but the fact is that this posture puts your client at an increased risk of injury from your session. By doing this posture we’re either putting the back at risk of significant injury or we’re assisting an active yoga pose; neither of which should be elements of our Thai Massage practice.
It’s all very well and good for me to tell you to stop doing something, and I’ve explained the “why” behind this, but what next? Now I need you to see how else you can achieve the desired outcome you were intending for this posture.
So why do we use Cobra in the first place?
What are we trying to achieve? I believe the aim of this posture is to create a deep heart/chest opening as well as creating a gentle spinal extension. If this is what we are trying to achieve, there are many, many other postures in Thai Massage that adequately and, more importantly, safely accommodate these desires.
There are many seated, supine, side-lying and prone alternatives to creating both a shoulder girdle opening, and spinal extension either separately or in unison. Use those instead as they carry with them a much higher level of inherent safety.
As practitioners, it is our responsibility to dissect and evaluate every posture we perform. Take a look at why you want to use a posture, what is the purpose and then how can we achieve the same result using safe and effective positions. A sound understanding of anatomy will allow you to think critically and to understand what it is you are doing in each posture.
It’s time to bring this traditional art form and put it into a modern context, combining the wisdom of the East with the science of the West, making it safe, accessible and therapeutic to all practitioners and receivers.
Explore your practice. Question and evaluate – and don’t base your practice on the gospel of teachers!
Article last updated: June 17, 2018.
You might also like to read: “Be Cautious Calling Yourself A “Healer”. “Facilitators” Fits The Bill Better.“, and ““Massage-ology” … Why Learning Science Matters“.