Ustrasana – Camel pose

October 30, 2015
Ustrasana - Camel Pose

Be aware: backbends can become addictive. By opening your shoulders and your chest, you are also opening your heart, which often brings a very special atmosphere to backbends’ classes or workshops. Because they stimulate the nervous system, these postures bring a lot of emotional stuff up that can either come out as uncontrollable laughter (maybe you too got caught into a giggling class? That’s the effect of backbends.), or uncontrollable tears, as you may start feeling very vulnerable with your heart wide and open.

I personally love it. I am a natural back bender, which is neither good or bad by the way, it simply is. I work really hard to forward-bend, and I get to have some fun in backbends, and I hope you will too.

The backbend I am proposing you today seem very simple, but will get your thighs on fire if well-practiced. Ustrasana, Camel pose, can be seen as a beginner backbend, as it will give you some foundations on how you have to work the legs in every backbend. Backbends should never ever start from the lower back. It’s all about the legs, and that’s why Ustrasana is such a great active backbend to start with.


Warm up!

Before getting into any backbend, it is recommended to warm up the body, focusing mostly on some hip openers, quad stretches and core work. To warm up, you can perform a few Sun salutations , staying for about three breaths in Upward-Dog, with an emphasis on the work of the legs, and then a couple of lunges, can help you stretch those quads and open your hips.
Deep backbends are usually performed at the end of the practice, since we can use the warmth and flexibility developed throughout the practice to extend the spine more. If you have the time, you can mix up Sun salutations with other backbends to warm up, such as Bhujangasansa (Cobra Pose) and Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and use Ustrasana as the climax of your practice.


How to get into the pose

  1. Start on your knees, placing them hip-width apart, toes tucked or untucked. I personally prefer untucked, as I find it helps me remember to work my legs.
  2. On your next inhale, raise up, hips over the knees. You can place a block in between your thighs, at the upper thigh level.
  3. On your next inhale, place your hands on your lower back, at the level of your kidneys, fingers up towards the sky.
  4. Inhale to extend your spine towards the sky, and feel the breath taking space within your body with your hands. Than exhale and root into the floor through your knees, keeping your back with your hands. Your hands are there to support you, you actually move your back into your hands, not the opposite. You do not want to push your pelvis forward, you want to keep it aligned on top of your knees throughout the pose.
  5. On your next inhalation, start to squeeze the block, and try to bring it towards the back. It’s a micro-mouvement, more an intention than a real movement, to get that inner rotation action from the top of the thighs. That inner rotation will help you create space in your lowerback, and protect your sacroiliac joint.
  6. Keep your legs very active, and point your tailbone down towards the floor. Your pelvis is neither tucked or untucked, you want to find a neutral position.
  7. On the inhale, work the intention of bringing closer your two hip bones, as if you wanted to wrap them together, the wrap starting from the middle of your lower back, wrapping the two hip bones on its way and bringing them closer in front.
  8. On your next inhalation, while keeping strong legs, extend your spine, crown of the head even higher than before. On your next exhalation, keeping that length, push your knees in the floor, squeeze the block, and lift your sternum at the same time. Inhale, keeping the lift in your sternum, and on the exhale, start to bring the top of your chest back, slowly. Nothing in your legs and pelvis move. It is only the top of your torso that is going back. In fact, you are lifting up as much as you are going back, extending all the way.


What to focus your attention on once in the pose

  1. Every inhale, you re-anchor your legs and you keep lifting your sternum higher, using your hands to help you to get that lift. Every exhale, the top part of your torso goes back a bit more. Once you’ve reached your maximum, keep breathing, with the same intention. You can either keep your hands on your back, or if you feel stable, you can bring both hands at the same time on your heels. If there is no pain in the neck, you can release the head back, in line with the rest of the spine.
  2. Keep on breathing, lifting the sternum higher on each inhale, creating space. Use the exhale to move into that space you created.
  3. Legs strong. All the time. Keep on working them, squeezing the block, creating that inner rotation in the upper thighs, bringing the two hip bones closer energetically.


How to get out of the pose

When you start feeling the breath shortening, the pose is over. Do listen to your breath, it’s your best ally to determine when you had enough. Make sure to keep some energy to come back up to protect your lower back.

  1. You will get out of the pose the opposite way you got in. On your next inhalation, activate your legs. You want them strong as you get out of the poste. On your next exhalation, if your hands are on your heels, release them both at the same time, coming up, hips on top of your knees. Inhale, and on your exhale, release your buttocks on your heels, hands on thighs, palms down. Breathe here.

Variation at the wall

To work on the extension and the backbend starting from the upper chest, you can practice Ustrasana using a wall.

  1. Start on your knees at the wall, placing them hip-width apart, toes tucked or untucked.
  2. On your next inhale, raise up, hips over the knees. You can place a block in between your thighs, at the upper thigh level.
  3. Bring your hip bones close to the wall, thighs touching the wall.
  4. Get into the pose as you would in the regular version, but use the wall as a way to remind you to work the legs and keep the pelvis in a neutral position. As you go back, your knees, thighs and hips stay in the wall. It’s only your upper chest that moves up and back.
  5. To get out of the pose, on an exhalation, bring your chest back to the wall, than sit back on your heels, hands on thighs, palms facing down. Breathe here.


The benefits

As I mentioned, I love backbends. We spend most of our days bending forward, sitting, working on the computer, reading, walking, etc. Moving forward is our natural way to go. Backbends are a great way to explore and see things in another way.

“ This is exactly what backbends offer: a deep exploration of our deeper selves and a new way to move the spine and alter our attitudes.” The Yoga Way

On a physical level, backbends bring up energy, and will help you develop your strength, as they involved a lot of work in the legs, core, back and arms. Working on lengthening your spine will also help you with your posture.

Ustrasana in particular is a great stretch for the entire front of your body, abdomen, chest, and throat, as well as the psoas.

On a therapeutic level, Ustrasana is known to help with respiratory problems, can relieve fatigue, anxiety, and menstrual discomfort.

On a psychological level, backbends might bring up strong emotional reactions, as they open the physical and energetic heart space, exposing us to the world. Working on overcoming fear and developing the courage needed to explore that vulnerability in a safe environment, like our yoga mats, is a great way to develop our capacity to face adversity and be ourselves in the real world.

Backbends can also have the side effect of release stored emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration. That’s why I try to approach their practice with a curious and open state of mind, and a heart full of compassion.


The contraindications

In every backbend, make sure to avoid any pain in the lower back. If you have a serious low back or neck injury, Ustrasana is not recommended. Talk to your yoga teacher to develop a backbend practice that will help you get better and stronger. Camel Pose is also not recommended if you are suffering from high or low blood pressure, migraine, or insomnia. If you are pregnant, listen to yourself, and talk to your yoga teacher for more advice on a safe yoga practice throughout your pregnancy.

When practiced safely, Ustrasana is a great backbend to integrate to your practice. Intense but simple enough to be practiced by beginners, Camel pose will help you develop a strong backbend practice to get to deeper (and fun!) backbends.

Wishing you a fabulous exploration in Ustrasana.

Please contact me if you have any question or would like more details.

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