In order to prevent the compression and discomfort that is often associated with Ustrasana, it is important to find a long arc of extension from the sacrum to the crown of the head. Starting with a strong foundation by isometrically pulling the legs together or putting a block between your ankles, press into the block and draw powerfully into the midline of the body to engage and strengthen the adductor muscles of the hip. This will help to open your low back as you work into the extension of the posture. From this foundation, keep your hips in line with your knees and lift your upper back (thoracic spine) towards the ceiling as you arc backwards. Once you put your hands on your heels, you can press against your heels to create engagement of the lower and middle Trapezius, allowing the muscles of your middle back to help in creating the lift of the chest towards the ceiling. Another common misalignment is collapsing the neck backwards to get a stretch on the front of the throat. This can be valuable in stretching an area that we do not get to open often, but you want to be careful not to feel any compression in your neck. It is more beneficial to keep your neck long, to allow this to be an opportunity to strengthen the cervical stabilizers, the deep neck flexors (Longus Capitis and Longus Colli). Another option is to take a blanket and roll it up length-wise. You can wrap the blanket around your neck like a “yoga scarf”. As you come back into the posture, your head will rest on the blanket preventing hyper-extension of your neck.
Camel, Bridge and Bow all bring us into this position of opening the front body. The differences we experience in the spine and in the muscular work are a result of the point of stabilization and the resulting effect on the body. In Camel, our legs are grounded so the extension and expansion is more focused on the thoracic and cervical spine. We are resisting the pull of gravity as we arc backwards. As we resist the pull of gravity, the Psoas, Abdominal, and deep cervical flexor muscles have to contract eccentrically. Simultaneously, our Middle and Lower Trapezius concentrically contract to lift us against gravity. In bridge posture, our feet, shoulders and head are grounded as we come into spinal extension. Bridge brings our lumbar and thoracic spine into extension, but our cervical spine into flexion which creates less of a challenge in the cervical spine. Bridge requires the Glutes, Hamstrings and Paraspinals to concentrically work to lift us against the pull of gravity. The foundation in Bow is our pelvis and ribs. This posture brings the focus into opening the hips and shoulders, as well as the lumbar and thoracic spine. Bow requires strength of the Paraspinals, Glutes, Quadriceps, and Trapezius to concentrically work to lift us against gravity. Of the three, Camel is the one asana that challenges our ability to resist the pull of gravity. This is especially apparent in the work of our deep cervical flexors, which helps to bring more stability to our cervical spine creating a unique experience of spinal extension.
Ustrasana represents sustainability, the ability to move forward and open expand, even when you’ve been “cut off at the knees.” It is an asana that I personally shelve under “once in a blue moon,” so to understand it more, I began talking to other yogi friends and fellow teachers about their insights into Ustrasana. “Ugh” was the resounding response. In my estimation, Camel pose may be in the top ten of the most frequently avoided asanas today. But why?
The pose itself is very complex. To begin, it requires finding a powerful connection to the earth, but through the knees instead of the feet. This is a very humbling experience for many people. To get grounded in other standing asanas can feel more accessible, as we often supplement the activation of the core with the power of the legs and feet. But, in Ustrasana, we are “brought to our knees” and asked to access our strength deep within, which can uncover weakness and fear that are not always apparent when we are standing on our feet.
From this place where our self-doubts and fears surface, we are asked to unabashedly expand our hearts. The opening of the heart in Ustrasana is an experience that calls on our ability to trust and have faith. As we lean back, blind to what is behind us, we have to trust that we are strong enough to support ourselves, and that we are supported by an unwavering force that is bigger than ourselves. This action is one of surrender, the paradox of Camel. How do we draw upon our inherent strength and at the same time let go into the experience?
Oh, and then there is our head. That tyrannical space of control we have to maintain without letting it take over or completely drop out. If our heads have led most of our lives, then the wisdom of the heart is often overshadowed by the fluctuations of the mind. This will send us reeling in Ustrasana, with our heads feeling heavy, like a lead weight that we cannot control. The space of the throat and neck can seem inadequate to support this intellectual surrender. So how do we find the space of freedom and equanimity in Ustrasana?
Learn from the camel. Camels represent fortitude and determination. They teach us to stay the course and trust in the outcome. Camels seem to have the gift of accomplishing the impossible, and when we bring our bodies into the pose of the camel, we awaken that same gift inside of us. Through the belief that we can sustain ourselves even when we feel like our feet have been knocked out from under us, we discover our deep strength that supports our immense expansion. Though this asana is daunting to many, it guides us bring our dark spaces into the light. With consistent practice, you can begin to confront and explore what we so often try to hide away, and in the knowing of ourselves that results, we will find the source of strength that will sustain us even in the sometimes harsh climates of our lives.