Pose of the Month: Ustrasana

by Michele Vinbury

Ustrasana, or Camel Pose, serves to stretch and open the front of the body (throat, chest, abdomen, hip flexors, ankles) while extending and strengthening the back of the body. Ustrasana is also a go-to for relieving fatigue and can be a great alternative to Urdhva Danurasana for those with tight or injured shoulders. As a heart opener, we thought it particularly fun to look at during the Valentine’s season.

To come into the pose. Begin by kneeling, align the pelvis over the knees and adjust yourself so that your knees and feet are hips’ width distance apart. Place the tops of the feet flat on the floor.

Take the hands to the hips, fingers facing forward, and begin to bring the elbows toward each other behind the back. Create lift in the heart center by pressing the shoulder blades against the back ribs. Allow the tailbone to descend and the low belly to lift. Then begin to press down on the hips with the hands and further arch the spine. Because this is an advanced pose, you may wish stay here.

Ustrasana with Toes Turned Under

If you’d like to further your exploration, take care to maintain the alignment of hips over knees, and with the chin towards chest, continue to curl the chest open while you reach the hands toward the feet. If you cannot touch your feet without leaning back, turn your toes under to raise the heels (you can even place a rolled up blanket or towel under your ankles here). Alternately, you can position a block to the outside of each heel and place the hands there. Your upper legs should be perpendicular to the floor in this pose.

If it feels appropriate for you, you might gently release the head back at this point. Though take care not to grip in the throat or crunch in the neck.

As always, if the breath is restricted in any phase of this pose, it’s an indication that, at least for the moment, you might benefit from returning to the previous stage.

Throughout your time in this pose, engage the quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your thighs). If you’re not sure how to engage your quadriceps, try pressing the tops of your feet into the floor and notice what sensations of muscular activation that elicits. This particular engagement is also helpful if you notice that you are beginning to lean back (hips drifting more over the heels than knees). By engaging the quadriceps you should lean back less as the thighs move more perpendicular to the floor.

Ustrasana with Tops of Feet Flat on Floor

Notice if you’re feeling low back strain and compression. If this is part of your ustrasana experience, take a moment and notice too if the front ribs are popping forward. This can often cause back compression and with it, discomfort. To find more balance and ease, try engaging the low abdominals by bringing the top of the pelvis toward the low ribs. Next, bring your breath into the kidney area, inflating it as you lift the low back ribs away from the pelvis. These combined actions will aid in keeping the lumbar spine long.

If you’re experiencing pinching in the sacrum, experiment with the action of moving the inner thighs back to create space in this area. One way to cultivate this action is to use a block. As you kneel to begin this pose, place a block between the mid-thighs and without using, or moving, your knees begin to send the block back (behind you) using the muscles of your inner thighs.

To come out of the pose. Lead with the heart, letting the head be the last to come upright. At a workshop earlier this year, David Swenson suggested initiating this movement by creating the action of isometrically moving the thighs toward each other to create lift. See how this feels in your body!

You should work under the guidance of an experienced teacher or avoid this pose entirely if you have high or low blood pressure or have low back or neck injuries.

Tom’s Take Away

The take away for me is to keep the hands on the hips and let the heart center lift to broaden the collar bones while letting the chin move toward that lift. Then to leave hands there (or reach back to heels, blocks) and inhale lift the sternum lengthen up and back through the throat exhale release the head.

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One Response to Pose of the Month: Ustrasana
  1. Susan Sullivan

    This pose is a great alternative to backbends for those of us with arthritic, or fragile, or artificial hips.