Your Best Bend
Does your neck feel pinched or strained when you drop your head back in Ustrasana (Camel Pose)? Wouldn't it be nice if there were a magical way to fix the problem? In a sense there is, but it requires the skills of a stage magician rather than a wizard. Stage magicians astonish audiences by steering the attention to one hand while performing clever sleight of hand with the other. Likewise, if you're having trouble with your neck when practicing Ustrasana, you must learn to steer your attention away from the problem area (the neck) and instead concentrate on your upper back, where the source of the problem, and its solution, usually lie.
When you master the art of opening your upper spine and chest fully in Camel Pose, it does much more than just free your neck: It also helps protect your lower back from compression and improves nearly every other aspect of the posture. But just as a professional magician attempting a new trick has to work hard to perfect its execution, so you have to make a concerted effort to become adept at backbend sorcery.
A glance at the anatomy of backbending will show you how Ustrasana can jam the neck. When you do a backbend, your vertebrae tilt, so their front edges move apart while their rear portions move closer together. Each vertebra has its own maximum backbending range, which it reaches when its rear portion squeezes against the vertebra below. In many cases, the structure that limits backbending is the spinous process, the prominent spike that protrudes from the back of each vertebra. In other cases, the limiting structures are flat surfaces called facets, which lie just forward of the spinous process. In an ideal, maximal backbend, each vertebra in the entire spine tilts to the end of its own range, stopping at the point where its limiting bony structures almost touch those of the next vertebra. What happens in reality, though, is that tightness in the muscles, ligaments, and cartilage restricts the movement of some vertebrae, forcing others to take up the slack. When the rear parts of the overworked vertebrae move too close to one another, you feel a sharp pinching sensation. In Ustrasana, this pain is often in the neck.
To do Ustrasana without jamming your neck (cervical spine), you need a lot of extension in your upper back (thoracic spine). In fact, before you can safely release your head, each vertebra in the thoracic must extend enough so that the topmost vertebra (the one that supports the neck, called T1) moves back at least 90 degrees from its original, upright position. If T1 doesn't end up at least parallel to the floor, your neck will bend back extra sharply.
A suboptimal position of the upper back will contribute to compression in the vertebrae of the lower and midneck, and the weight of your hanging head will make things worse. But if T1 is parallel to the floor, the cervical spine will not have to bend back so sharply. Instead, the downward pull of the head will provide traction on the neck, drawing the cervical vertebrae away from one another so they don't jam together at all.
Check Your Neck
The main reason that the neck so frequently overworks in Camel Pose is that the thoracic spine naturally resists backbends. There are three reasons for this inflexibility. The first is that the natural shape of the thoracic spine is a forward bend, meaning it is convex in the rear, so it has a long way to go before it bends backward. Second, each thoracic vertebra has a pair of ribs attached to it, so when you bend this area back, you have to strongly lift your ribs and stretch the various muscles that are attached to them. Third, the spinous processes of the thoracic vertebrae are long and point downward, so as you backbend, they soon stack up on one another and prevent further movement. In fact, because of the way the thoracic spinous processes and facets are configured, this part of the spine can't bend backward at all; it can only unbend from its normal forward curve to form a straight line. (The sweeping arc of the upper body that you see in backbends is another illusion; the whole upper back looks as if it's bending, but the lift of the rib cage is what catches your eye.) Since your upper back has so little range of motion to contribute to Ustrasana, you can't afford to give up any of it if you want your neck to bend back freely in the pose. You have to extend your thoracic spine to nearly 100 percent of its anatomical capacity. Doing this requires stretching the intercostal muscles that connect the ribs as well as the abdominal muscles that link the ribs to the front of the pelvis.
Another challenge in backbending the thoracic region is that it's easy to overuse some parts of your spine and underuse others. If you habitually miss some spots, then the facet surfaces of the neglected vertebrae can develop adhesions and stick together. These groups of stuck vertebrae will tend to move as a unit when you bend, while those that are already mobile will tend to become more mobile.
To stretch your intercostal and abdominal muscles, free frozen segments of your thoracic spine, and learn the head, neck, chest, and shoulder movements required for Ustrasana, try backbending over a block. By seesawing your upper back over a firm edge, you will isolate and mobilize specific segments of your spine one at a time. The block exercise also teaches you a safe, controlled way to keep your neck flexed for as long as possible while you move your head backward. This ensures that the backbend comes from your upper back at first. Only after your thoracic spine has extended to its full capacity do you start using your neck. Even then, you focus on backbending the most difficult parts of your neck (the bottom two vertebrae, which resemble thoracic vertebrae) before moving up to the more mobile and overworked midneck segments.
Work Your Magic
Here's how to practice Ustrasana in a way that lets your neck bend freely. This version of the pose emphasizes keeping the neck flexed until your thoracic fully extends backward. Once your thoracic is fully extended, you'll release your head. If you're comfortable with the backbend over a block (see below), you're probably ready for the full pose. If the pose creates neck strain at any time, it's OK to release your head only partway back and remain there just briefly. Work with the technique gradually over time to achieve complete release.
Backbend Over a Block
Place a block on a sticky mat about 18 inches away from the end, with its broad side down and its long dimension running left to right. Place a second block in the same orientation closer to the center of the mat, about 10 to 12 inches away from the first one. Sit on the block in the center of the mat, with your back toward the other block. Lie back, with your chin tucked toward your chest, but don't release your head to the floor.
Adjust the block underneath your upper back so that the top edge is cutting horizontally across the middle of your shoulder blades. Straighten your legs. Keeping your chin tucked, press your hands into the floor alongside your hips, roll the tops of your shoulders toward the floor, and draw the lower tips of your shoulder blades up into your back. Lift the center and sides of your chest and, still tucking your chin down as much as you can, place your head on the mat so that the back of it rests as far away from the block as possible.
Stay in this position for several breaths, then lift your arms overhead and to the floor behind you. Stay for several more breaths. Now lift your head and move the block one inch closer to your waist, and repeat all of the same actions with the head and torso. Do this several times, moving the focus of the backbend down your back a bit at a time, but don't go farther than two inches below the lower tips of your shoulder blades.
For a deeper backbend, do the same exercise but turn the block on its long, narrow edge so that it's higher. Place the block horizontally underneath your shoulder blades the way you did the first time.
Place a folded blanket against a wall. Kneel on it, with your knees touching the wall, hip-width apart, and your feet slightly wider. If you have trouble reaching your heels in Ustrasana, place a block just outside each heel. Press the tops of your feet into the floor to push your thighs against the wall, and maintain this contact throughout the pose. However, at the beginning, slip your hands between your thighs and the wall. Start with your chest touching the wall, press your palms into your thighs, tuck your chin downward and, inhaling, move your whole head back horizontally away from the wall as far as you can without lifting your chin.
Exhale and peel your chest off the wall from the top downward. Slide the sides of your upper chest forward so they emerge in front of your upper arms, roll the tops of your shoulders back, and draw the lower tips of your shoulder blades forward into your back. Pause, inhale again, and as you exhale, repeat all of these actions.
Then, with your chin down, move your head farther back and bring your hands to your heels or the blocks. Inhaling, push your hands down to lift your chest more. From there, on a series of exhalations, keep pulling your chin down but reluctantly release it upward bit by bit as your head descends backward toward the floor. Bend your neck back one vertebra at a time from its base upward. Throughout this sequence, gaze straight ahead or toward your lower eyelids; do not lift your eyes toward your forehead. Keep your brow soft and your exhalations long.
Now finalize the pose. On an exhalation press your feet into the floor and your thighs against the wall more firmly, tilt the top rim of your pelvis away from the wall, press your hands down, lift your chest as high as you can, and let your head hang completely back.
As you develop your skills at this sleight of spine, you can apply the technique of opening the chest before you release the neck to related backbends such as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and "drop backs" from standing into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). Make it a point to teach your new tricks to your friends. Professional magicians never share their secrets, but true yogis always do. That way, more and more people can experience the life-enriching alchemy of yoga practice. And that's real magic. Abracadabra!
Roger Cole, Ph.D., is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and a research scientist specializing in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms. He trains yoga teachers and students in the anatomy, physiology, and practice of asana and pranayama. He teaches workshops worldwide. For more information, visit http://rogercoleyoga.com.