Bump up your energy (and confidence!) by bending back into Camel Pose. Ustrasana counteracts slouching and relieves lower back pain with a generous, heart-opening stretch.
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Camel Pose (Ustrasana) is an energizing and beneficial backbend—a welcome, heart-opening addition to your sequence that counteracts slouching and relieves lower back pain.
It’s worth taking the time to do it well. The main thing to avoid with Ustrasana is flopping into the pose and taking the brunt of the backbend in your neck or lower back. Instead, lift and lengthen your torso before you gently arch into the pose. Keep some length and space along the back of the neck and the low back.
It’s also important to tune in to your breath as you approach this backbend, says Yoga Journal contributor Laura Christensen. Breath is a way to harness and direct our prana (life force).
“It’s difficult to feel confident and trust yourself if you don’t feel powerful inside or if you are cut off from the very energy that enlivens you,” Christensen explains. “Each of us contains an incredible wellspring of power, but it’s not always activated, and we don’t always feel it.” Ustrasana opens the front of the body to invite breath into the lungs.
Watch your back
Other teachers agree that breath is key to a safe expression of this pose—physically, as well as energetically. “Use your breath to cultivate a clear, calm mind, which can help you focus on and detect subtle sensations, such as strain,” says Yoga Journal contributor Kino MacGregor, an Ashtanga yoga teacher. This can keep you from forcing your body into an aesthetic shape for which you may not be ready. This approach can lead to injury.
Leigh Ferrara, a California-based yoga teacher and Yoga Journal contributor, agrees that Camel requires you to move carefully as you work with the limitations of your body and mind. “Backbending is a journey into the nervous system and all of the emotions our nerves and sense organs can trigger—from fear to elation,” says Ferrara. For some people, arching the back can trigger fear of falling. To counter that sensation physically, press forward with your hips to counter the backward motion. But also breathe and focus your mind on trusting your body to hold you up.
As you stretch your spine, it’s pivotal to note the difference between muscular and emotional intensity—and to be sure you’re challenging your body in a way that feels safe and empowering.Section divider
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Camel Pose basics
Pose Type: Backbend
Benefits: Camel Pose can help build a sense of confidence and empowerment, improve posture, and counteract the effects of prolonged sitting, such as slouching and kyphosis (abnormal curvature of the spine). It may help relieve back pain.
Additional Camel Pose perks:
- Strengthens your back muscles, the back of your thighs, and buttocks (glutes).
- Stretches your abdomen, chest, shoulders, front of your hips (hip flexors), and front of your thighs (quadriceps).
- Come to your knees, with your legs hip-width apart. Keep your hips over your knees and squeeze your thighs toward each other.
- Inhale, engage your lower belly, and reach your tailbone toward your knees, creating space between your lower vertebrae.
- On another inhalation, lift your sternum and draw your elbows back, toward each other behind you. Allow your rib cage to expand.
- Keep your chest raised, your core engaged, your spine long, your chin tucked and your shoulders back as you drop your hands toward your heels.
- Press the heels of your hands into the heels of your feet, draping the fingers over the soles. Keep lifting through your sternum. (If you don’t have the spinal flexibility for full Ustrasana, avoid reaching for your feet; instead, use blocks placed on the outside of each ankle or keep your hands on your hips with your thumbs on your sacrum.)
- Now lift your shoulders to allow the trapezius muscles between the shoulder blades to rise up and cushion your cervical spine. Gently allow the head and neck to extend backward. Gaze at the tip of your nose.
- Stay in this pose for 30 to 60 seconds. To exit, bring your chin to your chest and your hands to your hips with your thumbs on your sacrum. Engage your lower belly and use your hands to support your lower back as you come slowly back up to your knees.
- Avoid crunching the lower back: Don’t squeeze the buttocks or pooch the belly out. Make sure the knees are no wider than hip-width apart.
- Ensure that you prep for this pose by warming up your back body and psoas. Practice gentle heart openers first to prevent injury.
- When you’re done with backbending in your sequence, counter with gentle forward bends.
- Avoid or modify this pose if you have shoulder or back pain or spinal injuries.
- If you have a neck injury or are at risk for stroke, don’t drop your head back; instead, lift your chin slightly and use your neck muscles to stabilize your head.
- Advise your students to open their chests and lift their rib cages up, arching into the backbend. Tell them not to worry about whether or not their hands can reach for their feet. A backbend doesn’t require contortions to be effective.
- Tell students to engage their quads in order to keep their thighs at a right angle at their knees on the floor. It’s common to feel their thigh bones move forward so they should focus on activating the muscles to resist this tendency.
- Remind students to point the tailbone toward the floor before leaning back, and then to slightly, gently push the pelvis forward.
Camel Pose with hands on sacrum
If you feel tightness or compression in your low back, place the heels of your hands at the tops of your buttocks with your fingers facing downward and your elbows pointing back. Engage your inner thighs and pelvic floor by pulling your lower belly in and up. Focus on creating space between your vertebrae, opening your chest and shoulders. Lengthen with each inhalation and on each exhalation keep the space that you’ve created while engaging the core more. Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest. You may wish to place a blanket under your knees for extra cushioning.
Camel Pose in a chair
Drape a blanket over the back of a chair. Sit with your feet hip-distance apart and reach your arms back and loosely grasp the back legs of the chair. Lift your sternum as you slowly slide your hands down the back of the chair and lean your upper shoulder blades against the back of the chair to create an arch in your back. Tuck your chin slightly toward your chest.
Camel Pose with blocks
Place blocks at any height (or stacked) next to your ankles as support for your hands.Section divider
Why we love this pose
“After a long day hunched over my laptop, I come into Camel to stretch the front of my body and counter the effects of slouching,” says Tracy Middleton, former Yoga Journal brand director. “But that’s not the only release: The pose is also like an emotional valve, because it opens the heart chakra, which is associated with love and compassion. I also tend to curl my toes under in the pose. Not only does this make reaching my heels more accessible, but it’s also a great way to practice toe squat—a posture I struggle with.”Section divider
Preparatory and counter poses
Counter posesSection divider
Ustrasana extends the back of the body to stretch the front, explains Ray Long, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor. It is essentially a backbend in which the shoulders extend behind as in Purvottanasana (Upward or Reverse Plank Pose) and at the same time the hands and feet connect the upper and lower appendicular skeletons as in Danurasana (Upward Bow Pose).
In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.
The rhomboids, connecting the spine and the shoulder blades, work with the lower and middle trapezius to draw the shoulders back and down. The pectoralis minor in the upper chest lifts the rib cage.
The gluteus maximus in the buttocks and the hamstrings straighten the hips. The adductors in the inner thigh press the hips straighter.
The thighs tend to drift backward in Ustrasana, decreasing the angle between the upper and lower legs. Most people’s instinct is to engage the buttocks to push it forward. This can actually draw the pelvis back more. Instead, contract the quadriceps to bring the thighs perpendicular to the floor and deepen the backbend.
The tensor fascia lata and the gluteus medius along the side of the thigh turn the thigh bones inward. This action counters the turning out of the thighs created by the gluteus maximus.
Put Camel Pose into practice
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- Open Your Heart Chakra with These 9 Poses
- 6 Yoga Poses to Stretch Tight Hip Flexors
About our contributors
Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.
Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.