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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.
Camel Pose basics
Pose type: Backbend
Target areas: Core
Why we love it: “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, Yoga Journal‘s 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.”
Camel Pose can help build confidence and empowerment. It improves your posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting, slouching, and kyphosis (abnormal curvature of the spine). It may also help relieve back pain. Camel Pose stretches your abdomen, chest, shoulders, the front of your hips (hip flexors), and the front of your thighs (quadriceps). It also strengthens your back muscles, the back of your thighs (hamstrings), and buttocks (glutes).
Camel Pose step-by-step instructions
- 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.
- Advise your students to open their chests and lift their rib cages up, curling gently into the backbend—but 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.
Variation: Camel Pose with hands on sacrum
Bring your hands to your low back with your fingers facing downward and your elbows pointing back. Gently arch your back into a backbend. Lift your chin slightly, and press your chest forward and up. Stay for several deep breaths.