Unless you paint ceilings for a living, there's probably not much you do in a typical day that arches your body back. Most of life's everyday activities round you forward: picking up your children, washing dishes, working on a computer. When you consider how much time you spend doing these repetitive tasks, it's no wonder so many people walk around with collapsed chests and round shoulders, not to mention the accompanying aches and pains.
Walking through life in a slump weakens (and tightens) your abdominal muscles, compresses your heart, lungs, and diaphragm, and often leads to lower back injuries. Then there's the effect that poor posture can have on your emotions. The next time you find yourself slouching, notice how you feel—tired? achy? down? Now, think of how you move when you're full of energy and vitality—in all likelihood your chest is lifted and your shoulders are back. That's because the way you hold your body affects the way you feel, and vice versa.
Fortunately, Ustrasana (Camel Pose) can counteract all that forward rounding. Dynamic and energizing, Camel offers welcome relief by stretching the muscles along the entire front body—the chest, belly, hip flexors, and thighs. It also creates space in your abdomen and chest, which aids digestion and breathing. Finally, according to yoga tradition, backbends open the heart chakra, one of the seven energy centers associated with love.
Proceed With Caution
Camel is an exhilarating pose, but it's also challenging, particularly for beginners. When you're first learning it, your back may feel stiff and your breath strained. You might even occasionally feel a twinge in your lower back or neck. You can avoid these tweaks and pains if you try two things: First, learn how to align your legs and the pelvis, so your lower back stays safely uncompressed as you move into the backbend. Second, be willing to modify the pose and practice the modifications for as long as it takes to bend back safely.
Most importantly, don't be deterred. Simple modifications can make Camel an excellent choice for beginners. You don't have to reach your hands to your feet to get the benefits of the pose; you simply have to practice a version that suits you. Be patient with yourself as you play with this challenging pose and find that place where your heart is open and your spine is arching, but there's no stress or strain.
Prep Body and Mind
Before arching into the pose, take the time to center yourself and warm up. Try a reclined supported backbend to relax you and open your upper back. Sit on the floor and place one end of a rolled blanket or a bolster against your sacrum. With your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, lie back over the support and release your shoulders toward the floor. Turn your palms up and allow your knees to fall together. Rest for a few minutes as you focus on slowing and deepening your breath.
When you're ready to come out, roll onto your side and use your hands to return to a sitting position. Next, do a series of Sun Salutations to help build heat in your body. Incorporate either high and low lunges or Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior Pose I and II) to open your quadriceps and inner groins.
Build Your Base
To practice Camel safely, you need a strong foundation in your lower body. Without a stable base, you'll overbend in your spine's bendy places-the neck and lower back-and underbend in the less flexible upper back. A solid base will allow your chest and rib cage to fully lift and expand.
Come to your sticky mat and, if you need to, kneel on a neatly folded blanket to cushion your knees, shins, and feet. Bring your knees and feet hip-width apart with your shins parallel to each other. Be sure your hips are directly over your knees. Press your shins, the tops of your feet, and each toe firmly into the ground to create your solid base. Now roll your inner thighs behind you and hug them toward the midline, as if you were holding a block between them. From there, bring your awareness to your tailbone and invite it to lengthen down toward the ground. As you do this, you'll feel your lower back lengthen and your lower abdomen gently firm. Come back to these instructions each time you practice the pose or a variation.
For the simplest variation, Easy Camel, place your hands on your back at the upper rim of the pelvis, with fingers pointing down and elbows squeezing toward each other. As you exhale, imagine roots growing down through your knees, shins, and feet into the floor. As you inhale, reach the crown of your head up. Stay for several breaths, balancing the opposing actions of rooting and lifting.
When your lower body is grounded and your upper body is relaxed and free, you're ready to move into the backbend. Relax your shoulders down and press your shoulder blades into your back. Inhale as you lift your breastbone toward the sky. Keep lifting your chest until your body naturally begins to arch back. Let the arc feel big and buoyant, like you're rounding back over a large beach ball. With your neck long and your head in line with your spine, gaze up. Don't jut the hips forward—keep them right over your knees and keep your pelvis neutral.
Stay here for several slow, steady breaths, keeping your throat, eyes, and jaw soft. If you're experiencing fear or tension, you need to back off the pose. Otherwise, on each inhalation, move the shoulder blades in toward your heart, which helps lift and broaden the chest. On each exhalation, lengthen your lower back and root down through the shins and the tops of the feet. Keep the back of your waist long as you focus on arching your upper spine and extending your neck.
Come out of the pose on an exhalation, pressing your shins down and using your back muscles to bring yourself up. Sit back on your heels with your hands folded in your lap for a few breaths. Allow your spine to come back to neutral and your energy to settle in your pelvis before practicing the pose again. Repeat Easy Camel three times, using your breath to move you gently in and out of the pose.
Stabilize Your Hips
For the next variation, you'll use a wall to help stabilize the hips and thighs. When you try Camel this way, you'll know immediately if you've been unconsciously jutting your hips or thighs forward. Kneel close to the wall and, if you're not ready to bring your hands all the way to your feet, place blocks on either side of your ankles, or tuck your toes under.
Come into Easy Camel, elongating your body from your knees to the crown of your head. Release your hands and reach for the blocks or your heels with your fingers pointing toward your toes. Rotate the tops of your arms out and take the shoulder blades in and up to encourage your chest and heart to lift as much as possible. Keep your neck long as you either drop your head back or keep it in line with your spine. Stay for several breaths, allowing your breath to undulate through your body and take you deeper into the pose. When you come out, bring your chin forward to your chest and bring your head up last.
Drop the props
If your lower back and neck have felt consistently stable and at ease, try Camel without using any props. Set up a strong foundation in your legs and feet and place your hands on your lower back. Inhale as you come into the backbend. Reach back for your heels, bring your shoulder blades into your back, and let your heart soar. Stay for three to five breaths, then lift through your heart to come out of the pose. If you can't come out without twisting your spine, simply sit back on your heels.
After resting with your buttocks on your heels, bring your spine into neutral by doing Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) or Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Follow these with some twists to counter any imbalances in the spine. Since backbends like Camel are invigorating, avoid practicing them right before bed. But for a better-than-caffeine mood boost, nothing beats an energizing backbend practice.