I chose Camel Pose for this week's post because it's commonly offered in yoga classes but not often taught well. Any backbend, in my opinion, is a challenge pose. And this pose is particularly challenging not necessarily to do, but to do correctly. I remember sweating bullets working on this in my teacher training with my mentor, Maty Ezraty. I was shocked that a pose that seemed so simple could be so complex. So let's get over the hump (yes, I went there) and look at the fine details to keep the body strong, open, and ready for this wonderful heart opener.
A key action in doing Camel Pose correctly is keeping your hips aligned over your knees. The tendency is to tilt the hips back with the rest of your torso as you reach for your heels. This causes you to collapse in the low back and "puff out the groins," as Maty would say, which puts strain on the sacrum. A great way to train your hips for this pose is to start at the wall. Bring your mat to a wall (feel free to double it up if you have sensitive knees). Stand on your shins keeping them hip-width apart with your toes curled under. Bring your thighs and pelvis flush against the wall. Give the wall a slight pelvis thrust (my friend Briohny Smyth likes to call this the Michael Jackson. Just think of his famous "grab" move. That's right, you want to lift from your pelvic floor). Rotate your upper inner thighs back and relax your buns. Keep this action and place your hands on your hips. Hug your elbows in to help draw the shoulder heads back. Powerfully lift your sternum toward the sky without losing hip contact with the wall. This right here might be plenty. If you want more, release your hands and reach down to grab your heels. Your hips might bubble away from the wall a pinch, but make sure they go right back. To protect your back, keep your glutes soft and the lower belly lifting. Let your head relax back and focus on lifting your sternum to take any strain out of your neck.
Once you master these actions at the wall you can take your Camel to the middle of the room. The goal is to reach the feet without losing the alignment of the hips—that's where the beautiful backbend in the upper chest comes from. Start with your toes tucked under so you don't have to drop back as far. Bring your hands to your hips and encourage the actions: Michael Jackson, upper inner thighs back, glutes soft. Thump the palms of your hands along the sides of your rib cage to encourage your chest to round, puff, and lift. Keep the tailbone down. Once you have the lift in the chest, let your head drop back and your arms fall neutral until you can find your heels. If this causes any pain in your low back, keep practicing the first actions but place your hands back onto your hips instead of reaching for the feet.
The final pose follows all the same actions as Step 2 but with the tops of the feet flat against the floor. This means you'll need to drop back several inches, increasing the depth of the backbend. Don't worry about getting a big grip on your heels. Even fingertips to heels will do the trick. Press all 10 toenails into the ground, especially the pinky toes. Your mantra for this pose will be: Chest up, chest up, chest up. There's no such thing as lifting your heart too much. If your chest collapses, it immediately compresses the low back. So turn your Camel into a love offering! Allow yourself to be open and don't forget to breathe.
A note on exiting the pose:
It's in our nature to want to look in the direction we're moving. But doing so when coming out up from a backbend will put strain on your neck. Instead, think of unfurling your spine from the base up, leaving your head hanging back, soft and relaxed in the neck, until it's time to unfurl your neck, chin, and top of head last.
Kathryn Budig is jet-setting yoga teacher who teaches online at Yogaglo. She is the Contributing Yoga Expert for Women’s Health Magazine, Yogi-Foodie for MindBodyGreen, creator of Gaiam’s Aim True Yoga DVD, co-founder of Poses for Paws and author of Rodale’s The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga . Follow her on Twitter; Facebook;Instagram or on her website.