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Iyengar Yoga Sequences

7 Heart-Freeing Camel Pose Variations from Carrie Owerko

Try these liberating variations of Ustrasana (Camel Pose) from senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Carrie Owerko.

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Yoga Journal’s new online Master Class program brings the wisdom of world- renowned teachers to your fingertips, o ering access to exclusive workshops with a di erent master teacher every six weeks. This month, Carrie Owerko presents a playful Iyengar Yoga practice designed to bring more joy into your life. If you’re ready to get a fresh perspective and maybe even meet a lifelong yoga mentor, sign up for YJ’s year-long membership at yogajournal.com/ masterclass.

Iyengar yoga is a dynamic process of inquiry, informed and inspired by a man who dedicated his entire life to exploration, says Owerko. In this short sequence, Owerko props up your Ustrasana with variations that warm up your shoulders, quads, and back and encourage expansion and feelings of safety during moments of vulnerability. Along the way, she touches on, and plays with, some themes and principles that make Iyengar Yoga so experimental, adaptable, and sustainable.

Before exploring Ustrasana, enliven your legs (and the rest of your body) with a few standing poses like Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch Pose), and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I). Then mobilize your mid- or thoracic spine with Parighasana (Gate Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose) over a block or two.

See also Prop Up Your Backbend: 5 Steps to Kapotasana

Opening the thoracic region before practicing Ustrasana is essential so that the neck does not overextend due to a stiff upper back. Finally, if you have tight shoulders, try warm-up poses that emphasize shoulder extension, such as interlacing your fingers (or holding onto a strap) behind your back in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend).

For extra cushioning in the following Ustrasana variations, place a blanket on your mat under your knees and use an additional mat over your chair. Once you’ve settled into the poses and props, try to stay in each variation for several breaths. Finally, don’t forget to play!

1. Ustrasana with feet on a bolster

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

This variation will help you reach your feet without crunching your lower back. Kneel with knees and feet hip-width apart and your toes tucked under, pressing into a bolster. Move the backs of your thighs forward, so they are perpendicular to the floor. Inhale; lift your side ribs and chest. Revolve your upper arms, palms facing forward, as you press your shoulder blades into your back ribs. Exhale; reach for the bottoms of your feet. If it’s comfortable, exhale to take your head back. Inhale; keep pressing through your toes, and lift to come up.

See also Iyengar Yoga 101: King Pigeon Pose 3 Ways

2. Ustrasana with feet on a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

This version of the pose is another option if you find it difficult to reach your feet. Kneel with your toes tucked on the underside of the seat of a folding chair. Press the balls of your feet into the chair as you move the backs of your thighs forward and lift upward through your back ribs and the sides of your chest. Take your hands to the chair’s legs and gradually walk your hands as far back as possible while maintaining the lift of your chest. Stay here for a few breaths. Then, with an inhalation, come up.

See also Interview with BKS Iyengar

3. Ustrasana with a block at your feet

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Stabilize your hips and lower spine with this variation. Place a block on its middle setting between your feet, squeezing it between your ankles to activate your legs and hips, and help bring additional stability to the pose. Curl your toes under and press into the balls of your feet, engaging the backs of your legs and buttocks while lifting your sides and the backs of your lower ribs. Inhale and move your shoulder blades deep into your upper back as you reach for your heels. Exhale. Inhale to lift your upper back and chest even further. Come out of the pose on an inhale.

See also Iyengar 101: What You Didn’t Know + Myths Debunked

4. Ustrasana with a shoulder strap

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

This time, use a long belt (or two belts buckled together) to open your chest and shoulders. Place the belt across the middle of your shoulder blades and pull the straps under your armpits. 

See also Iyengar 101: The Ultimate Crunch to Enhance Your Practice

4. Ustrasana with a shoulder strap

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Then, take the ends of the belt over the tops of your shoulders and cross the straps over your uppermost back. Hold the ends of the belt in each hand and keep your elbows bent at first, so the belt feels tight. With a bolster on your calves, pull down on the ends of the belt as you move into Ustrasana. Inhale to come back up, then experiment without the bolster.

See also Prop Up Your Practice

5. Ustrasana against the wall

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

To bring even more awareness to maintaining a lift in your upper back, kneel facing a wall. Place the top of a folding chair at the bottom of your shoulder blades, with the chair angled so that it presses into your upper back, helping to move your back ribs and shoulder blades deep into your body, which will feel like it’s pinned between the chair and the wall. From this place of stability, lift your chest and look up, if it’s comfortable. Revolve your shoulders back and down as you walk your hands down the side of the chair. Inhale to come up.

See also Iyengar 101: Yoga Teacher Carrie Owerko’s Personal Story

6. Ustrasana at the wall with a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Next, fold the chair and press its legs into the base of the wall. From kneeling, place the uppermost part of the chair at the following areas as you repeat Ustrasana:

A The bottoms of your shoulder blades. 

Note: As the chair presses into these areas, it will help support and awaken the back of your body. It also can help loosen any restrictions in your shoulders by giving you something to hold onto as you revolve your upper arms, spread your ribs, open your chest, and walk your hands down the chair.

Remember: You don’t need to hold this pose for more than a few breaths. Entering and exiting the pose is as important as being in it. Keep your eyes and jaw soft and your body and breath synchronized. By learning Ustrasana this way, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to experience an exquisite arc—one evocative of the unfolded, uplifted, openhearted, and joyful vulnerability that is a beautiful part of being human.

See also Iyengar 101: A Stability-Building Countdown to Handstand

6. Ustrasana at the wall with a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

B The ribs beneath your shoulder blades. 

See also Q+A: How Can I Get More Out of My Yoga Practice by Using Props?

6. Ustrasana at the wall with a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

C Your tailbone or lower sacral region. 

See also Start Your Home Practice Here: The Basics of Sequencing

6. Ustrasana at the wall with a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

D The backs of your thighs. 

See also 7 Steps to a Legit Home Practice

6. Ustrasana at the wall with a chair

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

E The backs of your knees.

See also Dying for More Advanced Yoga Poses?

7. Ustrasana

Carrie Owerko Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

Kneel with your thighs and feet together. Inhale, and press down through your shinbones and the tops of your feet. Lift upward through the sides of your ribs, the backs of your ribs, and your breastbone. Exhale and place the palms of your hands on your feet, fingers pointing back. Inhale, and lift your chest even further to take your head back. Contract your buttocks to help keep your thighs perpendicular to the floor. Press down through your ankles, and lift through your chest to come up. Counter with Uttanasana with feet apart to help lengthen and relax your back.

See also Vinyasa 101: 3 Lessons I Learned from B.K.S. Iyengar

See also Iyengar 101: Yoga Teacher Carrie Owerko’s Personal Story