“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
This quote by H. P. Lovecraft reminds me of the emotions stirred up when I practice backbends―camel pose (ustrasana), in particular. In prone and supine backbends, such as cobra, locust, bridge, and even wheel pose, the heart lifts up from the floor (rather than leaning back unsupported). This movement does not evoke the same fear as in ustrasana, which involves the upper back curling into the unknown from a high kneeling position.
One way to overcome the fear of heading into the unexplored in camel is to use props to achieve backbending in the thoracic spine (middle and upper back).
First of all, it is important to understand the basic shape of ustrasana and the key anatomical actions practiced in this backbend. To begin the pose, start in a high-kneeling position with your hips stacked directly over your knees. Place your hands on your hips, and firm your outer hips to stabilize your legs and pelvis. This will help you keep your pelvis directly over your knees (avoiding the common tendency of swaying the hips back toward the heels, which can compress the lower back), and without pressing your pelvis forward (which can destabilize the lower back).
As you continue bending backward, inhale and lengthen out through the crown of your head, creating more space between your vertebrae. On an exhalation, broaden across your chest, lift your heart up and pour it backward over your shoulder blades, curling back through your thoracic spine. Either keep your chin neutral or let your head move back slightly to follow the curve of your upper back. You can keep your hands on your hips, or reach back to hold your heels or a tall pair of blocks placed near the outside of your shins. Reach for your heels only if you can maintain your alignment, avoiding swaying your hips back or twisting your pelvis to either side to grab hold of them. If that’s not possible right now, choose blocks.
There are a range of prop options you can try for ustrasana in order to explore the different actions of the pose without fear. Because vision is limited by the backward movement of ustrasana, propping helps you to feel where your body is in space, when that may otherwise be difficult. Props can also help you sustain the pose for a longer period of time by supporting parts of your body that may be without support (such as the upper back and the hands). Having both the added support and more time in the pose allows your body to gradually adapt to the pose, thus easing the tension that can arise when bending back into the unknown.
The following variations use a chair and a wall to create a greater sense of connection and grounding, helping to minimize the fear that can come from dropping back into unexplored territory.
The first propped version of camel is practiced against a wall. This version focuses on creating length along the spine, while maintaining many points of contact for support (namely the shins, the hips, and the hands). Practicing this variation can also challenge the idea that the hands must always come to the heels in camel.
To begin, come to a high kneeling position, and get up close and personal with the wall so that the front of your body (thighs, hips, and torso) touches it. Bring your hands to the wall at about shoulder height, and use your hands to help you inch your sternum directly up the wall to create length in your spine. As you feel more length through your spine, tip your shoulders and chest away from the wall as you coax the bottom tips of your shoulder blades in toward the wall. Continue to touch your hips and lower belly lightly to the wall. Press down through your shins, reach your chest up toward the ceiling using the leverage of your palms pressing against the wall, and curl your upper back farther into the backbend. Keep your head in line with the rest of your spine.
Repeat these steps until you find your physical boundary―the place where you can hold the pose without forcing, steering clear of any painful compression in the lower back. Stay in this position for a few breaths. When you are ready to come out, press your hands into the wall and lift your chest straight up toward the wall; then lift your head. Sit back onto your heels.
This variation supports the shins, hips, arms, and upper back. Most notably, feeling the chair rim behind your heart, supporting your back, can lessen any potential fear felt in the backbend.
Set up the chair with the seat facing away from the wall and the back legs of the chair approximately a foot from the wall. Begin in the same high kneeling position between the wall and the chair, facing the wall with your hips, belly, and chest against it. Make sure the chair’s back legs are outside your legs and aligned with the middle of your caves (moving the chair closer or farther away as needed).
Feel the rim of the chair-back close to your shoulder blades to support them as you bend backward from the upper back. Reach your arms back to hold onto the seat or the front legs of the chair. Allow yourself to hold onto the chair where it is comfortable for you. Lift your sternum up the wall and curl your heart back, placing your mid-shoulder blades flush against the top of the chair’s back. If your shoulder blades don’t reach the chair’s back, try elevating it by hanging a folded blanket or two over the rim. Once your shoulder blades touch the chair, continue holding on to the chair while you lengthen your spine and curl more deeply back into the chair’s back, firming your shoulder blades against your upper back, and broadening and lifting through your chest.
In addition to taking some of the uncertainty out of ustrasana, this ultra-supported version also allows you to focus on other actions of the pose, which can be challenging to focus on in the unsupported version (since holding the position for more than a few breaths can be strenuous). These include such actions as a neutral rotation of the legs, an external rotation of the arms, or the effort to create more freedom in the spine and a sensation of full embodiment of the pose.
Ustrasana is an intense and uplifting backbend that comes with many physical and emotional benefits as well as challenges. Thanks to the added physical support these versions of camel offer, any fear of backbending into the unknown can be dispelled.