The yoga postures are like flowers. Each is a blossoming of the body’s potential, a transformation of the raw elements and energies into a flower offered to the reality of the moment. The transforming effects of the asanas are apparent in many postures. The offering aspect is particularly pronounced in forward bends, in which a sense of surrender predominates, but the feeling of blossoming is the forte of backbends.
The camel pose, ustrasana, is a good example. Here, rooted through the thighs and knees, the spine lifts, and the chest and throat open, creating a bloom that is nourished and sustained by the sap rising from earthy stores of the lower body. Such a flowering must be coaxed, not forced. In the camel pose, as in many backbends, that means anchoring through the pelvis and legs with the proper alignment, and then inviting the upper back, chest, and shoulders to open and welcome the flood of life-giving energy flowing up the central core of the body.
With careful preparation, the camel pose is valuable for beginners as well as more advanced students. It is more accessible than many backbends, such as the pigeon and wheel poses, but more exhilarating than the prone backbends, such as the cobra, in which you are working against gravity. In the camel, the feeling of falling backward is thrilling once you are stable and grounded enough in the lower body to feel secure and comfortable. As the focal point of the pose is in the chest, ustrasana makes a wonderful preparation for pranayama, and good therapy for anyone who tends to rounded shoulders or a sunken chest. It also strengthens the thighs and lower back, and increases awareness and strength in the pelvis.
We will begin with a few preparations from vajrasana, the thunderbolt pose, to establish correct alignment in the pelvis and legs. Sit on your heels with the feet pointed straight back. Press the inner thighs together and squeeze the hips slightly; you’ll feel the pelvis lift off the heels just a little, rising up from the foundation of the legs. Let the spine lift and the front of the body open and rise as the shoulders drop, and the shoulder blades move down the back. The back of the neck lengthens. Soften the belly and let the breath be full, easy, and round. Then inhale and lift the arms overhead, maintaining firmness in the lower spine and legs. Stretch the arms, interlacing the fingers and turning the palms up. After a few breaths in this position, press the arms, still overhead, back away from the torso (Fig. 1).
Keep the pelvis stable and don’t arch the lower back. Instead, let the heart lift and the shoulders stretch. As you breathe, feel the ribs separating. Lift the face to the ceiling. Hold for a few breaths and feel the upper back and throat open.
Return the head to vertical with the arms still alongside the ears. Reach diagonally to the right, lengthening along the left side of the torso. Move in one piece and resist the urge to round the upper back, roll the left shoulder forward, or arch the lower back. Hold and breathe, then return to center and repeat on the other side.
Continuing with preparations, sit in vajrasana with the knees slightly apart so the femurs track directly out of the hip sockets. Spread the tops of the feet into the floor. Place the hands on the floor behind the feet, fingers pointed toward the toes. Press the palms evenly into the floor and draw the shoulder blades together and down the back. Roll the femurs toward each other, and press the thighs and sacrum forward. Now lift the pelvis off the heels into line with the chest and thighs (Fig. 2). Keep pressing the sacrum forward, roll the thighs in and up, draw the shoulder blades together and down, and relax the breath. Release by sitting back down on the heels, and then fold forward into the child’s pose to rest the back.
For ustrasana, position your legs in vajrasana as above. Then lift up off the heels, pressing the thighs forward. Place your hands on the back of the pelvis to encourage the sacrum to move deeper into the body and to stabilize the lumbar spine. Stretch up off the legs to lengthen and lift the torso in line with the pelvis and thighs. Continue pressing the pelvis and upper thighs forward as you roll the femurs inward, lift the chest up and back, and draw the shoulder blades toward each other and down. Lengthen the back of the neck and look up at the ceiling. If you’re comfortable and want to deepen the pose, lift the back ribs, release the hands, and stretch the arms down to rest the hands on the heels. The hands may rest on the soles of the feet or the heels. If you can’t reach the heels, be content with your hands on your back, or come out and try the pose with the toes turned under.
Keep the thighs vertical and press down through the knees, inner thighs active, sacrum lifting into the pelvis. Let the breath fill the body, softening the belly, opening the lungs and chest, releasing the shoulders, lengthening the front of the neck. When the stretch feels symmetrical through the length of the spine and you feel strong and fully present in the pose, stretch the throat up and the top of the head toward the floor (Fig. 3). Hold a few breaths longer, concentrating first on the breath, and then, as the breath becomes full and easy, be aware of the energy circulating throughout the whole body. When the bloom of the pose begins to fade, you’re ready to come out.
Take care releasing this posture, and come out as you came in: ground more strongly through the legs, bring one hand to the back of the pelvis and press the pelvis forward, and release the other hand and bring it to the pelvis as you straighten back to vertical. Lastly, lift the head. Sit down on the heels and fold into the child’s pose to rest.
You can accelerate the chest-opening aspects of ustrasana by stretching one arm overhead. Come into this version by bringing only one hand back to the heel as previously described. Stretch the opposite arm straight up as you lift the chest, look up, and press the pelvis forward (Fig. 4). Reaching one arm up as the other stretches down behind you has the effect of expanding the front of the body, drawing the spine toward the front, and extending the arch of the lower back into the upper back, thus smoothing the curve of the spine and drawing energy from the pelvis and legs into the chest and throat.
Let this opening continue by reaching the top of the head and the arm back, as if you were going to bring the hand and the top of the head to the floor behind you, keeping the arm alongside the ear and the thighs vertical (Fig. 5 ). Breathe so the whole body expands and lengthens on the inhalation, reaching out a bit more through the shoulder, arm, and fingers. Exhale and settle into the space you have created.
When you’re ready to come out, sweep the lifted arm up and out in front of you; then with the strength of the legs and abdomen, lift the torso back to center, following the lifted arm. Sit down on the heels, and, as before, rest for a few breaths in the child’s pose. Then repeat this version of ustrasana on the other side with the same attentiveness you gave the first.
In a practice sequence, ustrasana fits nicely after warm-ups and the standing poses, as you come down to the floor for the sitting, supine, and prone postures. The standing poses have activated the legs, pelvis, and spine. Vajrasana, which we have seen is a convenient starting place for the camel pose, follows naturally from the standing poses as it relieves tired legs and directs energy upward. Arching back from the half-standing, half-sitting position, ustrasana turns our attention from our usual straight-ahead, into-the-world perspective of standing and sitting to the inner realm of feeling and intuition, where the intellectual mind loosens its grip and the innate wisdom of the body rises to blossom into the world.