When looking at the origins or meanings in the names of yoga asana, especially in those named after animals, it is often easy to find clues that are sometimes literal, and other times only suggestive, about the nature of the pose. With ustrasana, camel pose, it’s a little of both. What was it about this pose that inspired yogis of ages past, to name it after the camel? Only with a large stretch of the imagination can we find in the shape of this animal any resemblance to a healthy backbend. The most unique and obvious characteristic of a camel is its hump (or humps). Anatomically, a camel’s body appears to be an assemblage of odd, unrelated parts, and the hump looks almost as if an afterthought. Although camel humps seem to be substantially part of the spine, they are actually sacks of fat, used to store partially digested food for long journeys with an uncertain supply of food and water. It’s doubtful that this was what the original creator of the pose had in mind as an image to aspire to, “lift your spine like a large sack of fat!” Over centuries of civilization in Asian and African deserts, the camel has also had a reputation for being a stubborn, ill-tempered animal with a serious lack of intelligence. These are not exactly traits to yearn for either in one’s yoga practice. So why the name, camel?
Traditionally, the camel’s presence in one of the most inhospitable environments found on our planet has been one of the primary forces sustaining human life there. They have the innate ability to “sense” where to find what is required for nourishment, namely food and water. Though a camel’s eyesight is not profound, they seem to rely on some inner sense to navigate their way through the desert. Without “roadmaps” and in surroundings of drifting sands constantly changing, they have the ability to “read the signs”, finding the oases of green where water is present and food at hand. Used primarily as pack animals, camels instinctively know if a load is too heavy for their own endurance over a long journey, or if the weight is improperly balanced, and will refuse to move until corrected.
Looking at the pose, Ustrasana, we can begin to see some parallels. For many beginners, the “environment” in backbends is equally inhospitable. In general, beginning to bend backwards is difficult and sometimes frightening, yet to maintain balance in a healthy spine, backbends are a primary, sustaining force. Generally we function in a forward facing, right-side up world, relying heavily on our eyes for our sense of identity and direction. We orientate our position in this world, both personally and spatially, through our eyes. Having a sense of position that is a function of seeing, in Ustrasana, we lose our habitual way of relating to our environment and must learn to cultivate another “sense” for seeing (and positioning). The shape of the pose places the head and one’s vision behind the body, where the physical eyes lose their frame of reference. It is an alien experience and our view of the world is literally turned upside down. Our normal context for relating to our selves (and the image that “sustains” us) becomes lost.
Naturally for the beginner, with the fear that comes from this loss of context, there is a common reaction where the breathing becomes short or the breath is held. In addition, there is often a habitual contraction in the muscles of the buttock and abdomen. The neck, if weak, becomes vulnerable as the shoulders grip for protection. When these reactions are present in the body, the movement in this pose does not “respond” well to “overloading” or excessive muscular force. The pose feels out of balance and the more we struggle, the less the pose responds. This only deepens the frustration, and like the camel, we are likely to “shut down” or check out.
To execute Ustrasana safely, it is important to begin with the understanding of how to approach the pose. Basically, there are two techniques for entering the pose – dropping in from an upright kneeling position or lifting up from a seated kneeling position. Once these approaches are mastered in Ustrasana, a foundation has been laid for approaching the more advanced backbend, Urdhva Danurasana, either by lifting up from the floor, or dropping back from a standing position. Dropping in from the kneeling position in Ustrasana is recommended for the first attempt, if the lower back or knees are sensitive. This approach also helps to avoid the natural tendencies of the beginner to overdo muscular effort, as gravity works with the movement of entering the pose.
Begin by kneeling on your mat with your torso upright. Place your legs hip width apart, with the tops of the feet flat on the floor and arms at your side. If the lower back is weak, placing the hands on the buttock will give more support to the lumbar spine, as you enter the pose. Let the shoulders hang from the sides of the neck, the collarbones dropping away from the ears. Initially, keep the head upright, with the chin drawn slightly in towards the center of the throat. As you inhale, feel the fullness of your breath feeding the back, rather than the chest, and with each exhale let the weight of your chest and abdominal organs sink, as you keep the spine engaged upward from the back of the skull. Visualize the energy of the pose looping down along the front of the body (from the chest down through the hips to the shinbones on the floor), and up along the back of the body (through the spine to the crown of the head). Slowly take the head back, throat soft, shoulders down and slightly forward, with the shoulder blades broad. Avoid hardening the buttock or the abdomen, keep the top of the hips pressing firmly down into the knees, and as you bend the spine backwards, let the arms hang from the shoulders, fingers reaching for the heels. If the stress is excessive in the lower back, inhale back to an upright position and after resting for a moment, try it again. Once the hands reach the feet, maintain the downward pressure from the top of the hip bones pressing into the knees, continue releasing the chest and abdomen down and feel the lift from the floor moving into your thoracic spine. The head should hang freely, with the neck supported by the width of the trapezeus muscle along the top of the shoulders. The breath should remain slow and rhythmic, and with each exhalation, the release of the frontal body will propel the lift in the back body. After three or four cycles of breath, inhale back up to an upright position.
Lifting up from the seated position can be more accessible when the neck is weak, but it tends to stress the legs and the knees more intensely than the first approach, due in part to working against gravity. From the upright kneeling position, sit between your heels (use a block between your feet if necessary), with the palms of your hands placed on the heels, fingers pointing towards your toes. Slowly lean back, straightening your arms, taking your weight onto the hands, and lifting the hips upward. Press the shoulders forward, broadening the shoulder blades, and let the neck rest in the trapezeus muscle – head back, throat soft. As the hips lift and more weight is taken onto the lower legs, press the top of the hip bones (illiums) down into the knees, and lift the spine. Be careful to keep the abdomen and buttock soft, and the energy of the chest dropping. Once in the pose, like the first approach, the release of the frontal body will propel the lift in the back body. After three or four cycles of breath, slowly lower your hips on an inhale, and return to the seated position.
With the practice of Ustrasana, we begin to develop balance and strength in the spine, promoting flexibility in the shoulders and suppleness in the abdomen. By relying less on outer sight for our sense of identity and position in the world, we can cultivate an inner vision that expands into our more authentic, intuitive self.