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Asana of the Month: 15
Ustransana ~ Camel Pose

BRIDGELike a stop at a desert oasis, camel is a wonderfully refreshing pose. This exhilarating backbend, which resembles the hump of a camel, is a powerful opener for the front of the body, especially the chest, shoulders and throat. It therefore improves breathing, increases circulation and helps to lengthen the spine. Also, because ustrasana requires the muscles of the legs, hips and back to work hard, it strengthens these areas while stretching the thighs and groins and releasing tension in the upper back. The result is a strong flow of energy that wells up through the legs and shoots out of your heart center like a fountain dancing toward the sky. Plus, with care, almost everyone can do camel to some degree. So if you're feeling a little bent over or down from dealing with the dust and heat of life, ride this invigorating pose to a renewed sense of wonder and well-being.

Images by Nancy Van Kanegan
senior teacher at the Chicago Yoga Center
No use without written permission

Practice Tips:

Start by kneeling with the knees hip's width apart, shins parallel, and tops of the feet on the floor. For greater comfort, you may want to do this on a doubled yoga mat, blanket or thick rug. Energize the legs by drawing the muscles toward the bones and pulling that energy up into the pelvis. Rotate the inner thighs and groins back and bring the lower abs in as you pull the navel up. Keeping the groins hollowed back, firm the buttocks, stretch the tailbone down and move the sacrum in. Draw the thighs toward each other (without actually bringing them together) and press the knees, shins and tops of the feet firmly down. These actions will provide the base or "legs" needed to support your camel hump.

Keeping the legs and hips active, lift the shoulders up and back, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and bring the hands to the back of your hips, fingers pointing down. Keep the shoulders opening back and the elbows moving toward each other. With an inhale, stretch up out of the pelvis, and as you exhale, start to arch up and back, leading with your sternum or heart center. Keep the spine long by pushing down into the knees while lifting up from the crown of your head. Work in the pose for four or five breaths, pushing the thighs forward to keep them as vertical as you can. Then lift up with an inhale by pressing strongly down into your knees and feet. With an exhale, bend the knees and sit back on your heels, or fold forward slowly into child's pose, resting your forehead on stacked hands.

If this felt good, you're ready to go deeper. If it was difficult or hard on your lower back, try lifting up more out of the pelvis and arching back less when you try it again. If you want to intensify, one way is to work kneeling up against a wall. Keep pressing the thighs and pubic bone into the wall and drawing the thighs toward each other as you lift up and arch back. This will really make the legs work hard.

Another is to start as before (or up against a wall) and go into the back arch. When you've gone as far as you can with the hands on your hips, begin to gradually slide them down the back of your legs so you can increase the backbend. Just be sure to keep your tailbone down, your sacrum pressing forward, your groins moving back, and your legs squeezing toward each other. This will help you keep the spine long so you don't collapse and strain the lower back.

Again, after five breaths or so, lift up and out of the pose and rest. If you feel now like you want to go all the way into the pose, start like before, but this time slide your hands all the way down to put your fingertips or palms on your heels. If they easily reach that far, push down into the hands to help lift your heart toward the heavens. If the hands are almost there but not quite, try curling your toes under to lift the heels higher and bring them more in reach. Alternatively, try turning a little to one side, so you can look at the foot there and reach down to take hold of it. Then turn back to center and reach down with the other hand, which you will now probably be able to get all the way to the foot.

Once you're in camel pose, keep the kidneys moving back and up as you press the spine into your back and pull it out of the pelvis to prevent overarching the lower back. Lift your head so it's facing straight up and stretch out from the knob at the base of the skull to pull the hyoid bone at the front of the throat back and up. Then, sliding the sides of the throat back, open the throat and stretch the head back as much as comfortable. Pressing into your knees and hands, and keeping the thighs moving forward, let the energy spring up higher and higher through your heart. After five breaths or so, come up as before, rest in child's pose, and enjoy the revitalizing flow of energy within you.

(For more on ustrasana, see the excellent Asana Workshop article by Sandra Anderson in the April/May 1998 issue of Yoga International, and the section on it in Erich Schiffmann's wonderful book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness.)

Text by Tim Noworyta
senior teacher at the
Chicago Yoga Center

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