Sanskrit Term: USTRASANA = CAMEL POSE
Ustra = Camel
Asana = pose
Why You Should Practice Ustrasana
Camel pose is a yoga asana that will help you deepen your back-bending ability established in cobra pose, and also improve your core strength, and strengthen and stretch your hip flexors and quads. It’s great for the nervous system and the entire front of the body, and often associated with the heart chakra.
Camel is a yoga pose that is a little more advanced than some other asana, but it’s worth practicing as there are so many camel pose benefits. It will not only improve your physical strength and flexibility but can also help you progress with other more advanced yoga asanas and deeper backbends, including bow pose and full wheel pose. It’s a fantastic counterpart to all the forward bend found in the yoga world.
- Make sure you are adequately warmed up (as covered in ‘Sequencing Ustrasana’ and ‘Ustrasana Tips, Tricks, and Variations’)
- Kneel on your yoga mat with your knees hip-width apart and your shins extending straight back in line with your knees. You may want to double fold your mat or kneel on a blanket for extra cushioning.
- Tuck your toes under so you are stretching out the soles of your feet.
- Starting from a neutral position, prepare your body by engaging your core and pelvic floor, lengthening your spine, and keeping your shoulders soft (like a kneeling Tadasana). Your aim is to keep these postural elements as you come into the pose.
- Bring your hands to cup the sides of your rib cage, with your fingers cradling the sides and front of your chest, and your thumbs extending round the back of your ribs.
- Take a deep inhale and actively lift your ribs upwards, using your hands to help with this self-adjustment. Exhale and see if you can keep the length and expansion you have created in your chest. (If your shoulders have crept up, remember to soften them).
- Repeat the lift and extension Ustrasana self-adjustment two more times, noting the sensations in your chest and the quality of your breath.
- Reach one hand back to grab your heel, and then the other bringing your upper back into spinal extension as you do so.
- Check-in on your core engagement (this will help protect the low back from overextending) and engage your glutes (butt muscles) a little or a lot if you need more stability.
- Actively push your hips forward, so they stay in line with your knees, noticing the stretch down the front of your thighs.
- Find a comfortable position for your neck; this may mean letting your head back, keeping your chin tucked, or a position somewhere in the middle. Take care of your cervical spine and only do what feels right!
- Stay for five deep breath.
- To come out of the pose, tuck your chin to your chest, strongly engage through your glutes, fire up your core, and contract your inner thighs (adductors) towards each other. Bring your hands to the back of your hips and straighten up your torso.
- To help the spine neutralise and the body reset, come to a simple low kneeling position (Vajrasana or thunderbolt pose) and rest your hand on your laps.
- Repeat the pose two more times, finding more spinal extension every time. As your body opens up, you can untuck the toes so the tops of the feet are flat on the mat to deepen your backbend.
- Once you have finished your final round, move from Vajrasana to a child’s pose.
- Great for thoracic spine mobility. The thoracic spine is the upper back, which is generally less mobile than the lower spine. Improving the flexibility in this area not only makes your back bending practice safer and back muscles stronger, but one of the major benefits of camel pose is that it improves your everyday posture. A great way to look great!
- Deep stretch for the front of the body, from the thighs to the throat.
- Hip flexor stretch and strengthen (which is great if you sit a lot, as this can shorten and weaken the hip flexors).
- Opens up the chest and help with shoulder flexibility.
- Strengthens the muscles of the back.
Ustrasana Tips, Tricks and Variations
Make sure your body is adequately warmed up before diving into camel pose, otherwise you may injure yourself. I recommend a few rounds of Surya Namaskar A and B, and a short sequence like this one to get your body prepped. Low lunges are great for opening up the hip flexors and front of the body, which is essential for getting a deep opening in Ustrasana.
Ustrasana Preparatory Poses
Yoga practitioner, before you go into the full pose, take a few gentler variations to prep your Ustrasana yoga pose.
To prepare your upper back, set your legs and torso up (up to step 4 above) and bring your palms in Anjali mudra to the heart center. Breathe, so you feel your chest rise up to your thumbs. Focus on drawing the shoulder blades down the back and the tips of the shoulder blades together, so they lift the heart center from behind. Keep your core engaged, and now come into a baby backbend.
You can prepare the entire spine by doing the above upper back prep, but then release your hands to either side of your sacrum to support your lower back. Push your palms firmly into your lower back (and keep your core engaged towards your lower back) and continue to lift and open your chest, letting your spinal extension extend towards the mid and lower back.
For these variations, you will need yoga blocks and a wall. These are great options for camel pose for beginners.
Ustrasana with Yoga Blocks
This is great if reaching for your heels feels too full on or if you experience lower back pain. Take two yoga bricks and place them at their maximum height on the outside of your ankles. As you come into camel pose, instead of reaching for your ankles, grab onto the bricks.
Ustrasana at the Wall
This variation is perfect for improving the strength in your thighs and glutes and stopping yourself leaning too far back in your camel pose. Set up your Ustrasana pose facing the wall, with your thighs pressing into the wall. Come into your camel pose (you can combine it with the brick variation above if you like) and keep your thighs and pelvis pushing into the wall. If your thighs keep drifting away from the wall, spend some time working on opening up through your hip flexors and strengthening through your glutes and thighs (by doing bridge pose, for example) to create more lower body space and stability.
This next level variation is super gorgeous, but make sure you have got to grasps with Ustrasana first as it’s easy to lose the strength in the thighs and go a tad wonky in this pose.
To do Ardha Ustrasana, complete all the Ustrasana instructions above up to step 7. Then instead of reaching both hands back to grab onto your heels, reach just your right hand back to grab the right heel. Extend your left arm straight back, reaching in an arc behind you. Make sure to keep a strong engagement through the core (as you have lost a physical point of support) and keep the hips and chest alignment, avoiding leaning deeper into your right side. Come out of the pose by bringing both hands to your hips to ease yourself up (step 13). Repeat on the other side, noticing if one side feels stronger or more even than the other.
As a yoga teacher, I like to place Ustrasana about two-thirds to three-quarters through a yoga practice that focuses on spinal mobility and hip flexor opening. This means that my body is warmed up and prepared, but also leaves enough time to wind down from the pose before Savasana. You can get a real jolt of energy or emotion from such a deep backbend so leaving time to relax the body with gentler poses afterwards is important.
You can also use Camel as a yoga preparatory pose for Urdhva Dhanurasana (full wheel), and it’s an essential prep pose for Kapotasana (part of the Ashtanga secondary series).
So, that’s how to do Ustrasana! Let me know how you go with this challenging but rewarding asana.