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Deepen Your Backbending: 3 Ways to Use a Strap in Ustrasana
A yoga strap is an effective tool to use when practicing Ustrasana (Camel Pose). This backbend requires a great deal of proprioception, the internal ability to sense one’s body positioning and movement in space. This can be difficult because we must detect parts of our body that we may be entirely disconnected from, such as the back of the body or our pinky toes.
To generate more awareness in the body, we can utilize a strap to give our body clear feedback. The sensory receptors can perceive and internalize the pressure from the movement of the strap so that we can gain sensory awareness even when the strap is not there. We will explore three ways to use a strap in Ustrasana.
General Shape of Ustrasana
Ustrasana is a kneeling backbend where the feet and knees press into the floor. The thighs run parallel to each other with the legs slightly internally rotated. The pelvis then reaches forward as the spine arcs backward. The upper arms drift back into extension as the hands reach for the heels. Then, the head drops back. As we work on this pose, we should internally support the pose. We don’t want to just flop into it, even if that’s accessible. Using a strap heightens our proprioceptive powers.
(Ustrasana photo above right using blocks)
1. Strap Around the Feet and Thighs
This version stimulates awareness in your feet and the internal rotation of your thighs.
1. Place a looped strap snugly around the middle of your thighs so that your thighs are parallel.
2. Place another looped strap around the tops of your feet so that they end up hips-width apart.
3. Kneel in position with your shins and feet reaching back behind your knees and hips, and your torso and head upright over your knees. Place your hands on your hips.
4. Before approaching the backbend, press the outer edges of your feet into the strap so that it is taut, and press the tops of your feet firmly into the strap.
5. Internally rotate your thighs so that the strap becomes a smidgen looser.
6. Inhale, lift and lengthen up your spine as if you had small balloons inhaling between each vertebral disc. On the exhalation, arc your spine into extension.
7. Steady your breathing here.
8. Inhale, roll your shoulders back to broaden across the front of your chest. Then reach your arms back into extension. If your backbend is rather deep, you might be able to reach your heels or calves with your hands. If you aren’t touching your lower leg, place your hands on yoga blocks, on their tallest dimension, on both sides of your feet instead of forcing your body to reach your lower extremities.
9. With every breath, feel your straps and the actions they are highlighting: the foundational support of the pose from the feet pressing down and internal rotation of the thighs.
10. To come out, press the outer edges of your feet against the strap and lift your torso slowly upright into a neutral position. Sit back onto your heels in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose).
2. Strap Around the Forearms
This version emphasizes shoulder extension, moving the arms behind the body.
1. Begin in the kneeling position for Ustrasana.
2. Make a loop in a yoga strap. Place the loop around your forearms and adjust the loop so that your forearms are shoulder-width apart. Remove the looped strap. Then extend your arms behind your back and place the strap about two finger widths higher than the styloid process of the radius, where you would wear a watch.
3. Try to stretch the strap behind your back by pressing your forearms away from each other. Try to keep your wrists straight so that there is a continuous line from your shoulders to your fingertips.
4. Keep your head, trunk, pelvis, and knees in line as you continue to stretch the strap apart and move your arms further behind your body.
5. Once your arms have extended back to their most significant and safest ability, then start the back bending process, repeating the steps in the instructions under the heading “General Shape of Ustrasana.”
You may find more shoulder extension in this version so that your arms are closer to your lower legs. You can also try tapping into your heightened sensory receptors, bringing your awareness back into your feet and thighs.
3. Strap Around the Lower Ribs
This version ensures that your breath stays full by sending your breath to the full circumference of the strap and helps to direct the backbend into the upper back.
1. Place a strap tight enough to encase the lower ribs. The strap should not feel constricting, but it should be snug enough to stay in place. A helpful trick is to loop the tail of the strap around, wrapping the lower ribs.
2. From a kneeling position, take a few breaths into the strap. Feel how your ribs and skin move outward into the strap on your inhalation and inward and away from the strap as you exhale.
3. Move into Ustrasana with your hands supported on your feet or on blocks.
4. With every inhalation, lift your back ribs, moving your back ribs and strap away from your lower back.
5. With every exhalation, articulate the arc of the backbend above the strap in your thoracic spine.
6. Stay here for 3 to 5 full breaths, and then make your way out of the pose slowly. Repeat 2 or 3 more times, lifting your back ribs away from your lower back, and arching your upper back.
You may find that even though this pose is physically demanding, your breath regulates evenly as your awareness shifts to an area close to the movement of the diaphragm. The lower back may feel more spacious as the lower ribs avoid collapsing into the lower back region. The pose can also feel deeper as the upper back articulates more profoundly than in the other versions.
You might ask, why not loop all three areas at the same time? The purpose of moving through these areas is to develop a greater sense of the actions one at a time before moving onto the next. If we did all three versions at the same time (and there is nothing inherently wrong with testing this out and practicing this way), the awareness for each action might feel divided and dull at the start.
We can focus on one area, such as the actions of the feet and legs, and then move into a new area. The second time around, when we practice the pose with a new strap location, we’ve already imprinted the first action, and those sensory receptors are ready to light up again.
After feeling fully present in the second location of awareness with the strap, we can guide our awareness back to the original area of focus to add another layer to the pose. Practicing these three ways to use a strap in Ustrasana helps to build awareness in key parts of the body that make this pose possible.
Would you like more yoga asana practice tips for Ustrasana (Camel Pose)? Here's another article from writer, Allison Schleck - 6 Keys to Healthy Alignment in Ustrasana.
Study Yoga for Healthy Aging with YogaUOnline and Lillah Schwartz - Yoga for a Healthy Spine: The #1 Key to Enhance Strength, Improve Posture, and Prevent Osteoporosis.
Allison Schleck, E-RYT 500, RPYT is a vinyasa based yoga teacher, fascinated by the intricate relationship between the mind and body. She offers a range of alignment-focused classes touching on anatomy, philosophy and creative propping with a mindful approach. In addition to teaching group classes and managing the Yoga Culture studio in Danbury, CT, she also teaches at Open Door Family Medical Center in Westchester, NY empowering mothers-to-be with prenatal yoga classes and childbirth education. You can find her @allisonschleck on Instagram and www.allisonrayjeraci.com