Yoga Backbends: 6 Keys to Healthy Alignment in Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Yoga backbends are like a magic trick. If you keep your eyes on the spine, you miss out on what the rest of the body is doing. Seeing a big, beautiful spinal curve in Ustrasana (Camel Pose) is mesmerizing. However, in this gracefully executed posture one might overlook the degree of flexibility in the front body, the actions of the feet and legs and the stability of the pelvis to support the mobility of the spine. Let’s take a look behind the magician’s screen at these crucial alignment keys to practicing Ustrasana.
1. Start from the Ground
The fundamentals of every yoga pose begin with the base. The base changes depending on a pose’s orientation. In a standing balance, the feet are the base, while in an arm balance, the hands are the base. Ustrasana is unique due to the fact that the tops of the feet and shins form its base. By kneeling and firmly pressing your lower leg and foot down into the floor, you contract both the pelvic floor and transverse abdominus muscles. This action stabilizes and supports the movement of the lumbar spine so that the low back doesn’t move into extreme extension. This is important because we shift our attention from a stable lumbar spine to encouraging extension in the upper back or thoracic spine, leaving the lower back spacious. Get a feel for the shinbone press by practicing Table Top Pose (hands and knees) and then move into Cow Pose with the same shin press.
2. Find Neutral Legs
Creating the action of internal rotation in the thighbones maintains the space in the lower back so that the pelvis and sacrum can safely tilt. The pelvis spills backward over the tops of the thigh bones. To prevent the legs from splaying apart you can use a strap around your outer hips. Eventually, you would progress by using the lateral buttock muscles to maintain the action of the legs rolling inward to parallel with each other. Practice this action in yoga poses like Parsvottanasana (Side Stretch Pose) (pictured above) and Virasana (Hero’s Pose).
3. Place Your Shoulder Blades Against Your Ribcage
When you round your shoulders forward like you do when you’re typing on a computer or sitting at a desk, your upper back becomes overstretched, your chest muscles tighten and your shoulder blades wing away from the ribcage. In order to find the glorious arch in your upper back, your shoulder blades must press upward into your ribcage to counteract the slumping seated spine.
Try internally and externally rotating your arms in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Notice that when you rotate the arms inward your shoulders come forward. When you externally rotate your arms, observe how your shoulder rotates outward, the muscles on your upper back engage and fix your shoulder blades onto your back while your chest expands horizontally. Pressing your shoulder blades into your back encourages your spine to lift upward in Ustrasana. Keep your shoulders blades present on your upper back while standing in Tadasana. Then, lean back and keep your hips positioned over your anklebones so that you’re forming a small standing backbend with your arms down by your sides.
4. Lengthen Your Spine
Think of your spine as a tightly strung pearl necklace. When you try to bend the necklace, the sides of the pearls bump into each other making the curving action difficult and small. The vertebrae of the spinal column are quite similar. The discs bump into each other and the capacity to bend diminishes without lengthening the spine. A larger space between each vertebra means that the vertebrae have more room to bend before the discs come in contact with each other. You can practice lengthening the neutral spine in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward- Facing Dog) by bending your knees, pressing your hands into the floor and lifting the pelvis so that the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) are the apex of your pose. Visualize the string of pearls and observe how your spine feels with the tightly wound pearl necklace and the spacious one. Then, feel in your body which visualization is more conducive to backbending.
5. Extend Your Arms
A common challenge in Ustrasana is the arms reaching back for the feet. As I discussed previously, if the front of the chest is tight and the shoulders are slumping forward, the upper back can’t extend. This makes it difficult and uncomfortable to reach your arms back to your feet. You feel as if your heels are a million miles away. To compensate, your hips move back toward your calves (which may throw off the engagement of the lateral buttock). By reaching your arms back, keeping them shoulder width apart, you may find that your hands are not that far from your blocks or from your feet.
Stand in Tadasana, holding a strap behind your back with your arms shoulder-width apart. Without moving your body out of Tadasana alignment, slowly move your arm bones straight back behind you. Be careful not to lift your arms higher and lose the connection of the shoulder blades against the back.
6. You can then do the same exercise in Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose).
1. Lie down on your back with your knees bent and your feet hip-distance apart.
2. Externally rotate your upper arms while you press your palms down in to the floor.
3. Lift your chest up in the direction of your chin and observe how your upper body moves away from your arm bones while the arm bones stay in place.
The process of moving into Setu Bandhasana in this way is similar to how we can move into Ustrasana, because both poses are of the same shape. They just differ in their orientation to gravity.
Packaging the Elements of Ustrasana
1. Kneel on your mat, aligning your pelvis over your knees.
2. Set blocks up at their tallest height anywhere between your shins and your ankles, on the outsides of your legs. The closer to your ankles, the more extension of the arms you will need.
3. Press your shinbones and the tops of your feet down.
4. Keep your thighs neutral and the outer hips engaged.
5. As you press down, lengthen your spine up towards the ceiling (not back).
6. With your arms externally rotated, press your shoulder blades against the upper back.
7. Tilt the top of your pelvis back as you extend your arms back for your blocks.
8. Stay here for a breath or two and revisit each element.
9. If your hips are still aligned over your knees, try lowering the height of the blocks.
10. If you can maintain your alignment, try lowering your block again, and if you can still maintain alignment, you can try reaching for your heels.
Practicing the crucial alignment keys of Ustrasana separately helps you focus in on parts of the pose that may be hard to practice when you’re in the pose. Practicing these keys can also help you refine how you practice this backbend. Backbends can look as if a yoga practitioner simply has a flexible spine, but you can see here that every part of your body plays a pivotal role. Continue to practice and explore the alignment of Ustrasana for a stronger, more satisfying and liberating backbend.
More Restorative yoga practice tips with YogaUOnline and Allison Schleck's Yoga for a Heavy Heart: 4 Restorative Poses to Soothe a Heavy Heart.
Want more alignment tips for backbends? Study with YogaUOnline and Natasha Rizopoulos - Foundations of Teaching & Practicing Yoga: Forward Bends and Backbends with Natasha Rizopoulos.