How to Practice Camel Pose in Yoga (Ustrasana)
Benefits, How to Instructions, Modifications, and Common Alignment Mistakes for Camel Pose
Camel Pose (Sanskrit name: Ustrasana) is a challenging yoga backbend that stretches the front of the body, particularly the fronts of the hips and thighs. Camel Pose offers some real challenges, so it’s best to practice with a yoga teacher when you are first learning it.
Safe practice of yoga back-bending postures, including Ustrasana pose, requires an even distribution of the curve over the whole back body. The goal is to create an arch through the entire spine, with a healthy degree of extension at both the base of the spine and the neck and thoracic spine. This can be tricky, because limitations imposed by the ribcage and the shape of the thoracic vertebrae, make the thoracic spine much less flexible in back-bending than the lumbar spine.
The articulations of the facet joints in the thoracic and cervical spines do not lend those sections of the spine to back-bending. This means that the tendency in Ustrasana, as in all back-bending yoga postures, will be to “dump” into the low back, i.e. put most of the arch in the lumbar spine. Even though the thoracic spine has limited extension, we can still activate the erector spinae muscles in the thoracic area to help support the lumbar spine. Lengthening the tailbone downward, while also resisting the urge to drop into the low back, can also be helpful. Lifting the sternum, without overexpanding the lower front ribcage, also helps to activate more of the spine in Camel Pose and other yoga back-bending postures.
The cervical spine should follow the line of the thoracic spine so that there’s no compression at the juncture between the base of the skull and the top of the cervical spine. The scapula bones should move toward the spine in a slight downward direction. At the same time, touching your feet—or yoga blocks—with your hands requires external shoulder rotation. Try to use your breath to expand the front of the body, and to support you while you hold the asana.
Like any other yoga backbend, Camel Pose requires flexibility in the quadriceps, hip flexors and spine, and should be approached carefully to avoid injury. Make sure you warm up properly before attempting Camel Pose. Listen to your body and try a modified version of Ustrasana if there’s tightness in your back, legs or shoulders. There are several ways to use yoga blocks, a chair or a wall to make this pose more accessible, and to reduce your risk of injury.
Benefits of Camel Pose
Like all back-bending yoga asanas, Ustrasana will energize the body and promote clarity and focus in the mind. It’s a great pose to practice—with plenty of preparation, of course—in the morning or at midday to help you energize and engage with your day.
Camel Pose also strongly stretches the hip flexor muscles and the entire front of the torso, including the abdominal muscles, chest and shoulders. Your back muscles, all along the spine, will have to work hard to protect the low back.
Ustrasana is great for overall posture improvement as it strengthens the often weak upper back muscles while it stretches and expands the muscles of the chest—all important parts of a natural upright posture. In addition, the deep stretch of the hip flexors facilitates a neutral pelvis, also important for good posture.
How to Practice Camel Pose - Step By Step Instructions
Before attempting a full version of Ustrasana, it’s important to learn the actions required to achieve the healthy arch of the spine needed for proper alignment in this yoga posture. Starting at the wall can be a great way to develop awareness of the actions required for Camel Pose, thereby enabling you to build the foundations of the asana step by step. You can find instructions on performing a Camel Pose at the Wall variation under the Yoga 2.0 tab.
- Come into a kneeling position on a nonskid yoga mat facing a wall. If your knees are sensitive, place a folded blanket under your knees, shins and ankles.
- Move as close to the wall as possible, ideally touching the wall. Align your knees hips-width apart and extend your shins, ankles and feet directly behind your knees.
- Align your hip bones parallel to the wall. Place a yoga block at its highest height on the outside of each ankle. If you are using a blanket under your knees, it’s best that you not place the blocks on top of the folded blanket, as this will make them unstable. Place the blocks directly onto the floor or on the mat.
- Lengthen through your thighs and bring your hips to a neutral position, so that your low back is in a natural concave curve.
- Place your palms, fingers pointing upward, on the wall with the heel of your hand near the line of your lowest ribs. Pin your elbows in by your waist.
- Press your hands into the wall, and feel the lift in the front of your chest. Spread your collarbones and expand through your chest.
- Bring attention to the bottom of your shoulder blades. Imagine the inner borders of the shoulder blades moving in toward your spine. At the same time, lift your chest as if you were backbending over that fulcrum at the bottom of the shoulder blades.
- Check that your hips are still in a neutral position. Relax the flesh of your buttocks down to create space and protect your lower back.
- With your hands on the wall and elbows pinning inward, lift your sternum up. Imagine “crawling” the sternum up the wall.
- Place your hands on your pelvis with your thumbs at the outer edges of your sacrum. Lift your chest upward as you press your thumbs into your sacrum. Add a slight backbending action over the fulcrum created where your thumbs press into your sacrum.
- Ground your shins and lengthen your tailbone downward as you continue to lift your sternum.
- Reach one hand and then the other back, placing them on the yoga blocks next to your feet.
- Keep your hips and thighs pressing into the wall. Externally rotate your upper arms. Lift your chest up as you press your shoulder blades into your ribcage. Keep expanding your chest. Lengthen your neck, while relaxing the muscles at the side of your neck.
- Allow your head to follow the line of your spine, looking at the ceiling. If you can do so without strain and without compressing the back of your neck, allow your head to fall back. (Some people become dizzy when they allow the head to fall back. If this happens to you, carefully leave the yoga pose immediately and take care to avoid this position in the future.)
- Place your hands in Anjali Mudra (Prayer Pose) in front of your heart. Press downward into your knees and shins and come up in one fluid motion. Think of lengthening your spine on the way up to avoid creating compression. Some people may need to place their hands back onto the posterior pelvic rim for more support in moving out of the asana. Pressing downward onto the pelvic rim can help you lengthen the spine as you return to a vertical position.
- Resist the temptation to come up one side at a time as this might twist and compress the sacroiliac (SI) joints.
- Return to a kneeling pose. Rest a moment with your hands still in Prayer Pose to feel the effects of this powerful backbending yoga posture.