Pose Prep: Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Ustrasana or Camel Pose is a powerful, juicy heart opening backbend.
When done correctly, Ustrasana helps to open the entire front body, hip flexors and thighs while strengthening the back body. Energetically it opens up Anahata Chakra, the heart chakra, which is associated with love of self and others. Physiologically, backbends stimulate the central nervous system, giving us energy, or what I refer to as 'that sparkly feeling'.
To prepare for Camel Pose warm the body with 3-5 rounds of Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation A. Camel Pose is great to start with at a wall, as it will help to set up the alignment of the hips. A key action of camel is keeping your hips aligned over your knees (they have a tendency to tilt back with the rest of the torso as you reach for the heels which is not so nice for the sacrum). Stand on your shins in front of the wall, keeping them hip width apart (double up your mat if your knees need extra love). Bring your thighs & pelvis flush against the wall, rotate upper inner thighs back, relax your butt & place your hands on your hips. Hug your elbows in to draw your shoulder heads back & lift your heart & sternum to the sky without letting the hips pull away from the wall. Stay here for 5 breaths if this is enough & enjoy the burst of energy from this powerful pose.
To move deeper into the backbend, tuck your toes & reach for your heels keeping your hips against the wall. Lift your lower belly & soften your glutes. Relax your head & lift your sternum to take strain off neck. Take 5 breaths here and when you are ready to release, avoid pushing off one heel to lift yourself up. Instead, keep the lower belly engaged and lead with your heart, letting your head come up last, allowing you to rise up in one smooth motion which is much nicer for the lower back.
When your ready to move away from the wall you want to create the backbend by reaching for the heels without losing the alignment of your hips. Begin with toes tucked & think: pelvis forward, upper inner thighs back, tail bone down, heart up. You can take your hands to your ribcage to lift yourself up & encourage your heart to lift. Reach for your heels keeping your heart lifted & hips over knees. If your lower back protests, stay with hands on your hips drawing shoulder heads back.
The final expression of the pose is all the above actions with the feet flat on the floor. Press all ten toenails into the ground & think heart up to enjoy this big beautiful backbend - don't forget to breathe yogis!
To exit this pose lift your lower belly & let your heart lead the way with the head coming up last, drop the butt back onto the heels and rest the hands on the thighs, close the eyes and reach the crown of the head toward the sky, lengthening the spine. After 5-8 breaths here, you may like to come onto your back and find happy baby pose, a twist either side and rest in Shavasana.
Note: There can be a tendency for the head to release too far back in Ustrasana leading to strain on the neck. Sometimes the head can feel bowling ball heavy in a pose like this! To help balance this out, open up the front of the throat without letting the head drop all the way back by taking the tongue to the roof of your mouth, the upper palate. Press the tongue into the roof of the mouth and imagine that energy reaching up through the crown of the head, so the head lengthens outwards and back, rather than dropping back and down via the full extension of the neck.