6.16.2010

Asana of the Week: Ustrasana


This week's asana is Ustrasana, otherwise known as Camel Pose. Ustrasana is a glorious backbend that, when done correctly, targets the thoracic and cervical spine, which makes it an excellent pose for counteracting all the shoulder hunching and forward slumping we tend to do all day as we toil in our lives away from our mats.

The key to a good Ustrasana, in my experience, is keeping the legs active all the way down to the toes. Pressing the tops of the feet firmly into the mat provides solid grounding from which to bring the hips forward over the knees and distribute the bend evenly along the length of the spine, rather than hinging from the lower back.  Iyengar recommends achieving this action by "pushing the spine into the thighs, which should be kept perpendicular to the floor (Light on Yoga)."  Honestly, I'm not sure exactly how to push my spine into my thighs, but it sounds like it hurts.  I think he's telling us to tuck the tailbone and maintain length in the lumbar and sacral spine.  Leslie Kaminoff suggests in Yoga Anatomy that "a mild internal rotation of the legs is recommended to keep the sacroiliac joint stable," which also aids in bringing the hips forward and opens the front of the hips for a good stretch to the hip flexors.

I like to come into this pose gradually, taking a few breaths with the hands on the sacrum, breathing deeply into the expanded chest and slowly curling the spine back one vertebrae at a time before dropping the hands to the heels.   I generally warm up the back body and shoulders with a series of Shalabasana variations and a Dhanurasana or two, as per the Ashtanga 2nd series, but I find that Ustrasana is also especially nice as a counter pose to arm balancing poses, such as Bakasana, or any targeted abdominal work.

As with most of the big heart and throat openers, Ustrasana is not without its challenges.  Luckily, modifications abound for this pose.  One may modify by keeping the hands on the sacrum, pressing the hips forward with the hands and maybe stretching the head back, or by curling the toes under to bring the heels closer to the hands and assist in the action of bringing the hips forward over the knees.  One modification I particularly enjoy is bringing the thumbs into the armpits, which, though kind of gross if you're really sweaty, is a very effective position for opening the chest and bringing the shoulders down and back in preparation for the full pose.

When first learning Ustrasana, the hardest part for me was breathing.  My chest, shoulders, and throat were all very tense, and getting any air through that squished trachea was difficult.  As Kaminoff puts it:
"The thoracic structures are maintained in an 'inhaled' position.... This results in a decreased ability to breath 'normally.'  The trick is to find support from the deeper musculature so the more superficial efforts can quiet down.  Then it's possible to notice an interesting relationship between the deepest layer of superficial neck muscles (scalenes) and the breath movement in the apex of the lungs, which are suspended from the inner scalene muscles (Yoga Anatomy)." 
 Hmm... interesting relationships, eh?  Fascinating stuff.  But it's true, breathing well and maintaining a healthy position of the head and neck when practicing Ustrasana can be the trickiest part.  I know heart and throat opening asanas can be intense for many practitioners.  What's your experience with Ustrasana?

6 comments:

  1. If you read my post on backbends earlier in the week you'll know I hate it. Sway back mixed with upper thoracic scoliosis does not a good camel make. However, I do make myself practice a modification because I do believe the poses we dread are the ones we need.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have been working on camel for a while... and am growing to somewhat enjoy it. The most helpful tip I ever received was lengthening the spine instead of cranking into a backbend. huh. :)

    I need a very slow warm up for camel, one hand on heel, hand on lower back, repeat on other side, then try tops of feet on floor.

    Also, I found camel to be a HUGE leap of faith- leaning back blindly- SCARY.
    I've heard it described this way from other friend yogi(ni)s too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rachel - Have you tried the variation with the thumbs tucked into the armpits? It's great for opening the chest and activating the legs without bringing too much bend into the back. I've heard Richard Freeman refer to this as "banker's pose." It's an apt description. Give it a try and you'll see why.

    Eco Yogini - There is definitely the sensation of possibly falling off the edge of the world dropping back for this pose. I haven't done any work with dropping back into other backbends (UD or kapo), but I imagine it's a similar feeling.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I used to hate this pose perhaps even more than half pigeon :)

    What has changed it for me is the modification you mentioned where you curl the toes under so heels are closer to hands. Now I can slowly reach my heels. But I still struggle with the idea of dropping my head back, so I just don't do it. I think it was Nicki Doane who told a class I was in that these were great options. So now I don't hate it, I just dislike it. Progress!!

    Gorgeous photo!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Tiffany - It is difficult to find a comfortable position for the head if it doesn't reach back to rest on the trapezius "shelf." I find the point where the wall meets the ceiling in any room is a good alternative gazing point for poses that call for a upward gaze.

    ReplyDelete
  6. i like the variation you suggested. i had never heard of it before. great! i like, to go deeper, to use a walk to bring my hands to, and slowly walk them down while pushing my chest forward. its nuts, but fun.

    ReplyDelete