Coming to Love Ustrasana

Personally, I can’t get enough of the lovely back bend Ustrasana, or Camel pose. It helps me open up my chest in preparation for Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow pose), and I like to go into Camel pose it in between rounds of Hanumanasana to stretch my hip flexors. However, it seems like there are mixed responses to this asana. It can be particularly challenging for beginners and intermediate students alike. Today, I enjoyed a particularly intense stretch in this position as part of a Kundalini class taught to us by Master Paulu. We didn’t open our eyes for an hour, so the feel of getting into the pose with closed eyes, and feeling how my body was in the pose, trying to work out the balance and so on, was really quite unique.  So let’s look at the benefits of this pose and tips for getting into and out of this lovely back bend.
There are numerous benefits from this pose, such as stretching the throat, chest and ribcage, opening the shoulders and back, stretching the hip flexors, activating the Anahata (heart) Chakra overcoming fatigue and helping with mild back pain.
Getting into and out of Ustrasana:
Standing on the knees, hip distance apart, place the thumbs at the sacrum and spread the fingers across the lower back.
Breathing deeply into the chest, open out the chest and shoulders.
Exhale and drop one hand, then the next, back to the heels. Gently drop the head back.
Push the hips forward, ensure the shoulders are relaxed and the chest broad, and breath into the pose.
To come out of the pose, on exhale bring one hand, then the next, back up to the sacrum.
Sit back into Balasana (Child’s pose) as a soothing complementary stretch for the spine.
Muscles being used:
Ustrasana draws on various muscles to achieve the full pose. The scapular, shoulders, chest, psoas, abdomen, arms, glutes, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors, among others, are all involved in this pose! It’s a great all-rounder for contracting and strengthening, or lengthening and relaxing a range of muscles in the body.
If the shoulders and neck are tight, as well as the hips, this asana can prove rather intense and challenging. However, one of the great things is about Ustrasana is that it can be practiced at alot of different levels, so that those who are less comfortable can take a lighter stretch, whilst those who are comfortable can deepen their stretch (see modifications).
There are a number of modifications that can be used with beginners and those who are not well practiced in backbends. Firstly, beginners can start by simply placing the thumbs on the sacrum, wrapping the fingers around the lower back, and leaning gently back into the pose, slowly dropping the head back and remaining in this initial step into Ustrasana. It can provide an intense stretch that can be held for a while to strengthen the back muscles and start to open the chest and hips, without the depth and challenge of dropping the hands back.
Secondly, those who can drop back but find it hard to reach their heels can use 2 blocks as props to hold instead of catching the heels.
Thirdly, the toes can be tucked, making the pose less deep, getting used to the feel of the back bend before flattening the toes to the floor and going down further to grab the heels.
For those who find it tough to keep the hips forward, and tend to lean back too far and lose the curved shape of the hips, the pose can be done up against the wall, with thighs pressed tightly to the wall. This helps us to feel the correct position of the hips before moving away from the wall and aiming to maintain the same degree of forward motion of the hips, and the same opening out of the hip flexors.
If the neck feels painful when the head is dropped back, a rolled towel can be placed at the neck area to allow for a stretch without the risk of hyper-extension.
For those who are comfy in Ustrasana, then they can walk the hands down to the soles of the feet for a more intense stretch, or start to walk to the hands inwards along the calves to move into  Laghu Vajrasana (Little Thunderbolt pose).
People who blood pressure issues, whether high or low, and with chronic spinal injuries should avoid this pose or use the gentler modifications.
Author: Arwen, YTTC 200hr, Jan-Apr16

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