Asana From Every Angle: Camel Pose

by Lauren Black | January 28, 2015 4:54 pm

I love being a yoga instructor.

I love helping my students find poses that help their body and mind. If they have trouble with balance, I recommend trying calf raises to build ankle strength. If they have tight hips, I try to give them some deep stretches to do outside of class. It’s my favorite part of teaching, being able to help students on their yoga journey.

A lot of this information is not what I learned in my teacher training, it’s what I’ve learned from other professionals in similar landscapes. As yoga instructors, we learn the basics of poses, but we don’t always learn why they are good for us or when they are not good for us. It’s important to know and definitely the best way to help your students.

This series is going to examine popular poses from not just the yoga angle, but we’re also talking with a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon and a physical therapist. Between the three, we’ll get a well-rounded look at what goes on with our favorite poses and how we can help students in them.

Camel Pose (Ustrasana)

The basics:

Ustrasana is practiced in nearly every branch of yoga. It’s the deepest backbend in the popular Bikram series and is frequently incorporated into vinyasa practices with several different modifications. Students can keep their hands on the low back to protect their spine, keep their toes on the ground and take their hands to their heels, or lay the feet flat on the floor and grab the heels with the fingers on the inside and thumbs on the outside. The head can either drop all the way back in all three versions, or the student can look forward. It depends on what’s comfortable on the neck.

Knees should be about six inches apart and should line up underneath the hips. A common mistake is that students spread their knees to allow make it easier to reach the ankles. Don’t do that.

From the yoga instructor:

Ustrasana is a great, deep backbend that is accessible for most students because it requires less strength and more spinal flexibility. In other deep backbends (like upward facing bow), students have to use arm and leg strength to get into the full posture.

This pose should never start off a class. The body needs to be warmed up with sun salutations or other poses that allows the spine to stretch and move. Thighs, hips, and shoulders should also be given focus when working towards this posture. It’s also wise to incorporate some easier backbends into your practice before going for the full camel pose.

As with any backbend, camel pose should be followed by a foreword bend (like child’s pose) as well as some light twists.

When the student is properly warmed up and at the right level of this pose, it can be extremely relaxing and rewarding. Take a deep breath, and fall deeper.

From the Orthopedic Surgeon:

Students should take themselves to a point that the pose feels smooth and easy. A good warm-up would absolutely be necessary when practicing this level of backbend. It is good for stretching the anterior hip capsule, the pelvis, and the spine. It also should increase flexibility and help strengthen the rectus femoris, iliopsoas, and rectus abdomens musculature

If not adequately warmed up, this pose could easily strain the musculature. It is also important to note that repetitive forced hyperextension of the spine, as in repeating this pose multiple times, could cause a stress reaction or fracture of the lumbar spine. Practice this pose with caution one or two times, then give the spine a rest.

From the Physical Therapist:

This pose could be great for students healing from a disc herniation. Back extension is crucial for their rehabilitation. It’s also good for anyone who spends their day at a desk or sitting in the car. Since it helps open the shoulders, hips, back, and neck extension, it helps counteract the poor posture people commonly have when sitting.

Since most people are tight in the pectoral muscles, this is great for the general population to stretch and open that area. Runners may also benefit from this pose, as it helps open the hip flexors. It’s also good for people who have iliopsoas tightness and want to maintain proper pelvic alignment.

There might be some contraindication in this pose for students with severe osteoporosis. The pose would put them at risk for compression fractures. It also would be impossible/ very difficult for patients with severe spinal stenosis. Teachers should be aware of their students prior injuries and limitations in order to help them modify this pose where needed.

The takeaway:

Camel is a well-rounded pose that puts specific focus on the spine and hip flexors. All of the professionals agree that a proper warm up is needed for this pose and modifications will be necessary for many students. As always, remember that there is a difference between stretching a muscle and pain. Help your students identify the level they need to go to in this pose and let them gradually progress. Blocks can always go underneath the hands if the feet are not accessible.

Very few people can do a full camel pose in their first yoga class. Take care of your new students and let them ease into the posture.

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