Yoga is one of the most popular practices on earth. Its origins began in India, but it’s older than you may realize. At 5,000 years of age, it’s been around for about as long as the Egyptian pyramids.
There are hundreds of yoga poses to choose from. If one doesn’t fit you, you can find a dozen others that will replace it. One of these is the camel pose in yoga.
What is the camel pose, and why bother trying such a challenging position? In this guide, we will discuss this form in detail. By the end, you will know how to do it–as well as its benefits.
What Is Camel Pose in Yoga?
Like all poses, camel pose has a unique Sanskrit name: Ustrasana. It has the roots ustra (camel) and asana (pose). Quite literally, this is the pose of the camel.
When thinking of a camel, you might get the wrong visual image. It’s not a move where you hump your back on all fours. Quite the opposite, actually.
This is a “yogic backbend.” That is, a stretch that curves your spine forward and outward. This is in comparison to other poses like Downward Facing Dog.
You sit on your shins and throw your head back. Your arms serve to stabilize the pose as you attain maximum extension. It’s still somewhat like a camel’s hump, albeit not with your back as the peak.
What Does It Do?
All poses in yoga stretches exert specific muscles. In the case of camel pose, it works on the lower back. Many perform it to reduce pain in this region.
Camel pose does affect some muscles on the front of the body, too. In particular, your psoas muscle and hip flexors get a nice extension. These are the ones that connect your legs to your torso.
When Do You Perform It?
It’s critical in yoga to do things in order. You wouldn’t want to launch into camel pose straight from the beginning. It’s better to warm things up before overextending tight muscles.
A yogi would tell you to do it towards the end. Like other backbends, it requires a supple, springy spine. Fail to warm up properly, and you might herniate a disc.
How to Do Camel Pose
First, we recommend learning about any yoga pose from a master. This is not the sort of practice one should try with a YouTube video. It contorts your body in a number of ways, increasing the risk of injury.
So, seek out a teacher if possible. If you have experience, though, you know how to do it safely. Here are the steps if you are already seasoned.
1. Position Your Knees
Start with your knees apart at approximately hip width. Kneel down and lay the top of your feet flat on your mat.
Make sure to start sitting up nice and tall. Tuck in your tailbone a tiny bit. Aim the bend of your spine towards the ground.
2. Position Fingers
Locate your sacrum. This is the bottommost bone in your spinal column.
Now, place your palms over it. Use your hands as a support for your lower back during the exercise.
3. Lean Backward and Look Up
First, inhale deeply. Slowly raise your head until you are staring up and to the back. Then, slowly curve your spine backward.
As you do this, imagine that you are expanding upwards with your sternum. Open your shoulders, too. Try to look up as high as you can without straining your neck.
4. Find Your Heels
At this point you can exhale that first breath. Contract your glutes to push them forward. Use your quads–your front thigh muscles–to continue the forward momentum.
Reach for one heel at a time. Maintain your gaze in the same upward and back position. Keep doing this until you have both heels in your grasp.
5. Lift and Pull
With your hands, pull your heels. Do this in the continual forward shifting of your weight. Make it easier by engaging the quads as needed.
If you can, touch together your shoulder blades. Bend your back to its fullest extension in this position.
6. Breathe and Hold
Don’t stop breathing throughout each step of this pose. Do a regular, deep inhale through your nose. Exhale through your mouth.
Breathing properly is critical to yoga. It’s similar to benching at the gym. If you don’t exhale, you will struggle to lift the bar.
In the same vein, you may struggle to achieve the pose without breathing enough. So, focus on your breathing the first time you perform the position.
You want to hold the position as long as is reasonably comfortable. Once you feel strain or discomfort, it’s time to exit.
Don’t just slump out of form. It’s important to exit properly to avoid injury.
Return your hands to the sacrum vertebrae we mentioned earlier. This helps to support your lower back for a gentle withdrawal. Ever so gently, rise out of the backbend.
We recommend counteracting the movement with child’s pose. This stretches your back out in the opposite direction. Stay there for a couple of breaths to return to your equilibrium.
Modifications to Camel Pose
Like most yoga poses, you can try alternative steps to make it easier. It’s a very deep backbend that some may struggle to do the first time. So, try the following options if you are having trouble.
1. Tuck the Toes
Struggling to reach your heels? Try tucking your toes beneath yourself. This makes it easier to reach your heels.
There’s an added benefit, too. Doing this modification allows an additional stretch for the balls of the feet.
2. Keep Your Hands on Your Back
Repositioning your hands on your heels is perhaps the most challenging part. If you struggle a lot, just leave them on your back. You can still do most of the stretch this way.
This provides the needed support for your lower back. If you are suffering from a back injury, this may alleviate the strain. Despite this, you still get most of the benefits of the stretch.
3. Try Yoga Blocks
If you have some yoga blocks, use those to make it easier. Set them at their tallest height. Then, put them next to your feet.
This gives you an additional lift without having to tuck in your toes.
Camel Pose Benefits
So, why bother going through all the effort? Even without trying it, you can easily see how challenging the pose could be. Most backbend poses are advanced moves.
First and foremost, it is an excellent way to improve spinal flexibility. The exertion leads to a powerful cathartic and emotional release.
It increases your stability and control, too. Mastering the postures in yoga is a challenging feat. Achieve camel pose, and you will be much closer to your goal.
It also strengthens your back muscles. Many people struggle with slouching due to their sedentary lifestyles. Camel pose serves to counteract that continual slouching.
Plus, there are mental benefits. It gives you confidence in your back-bending ability. This increases your physical confidence and prepares you for more challenging positions.
Safety Tips for Camel Pose
Again, all it takes is one miscalculated overextension to injure yourself. Here are a few things to keep in mind when stretching for optimal safety.
Stop If It Hurts
Plain and simple, do not continue through pain. Yoga will involve pain, but it won’t be the harmful kind. Muscle burn is good, anything else is not.
Pay attention to what sort of pain you feel. If it’s an overextension or strain type, stop immediately. Do not continue that exercise for the day.
If the pain continues again later, you might consider seeing your doctor. This could be a sign that something is wrong.
Most injuries in yoga happen from being in a hurry. So, go slowly. That’s the whole point, after all!
Going slow allows you to learn the rhythm of your body. You understand what your limits are without causing injury. Then, you’ll be better equipped for future yoga sessions.
Ask for Guidance
Yoga is a learning process for everyone. Never feel shame in asking for help or tips. Don’t avoid asking just because you feel some embarrassment.
Take note of your pain points. There’s a good chance your instructor can help you smooth them over.
Try Camel Pose Today
Camel pose, known as Ustrasana, is a simple yet challenging backbend position. Among yoga poses, it’s one of the more challenging. Mastering it, though, leads to increased spinal flexibility and back-bending confidence.
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Wayne Probert is a senior reporter at Zobuz, covering state and national politics, and he is a grantee with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Before joining Zobuz, he worked as a freelance journalist in Kentucky, having been published by dozens of outlets including NPR, the Center for Media.