Exploration of various yoga poses by our staff.
By Cindy Dollar
First Published in the IYASE May-August Newsletter, Volume 23
The Sanskrit word “ustra” translates as “camel” and the basic physical shape of ustrasana mimics the shape of a camel. Viewed from the side, the chest of the practitioner lifts toward the ceiling just as the hump of the camel rises up toward the sky.
The practice of ustrasana creates physical space in the thoracic chest and the area around the heart. When the practitioner presses the lower legs into the earth and raises the top chest up, there is a meeting of earth and heaven.
Like the camel, who replenishes her energy by metabolizing her reserves, ustrasana revitalizes us when we feel dull or fatigued.
The pose can lead us to the well of energy that dwells inside us. Emotionally and psychologically, we have the opportunity to open to life and all that it brings.
Interestingly enough, the hump of the camel contains fat, not water. According to www.animals.howstuffworks.com, that hump can weigh up to 80 pounds and allows a camel to survive for up to two weeks without food if need be.
What does that have to do with being on the mat? As the camel carries her reservoir of energy within her, we humans carry a reservoir of knowledge within ourselves. We often access that knowledge without even thinking about it. We talk; we walk; we digest our food. Deeper still is a reservoir of intuitive knowledge that we bring to the surface as we open to the unconscious, the emotional, and the unspoken that lies buried beneath our conditioned mind. In this vein, "ustra" has been translated as “that which releases knowledge when there is a quest for it” and as “that which casts light on the mind.”
The camel symbolizes perseverance and determination. As we practice the asana we persevere in the uncovering of its intricacies as well as our own inner intricacies. We learn to balance effort and effortlessness. That, then, is yoga. As B.K.S. Iyengar states in Sutra II.47 in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.”
All of this from getting on the mat and making friends with the camel!
• Kneel on the floor or on a firm blanket with your knees and feet hip bones’ width apart – about 8 inches for most of us.
• Place the shin bones parallel with each other with the toes pointed straight back and make the thighs perpendicular to the floor.
• Put your hands on your hips and lift up through the front of the torso.
• Press your shins, ankles, feet, and toes down into the floor.
• Broaden the back thighs away from each other, bring the tailbone into that space, and compact the buttocks to stabilize the pelvis.
• Move the shoulder blades down your back and deep into the front of the chest to lift the chest up toward the ceiling as you take your hands down to the feet, fingers pointed back toward the toes.
• Press the hands down, rise up through the inner arms and broaden the collar bones as you coil the spine in between the shoulder blades.
• Lengthen the neck and take the head back without dropping the chest.
• To release from the pose, raise the chest and head up, bring the hands to the hips and come to an upright position.
• Sit back between the heels in virasana (hero pose).
WAYS TO PRACTICE
As you progress in the pose, bring your knees and feet closer together.
Use a bolster or blocks under the hands – Position a bolster across your calves or place a block to the outside of each heel. Take your hands to the bolster or blocks instead of to your feet. The bolster makes a nice seat when you release from the pose and sit back.
Use a wall
Begin the pose in the basic kneeling position so that your front thighs touch a wall.
Press down through the shins and feet. Press the thighs and pubis into the wall as you lift the chest, bring the hands back and complete the pose.
Do not let the thighs come away from the wall.
This may re- quire that you use blocks or a bolster on which to place your hands. You’ll quickly discover if you lean back into the pose instead of lifting up because the thighs will come away from the wall. Be honest.
2. Loop one rope around another one that is secured to a ropes wall. Place the looped rope around your pelvis and move back from the wall so the rope is secure and taut around the sacrum. Do not loop it around the low back! Come into the pose using the basic instructions. You may need to play with this one a time or two to get the proper distance from the wall so that the thighs remain perpendicular to the floor and the pelvis remains stable in the pose.
Use a chair and a bolster – Place a chair at a wall so the back legs touch the baseboard. Put a bolster straight up on the chair seat and lean it onto the back of the chair. Face the center of the room. Scoot your shins under the chair and bring your buttocks to the front edge of the chair seat so you can kneel for ustrasana. Press the shins down, lift the chest up, and bring the hands to the chair seat or front legs of the chair. Lift the head up and extend the neck to rest the head on the bolster. You may need to add another bolster or some blankets to allow for the head to be fully supported. Breathe easily and enjoy being there.
Ustrasana prepares the body and mind for other back bending asanas. According to Geeta Iyengar in Yoga in Action: Preliminary Course, “Ustrasana is the only back bending taught to beginners that gives an anti-gravitational lift to the spine and spinal muscles. It is a preparatory asana yielding the basic intelligence required to proceed further for the rest of the back bending asanas.”
Benefits and Effects
PHYSICAL – tones, strengthens and stretches entire spine; gives anti-gravitational lift to spine; lengthens front body including ankles, thighs and groins; tones lungs, heart, liver, pancreas so they can bear the stress of back- ward extensions; relieves mild backache and menstrual discomfort (supported version); stretches back muscles, shoulders, and arms so is especially beneficial for people with slumped or droopy shoulders and hunched backs.
As a preparatory pose for advanced backbends, ustrasana allows the practitioner to learn the curvature of the spine and to correct any imbalance or unevenness in the spinal muscles.
MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL – beneficial to combat depression, grief, fatigue, and anxiety (with head support); prepares the practitioner for being upside down and back- wards in other backbending poses; revitalizing for dull or sluggish mind and body.
Avoid the classical pose during menstruation or pregnancy unless using support. If you have a tension or migraine headache, hypertension, or a heart condition, practice a supported version.
• Adho Mukha Svanasana • Padangusthasana (concave back) • Padahastasana (concave back)
• Utkatasana • Virabhadrasana I • Parsvottanasana • Virasana • Parvatasana (in Swastikasana or Virasana)
• Parighasana • Chatushpadasana (notice different head position) • Chaturanga Dandasana • Bhujangasana I • Dhanurasana • Salabasana • Makarasana • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana