Embrace Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Back bends… you either love them or hate them. We are not known for treating our spine well. We sit in chairs or cars all day and I’m betting you’re slouching. I have some pretty interesting/unfortunate sitting habits myself and the result is generally a painful back. Three reasons why I think you’ll love back bending: 1) It’s great for cramps, 2) it releases anxiety, stress and depression, and 3) it’s going to keep your back from hurting.
I’m so excited we featured ustrasana in our recent catalog. I’ve been looking for an excuse to open this topic up. I’ve broken this series down into three levels — beginner, intermediate, and advanced back bends — so there is something for every spine. Let’s get started!
STRENGTHEN YOUR CORE. A strong core = a strong back. The low back has nothing to support it, except your abs. I know core work is not everyone’s thing, but you can do very gentle maintenance. I remember when I realized that doing 5 or 10 minutes a day made a huge difference — it opened up a whole new world for me. So don’t burn yourself out trying to do a marathon of core work. Do just a little each day. Also, quantity does not equal quality. You can get more out of your core work by doing a little just right, as opposed to a lot done sloppily.
WARM UP YOUR BACK. I hardly need to mention this, but to do back bends you have to spend some time warming up your back. You should warm up for everything, but back bends are especially important. The key here is to take it slow. If it starts to feel funny, take a break or take a step back. When I warm up for back bends, I don’t skip anything. Even if the first steps seem easy, you never know what state your spine will be in that day. Best to be sweet with it.
SLOW DOWN. Channel the tortoise here — slow and steady wins the race or, in this case, gets a healthy spine.
BREATHE. Yup I know… I’ve said this a million times, but really use the breath to guide you. If you’re not breathing, take a step back.
PREPARING FOR BACKBENDS: CORE STRENGTHENING & STRETCHING
Bicycle. Lay on your back and bring your knees and calves up to a 90 degree angle. Place your hands behind your head, elbows out. Extend the left leg and twist your torso and arms toward the bent right knee. Come back to center and draw both knees together. (To make this harder, tuck and lift your tail bone here.) Switch sides and repeat for a total of 10 on each side.
Scissor. Stay on your back, legs straight up towards the ceiling. Point your toes, then begin to lower your legs towards the floor, alternating the cross of your feet as you go down — as if your feet are scissors cutting the air. When you reach the floor, come back up using the same movement. Repeat 5 times up and down.
Navasana (Boat Pose) with Foot Taps. Come up to sitting on your sits bones. Place your hands behind your thighs, knees bent with toes touching the floor, and extend your right leg up as far as you can. Release your hands (you can always keep them behind your knees if necessary). Keep your knees at the same height, with your left toe just touching the floor, then switch so the left leg lifts and right toe taps the floor. Repeat for 10 on each side.
Setu Bandhasana (Bridge). PHEW… relax. Laying on your back, bring your feet back by your hips (hip distance apart), arms by your sides. Tuck your tail and lift up your spine one vertebra at a time. If you want more opening, rock your shoulders under you even further, clasping your hands behind your back on the floor. Breathe and enjoy the stretch in the abs.
BEGINNER BACK BENDS
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). Laying on your belly with palms by your side, press into the mat and lift your chest. Draw your shoulders away from your ears, onto your back, and pull the heart forward. To build strength, take the weight out of the hands. Try to tuck your tailbone into the mat, toes pressing down, to take the pressure out of the low back.
Sphinx Pose. Lay on your belly and place your forearms on the mat, elbows under the shoulders, hips on the floor and upper back/chest lifting. Draw your elbows back towards your torso (without really moving them) and draw your chest forward between your arms, spreading out the belly on the mat. As you did in Bhujangasana, try to tuck your tailbone into the mat, toes pressing down, to take the pressure out of the low back.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog). Laying on your belly with palms firmly on the mat under your shoulders, press up, rolling onto the tops of your feet as you straighten your arms (don’t lock your elbows) while lifting your thighs and knees off the floor. Draw your shoulders down onto your back AWAY from the ears and open your chest.
INTERMEDIATE BACK BENDS
Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). Lay on your stomach and draw your heels into your hips. Reach back for the outside of your ankles with your hands. To lift your torso up, kick into your hands with your ankles, drawing the heart forward and shoulders onto your back.
If this is too strong, take it one leg at a time. Start with the left arm in sphinx position and the right hand reaching for the right foot, then kick into your hand and draw the heart forward. Repeat on the other side.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose). Arms on the floor by your side, slowly lift your chest, arms, and legs. Draw your shoulders onto your back and pull the heart forward. Repeat to build strength.
Ustrasana (Camel Pose). Come to standing on your knees (put a blanket under you if you have sensitive knees). If you’re new to camel, take a block on either side so you can place your hands on them for support as you gently lean back. As you lean back, keep the hips pressing forward so they stay stacked over the knees. Even as you are back bending, keep the tail bone slightly tucking under and the belly engaged — not clenched, but awake. If you can move further without the blocks, bring your hands to the back of your pelvis, fingertips pointing up, and start to lean back keeping all the above points in mind. Your shoulders are going to try to eat your ears — don’t let them! The next level is to tuck your toes and take your hands to your heels.
If you’re more flexible, untuck your toes and slowly release your head back, being careful not to strain your neck. Once you’ve mastered camel pose on land, you’re ready try it on a stand up paddle board!
ADVANCED BACK BENDS
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose). If you’d like to go further, you can work on wheel pose. Start by laying on your back, knees bent, feet by your hips, and hands by your shoulders with fingers pointing towards your shoulders. Slowly press up and place your head on the floor. Once you are stable, continue lengthening out the arms until they are straight. Again keep the tail bone slightly tucked, core engaged and shoulders moving onto the back. Hug the knees in towards the center line — don’t let them fly out. Are you breathing? When you’re ready, slowly lower down onto your back.
Kapotasana (King Pigeon Pose). There are several ways to get into this asana — some may be easier than others for you. One option is to start in Supta Virasana (reclined hero pose) and walk your way up into it. Similar to wheel pose, place your hands on the floor, fingers pointing towards your shoulders. Press the body up, arms straight, then lower one arm down at a time onto your forearms (bringing the head to the floor) reaching towards your toes.
Another option is to come into it from camel pose. Move your toes slightly closer together, then tuck your chin and lean back. Open the upper chest and shoulder blades on the back as much as you can, then place your palms on the floor, fingers pointing towards your feet. Using the hands on the floor, open through the groin as much as possible, then walk the hands back towards your feet until you can lower your forearms onto the floor and rest the crown down.
These are very advanced back bends — please practice with guidance from a skilled yoga teacher.
Wide Adho Mukha Svanasana (Down Dog). Move into down dog with your hands shoulder width apart, feet wider than your mat. Keep your low back relatively convex to gently help your spine relax. Your knees can always be bent. Make this a gentle one.
Virasana (Child’s Pose). At last! Lower your hips onto your heels, resting in this gentle forward fold. Avoid flipping back and forth between back bends and forward folds — try to finish your back bending sequence, then take a gentle forward fold to allow the spine to equalize.