Want to learn more about Ustrasana, aka Camel Pose? In this post, I share the benefits of Ustrasana, a complete pose breakdown, contraindications, myths, modifications and more.
Ustrasana is one of my go-to poses — I totally love the feeling that practicing this pose gives me. It wakes me up, stretches me out, strengthens my back, and fires up my glutes and legs. When I come out of it I feel totally refreshed. Everyone’s experience is different though. If you tend to do a lot of your back bending from your lower back, instead of making you feel great, Ustrasana can lead to lower back pain.
The key to preventing lower back pain in Camel Pose is to ensure you tone your abdomen — particularly your transverse abdominus (the video linked here will help you learn how to engage this muscle) — while you practice this pose.
Did you know that Ustrasana hasn’t always been a back bending pose? The Sritattvanidhi, a 19th century text, describes Ustrasana as a standing pose.
Stand on the toes and stretch the arms in the air. This is Ustrasana, the camel.– The Sritattvanidhi
The modern pose of a kneeling back bend likely originated with Krishnamacharya in Mysore in the 1930s, and was popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois through Ashtanga Yoga, and B. K. S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga.
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Ustrasana Quick Facts
|Meaning||Ustra means camel.|
Asana means pose, seat, or posture.
Note: I only include the scientifically supported benefits of Ustrasana here. Plenty of claims about other supposed benefits (from the plausible to the magical to the ridiculous) have been made. To me, pseudo-scientific claims only serve to harm the yoga community, so I choose not to give them airtime here.
The main physical benefits of Ustrasana include:
- Helps with mobility in the shoulders and upper back.
- Stretches the front of the body.
- Strengthens the legs and back.
- Strengthens erector spinae (back extensors).
- Stretches the chest.
- Opens up the hips, stretches hip flexors.
- Strengthens arms.
- When done with proper engagement, will help tone deep core muscles.
If you want more on the benefits of yoga, see our complete guide to the benefits of yoga, which includes a history of yoga plus the origins of our modern yoga practice and much more.
Precautions & Contraindications
Remember that while yoga is for everyone, not all poses are for all people! If your body requires some extra support in this pose, see the Modifications section below for ideas on how to do this pose safely.
- If you have a neck injury, do not take your head back in the pose. Camel Pose may be too intense for your neck, depending on the injury, so you may want to avoid it altogether.
- If you have any tension or sensitivity in your neck, keep the back of the neck long. Look up, not back.
- If you have a back injury, practice a more gentle backbend like Salabhasana (Locust Pose) or Bhujanghasana (Cobra Pose).
- If you have high or low blood pressure, be careful when practicing Camel Pose.
- If you have spondylitis, this back bend can cause pain. You may wish to avoid Ustrasana.
- If you have abdominal hernia, do not do Ustrasana until the hernia is healed.
- If you suffer from migraines, this pose can trigger them.
Misconceptions & Myths About Camel Pose
Ladies — be careful!
Lots of websites and teachers say you shouldn’t practice Ustrasana if you are pregnant or menstruating. If only I had a dollar for every yoga pose someone said you shouldn’t practice if you were menstruating or pregnant…
Where did they come up with this shit? These are the same people who say you can’t go to a Hindu temple if you’re menstruating. The patriarchy sucks.
I have also read that Camel Pose releases tensions stored in the ovaries. (Is this a thing? According to people I have asked who have ovaries, it is not.) Also, according to some, Camel Pose brings a balance to the menstrual cycle and reproductive system. If only it were that simple.
How did they discover Ustrasana had these helpful benefits if you weren’t supposed to be practicing it while menstruating? Maybe they’re saying that if you’re a risk taker and if you do practice it, it will balance your cycle and release all that pesky ovary tension you’ve been feeling.
What’s a woman to do with all this conflicting (and probably completely made up) information?
How about you do what feels right for you and don’t do what doesn’t?
Spinal extension isn’t spinal flexion
Many articles about Ustrasana say it is a great pose to improve spinal flexion, or spinal flexibility. You are not doing spinal flexion in a back bend. Technically, you are working on spinal flexibility, since flexibility means the ability to bend easily without breaking. However, a less confusing term to use is spinal mobility.
Stay with me, because this can get confusing.
In a back bend, your spine is in extension, not flexion. Flexion of your spine is a rounding of your back. The erector spinae muscles flex so that your spine can extend (back bend). But your rectus abdominus (six pack muscles) flex so that your spine can flex (rounding your back).
While it is not wrong to say Ustrasana can increase spinal flexibility, if you are a teacher be careful not to get lazy and say that it increases spinal flexion. What it does is help increase spinal extension. Semantics, eh?
Ustrasana Pose Breakdown
How to do Ustrasana / Camel Pose
- Start by kneeling on your mat with your torso lifted. Have your knees under your hips and your legs parallel to each other behind you.
- Place your feet flat on the ground so that the tops of your feet are pushing down into the mat. Straighten your ankles. Note: You can also tuck your toes to practice Camel Pose. The benefit of this is that it makes your heels closer when you’re reaching for them, so it is easier for students newer to the pose, or with tight hip flexors.
- Place your hands on your hips. Point your elbows back and expand your chest.
- Tone the bottom of your pelvis (Mula Banda) and move the space around your navel back a little (Uddiyana Bandha).
- Push down with your hands on your hips and root down through your legs. Spread your toes and push down with your feet.
- Keep that heaviness in your lower body and lift up from your waist through the sides of your torso.
- Lengthen your spine and start to back bend.
- Press your pelvis forward, root down with your hands and legs, and lift through your sternum.
- Keep toning your pelvic floor and abdomen as you deepen your upper back bend.
- Once they are within reach, one at a time place your hands on your heels. Push both hands down into your heels so you can push your hips forward a little more and expand your chest.
- Lengthen through your neck and look up towards the ceiling. For a more advanced variation you can look back. This may cause pain in your neck so, if it hurts, look up towards the ceiling instead.
- Work to balance out the back bend so you aren’t dumping into your lower back. Instead, work the back bend through your whole spine.
- To deepen the pose, you can place your hands flat on your feet, palms to soles, with your fingers pointing the same direction as your toes.
- This is Ustrasana.
- To come out, push down with your hands into your feet, tone your pelvic floor and abdomen, and lift from your sternum. Bring your hands onto your waist as you lift up, and then shift forward into Balasana (Child’s Pose).
Modifications & Variations
If you can’t reach your feet
If your hands don’t comfortably reach your heels, you have a few options:
- Tuck your toes, which make your heels closer to your hands.
- Stack yoga blocks on either side of your feet and place your hands on the blocks.
- Keep your hands on your hips.
If your legs turn out (or feet turn in)
Place a yoga block between your thighs and squeeze it to activate (strengthen) your inner thighs. As a bonus the block between your thighs can help deepen your hip extension.
How? Your glute max is the main external rotator and extensor of your hip. Squeezing the block keeps your legs from turning out, so you use your glute max for hip extension instead of rotation.
You can also place a block between your feet so they don’t move towards each other.
If your knees hurt
Place a yoga blanket under your knees, or double up your mat for a little added padding.
To deepen your back bend
You can practice Ustrasana with the front of your body against a wall. Keep pressing your thighs to the wall as you bend backwards. The stability of touching the wall with your legs/pelvis will give you more access to your back bend.
Yoga Poses Related to Camel Pose
- Salabhasana / Locust Pose
- Bhujangasana / Cobra Pose
- Dhanurasana / Bow Pose
- Vajrasana / Thunderbolt Pose
- Virasana / Hero’s Pose
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana / Bridge Pose
- Urdhva Mukha Svanasana / Upward Facing Dog Pose
- Balasana / Child’s Pose
- Paschimottanasana / Seated Forward Fold Pose
- Dandasana / Staff Pose
Poses To Take Your Practice Further
- Ardha Ustrasana / Half Camel Pose
- Urdhva Dhanurasana / Upward Bow or Full Wheel Pose
- Supra Virasana / Supine Hero’s Pose
- Purvottanasana / Intense Stretch of the East or Reverse Plank Pose
- Shalamba Sarvagasana / Shoulder Stand Pose
Related Posts & Videos
- Post: Dhanurasana Benefits & Pose Breakdown
- Post: Urdhva Mukha Svanasana Benefits & Pose Breakdown
- Video: Ustrasana Pose Breakdown
Gear & Resources for This Pose
- BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga
- Darren Rhodes Yoga Resource Practice Manual
- Sustainable Cork Yoga Mat by Corq
- Cork Yoga Blocks
- Machine Washable Vegan Yoga Blankets
A Final Note About Camel Pose
Once you become comfortable in Camel Pose, you can really work to build strength in your legs doing something that we called Pigeon Droppings when I taught in Los Angeles. (The LA yoga scene had lots of silly poses and pose names, and this is a particularly ridiculous one).
How do you do it?
Instead of bringing your hands to your heels, bring your arms up and overhead, with your hands beside your head. It is a similar set-up to doing a drop back into Urdhva Dhanurasana from Tadasana.
As you go back into the back bend, straighten your arms back behind you and touch down with your hands behind your feet. Don’t stop there. Instead use the inertia (and a lot of quad strength) to spring back to the starting position. And then do a set of 5 of these.
Here’s a video of a teacher doing them hands free!
So fun, so intense. But one of the reasons I love yoga is there’s always more…
Namaste OMies, Stephen
I hope this post has been helpful in expanding your possibilities with Camel Pose. It’s my goal to inspire you to explore your yoga practice more deeply which will enable you to cultivate the strength and clarity needed to live your life adventure to the fullest!