When I first started going to yoga classes, I dreaded the moment when the teacher would say, “Come into Ustrasana.” Where some of the asana I was learning felt pretty good; Camel Pose always seemed foreign, as if I was asking my body to bend in a crazy, unnatural way.
In preparation I would stand on my knees and tense up, fearful of leaning back. Then, I’d jam myself into the shape as quickly as possible. With my knees splayed wide, I expended a tremendous amount of effort in the service of forcing my hands to reach my heels. Next, I would jut my chin up and crank my head back as far as I could, making breathing a struggle. Although I recall thinking,“This cannot possibly be good for me,” I would soldier on, trying to imitate a mental image I had acquired somewhere of “The Full Expression!”. Forcing my body into the template, albeit in an extremely unsustainable manner, was my destination. The road to that place seemed unimportant at the time, and I would speed down it at a hundred miles an hour to get where I was going, barely noticing any scenery along the journey. Once in the posture, I was overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability and I would experience a rush of panic. After a few gasping breath cycles, I couldn’t wait to fling myself back out to safety, usually with a tender lower back.
Like many non-yogis, my habitual posture at that time was slightly hunched. Time spent in a car, and at a computer, and especially taking care of my young children contributed to my curved spine. Also, even as I cherished my kids and my role as a brand new mom; the demands of being a mother to an infant and a toddler sometimes left me feeling exhausted, stressed, and inadequate. I seemed to always be flailing around in a big hurry, getting nowhere. I was often worried. My state of mind lead me to close in on myself even more.
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For me, Camel represents the counterpose to the hunched posture and the hectic pace of daily life. Because the pose is taken from kneeling, it strikes me as a humble shape unlike some other dramatic, flashy poses. Yet Ustrasana is a potent front body stretch. It lengthens the chest, abs, quads and hip flexors; while strengthening back muscles. From a position of standing on the knees, which are about hip width distance apart, practitioners keep a relatively neutral pelvis and lower body as they move on breath, with shoulders back and sternum lifting. They continuously lengthen up on an inhale and gradually soften back on an exhale, eventually overflowing into a spacious backbend. It takes time and patience to fully inhabit the pose. It also requires attention, curiosity and sensitivity. I love the simultaneous sensations of solid ground and buoyancy. I also appreciate that it truly feels different to me every time that I try it.
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When I was a young child, I used to try to catch that particular moment when the sky would go from daylight to darkness. I thought that if I paid close enough attention, I’d be able to see that split second when the lights went off outside. Through observation, I came to learn that shifts in the natural world happened at a much slower pace than I could discern, and I couldn’t see the sky becoming pitch black anymore than I could witness the precise moment of the buds bursting in Spring or the leaves turning in Fall.
Since establishing a regular yoga practice, my state of mind, my body and my daily life have changed a lot. My relationship with Ustrasana has shifted too. Just like it would be impossible for me to say exactly when my yoga practice ceased to be about external goals and getting somewhere quickly, or when my kids stopped being little, or even when I started to feel less stressed and more comfortable in my body and in my life; I cannot pinpoint a moment when I suddenly began to enjoy the pose. I don’t recall the first time I noticed the expansive lightness I sometimes feel as I breathe deeply in Camel, or the calm, clear mind I experience afterwards. I don’t remember when I stoped feeling scared of leaning back into the unknown, or when I abandoned the ultimate destination of “full expression” and began to get more interested in the meandering trek down the road along the way.
I do see that letting go of my preconceived notions about how the pose should look from the outside probably coincided with me dropping some of my concerns regarding how my life should appear to others; allowing me to focus more on how things feel to me. Moving forward, I know I can use my yoga practice, and Camel in particular, as a reminder to stay grounded and present while exploring the possibility of a wide open heart, which can really only happen at the pace of nature, and from the inside out.