Years after my first yoga class in high school, I bought a Living Social deal for Bikram Yoga Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I had not had a dedicated yoga practice in a long time but I was really feeling the urge to get back to the mat. I had just quit my first job in NYC. The place where I had worked was (how can I put this nicely?) toxic and brought me home feeling wretched and even in tears some days. I was mentally and physically drained from a cocktail of workplace stress and, well, cocktails - I was a 25 year old who had just moved to NYC and I was following the prescription of 'work hard, play hard'. I knew that during the search for a new position and living on a tight budget I needed something that could help me deal with the transition and the stresses that came along with it. I remember walking into Bikram Yoga Williamsburg and immediately being psyched to be there - the place had good vibes. I was taken aback when the class was taught in a way that I had never experienced before - first, it was REALLY hot; second, it seemed like most of the students already knew what was coming up next in the sequence (which it turns out they, in fact, did). That first Bikram class had me hooked and I continued a Bikram practice during my job search and then for about three years afterwards as well. Despite the controversy surrounding it's founder, I credit Bikram for kicking my butt (in just the way I needed) and getting me back on my yoga mat day after day, week after week.
Okay, now let´s get to the asana for today. Despite being hot and confused during that first class, I remember the teacher guiding us into Ustrasana, Camel Pose for the first time. During the second set, I decided to give it a try and I could quite literally feel my chest opening and expanding. I thought there must be something to this pose if it feels this intense! The teacher explained that Ustrasana is a heart and chest opener. In day to day life (especially if we sit at a desk most of the day), our bodies are hunched over and (subconsciously, perhaps?) guarding our hearts and our emotions, our vulnerabilities. Thus opening and expanding the chest, Ustrasana can aid in an emotional release for the practitioner. Have you ever heard a teacher say, 'open your heart'? After this pose, I understood what that phrase meant. In Light On Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar states the effects of this pose as being beneficial for people with drooping shoulders and/or hunched backs as well as stretching and toning the spine. This is a pose that helps us to change how our bodies are being shaped in modern day society.
In addition, Ustrasana will help to open the hips, stretches the shoulders, relieves lower back pain, and improves digestion by expanding the abdominal region. There are a few variations on Ustrasana including stretching one arm overhead and it will promote the chest opening even more. In terms of where Ustrasana falls in a sequence, it is a great opportunity to transition in between standing poses and the floor or supine poses - it also feels healing to wrap yourself into Child´s Pose after Camel. To help with your front body alignment, try doing the pose against a wall with the goal of keeping your hips and thighs pressed against the wall.
I read an interesting article on the website for Bikram Yoga Vancouver that Camel Pose most likely got its name not from the bend in the back resembling a camel hump but from how a camel kneels to let people on and off its back. So the pose is probably named more for its setup than the actual backbend. Also, another very interesting fact from the Bikram Vancouver Yoga website: Camels can kick in all four directions with each of their legs - wow!
Some tips and pics for getting into the pose: