Each week smile in the sky will feature a different yoga pose and 5 physical health benefits and 5 mental health benefits related to it.
This week...camel pose [sanskrit translation: Ustrasana: Ustr (camel) asana (pose)]
Known as one of the yogic ‘back bends’, this misnomer often has people crunching their back to force their body into the pose. Back bends are much more accurately thought of as ‘front-openers’, with the emphasis on breathing in to open and lengthen the spine, and breathing out to let go of tension in the pose.
Mental benefit: REFRAMING
Shifting our frame of vision while in back bends allows us to see the world from a different angle. This- reframing of the physical world in camel pose is a neat metaphor for actively seeking a different view of events that occur in our lives. Ultimately this reframing may allow us to evaluate things differently and be freed to take alternate action when faced with challenging situations.
Physical benefit: CHEST OPENING
Done correctly, camel pose is a beautiful chest opener. With the arms dropping back with gravity, the pecs (pectoralis muscles), get a stretch, allowing improved and open posture.
Mental benefit: OVERCOMING FEARS
Leaning back and opening the chest can feel like a scary experience for some. Allowing a gentle back bend and shift of the gaze can be a powerful tool to experience a challenging movement and start to conquer fears, particularly around feeling vulnerable. In psychology this is known as graded exposure treatment and is used to treat phobias (with the guidance of an experienced clinician).
Physical benefit: LENGTHEN TORSO AND SPINE
Breathing long and deep is key in this pose. Slow inhales while visualising the area between the spinal vertebrae lengthening will create space to go deeper into the pose. Long slow exhales allow the body to release tension.
Mental benefit: RESILIENCE
Camel pose is a challenge for most people: 'sticking it out' in a pose that doesn’t feel very comfortable! Breathing, maintaining the pose beyond the point where you THINK you can maintain is great resilience training: assisting our ability to bounce back from difficult situations. You may surprise yourself with what you are capable of. Stay for 1 more breath: you can do it!
Physical benefit: HIP FLEXOR STRENGTHENING
Doing the pose correctly involves activation of the hip flexors, to support the lower back while lengthening the front body. Engagement with the core will support the lower back. Coming back up slowly, using the hip flexors and abs will further strengthen the area.
Physical benefit: QUAD STRENGTHENING
These large muscles support the hip flexors in the pose. Holding camel will increase strength and endurance in the upper part of the legs.
Mental benefit: MENTAL CLARITY
One of the most challenging things to do is often to let go and surrender to what is outside of your control, whether it is in life or on the mat. If it feels good on your neck, surrendering the weight of the head to gravity in camel pose is often a powerful tool to clear the mind. With practice this may assist with letting go of control in other aspects of our lives, to allow a more natural flow rather than forcing things.
Physical benefit: LUNG EXPANSION
Opening the chest allows you to use the full capacity of the lungs to breathe. Breathing fully and deeply in this pose floods the body with oxygen and allows the muscles to release.
Mental benefit: BREAK OUT OF OLD HABITS – 'I can..'/not 'I can’t'
Our first experience of ustrasana may be a very uncomfortable one, and seeing experienced yogis flexing into it may seem intimidating. However, with practice, our beliefs and habits can change from ‘I can’t do that’, to ‘Alright, I’ll give it a go’, to, ‘Bring it on!’ (I have experienced all of these!)
No matter where you are at in your practice with camel pose, whether you're in the preparatory stages (half camel: click here for instructions), or more experienced, focus on full breathing and opening of the front body to strengthen and open both body and mind.
Next week's pose...crow pose [bakasana]