Ustrasana: Classic Heart Opening in Camel Pose


Ustrasana extends the back of the body to stretch the front. The shoulders draw back to link the hands to the soles of the feet, and the knees lever the body up and forward to deepen the pose. The thighs tend to drift backward in Ustrasana, decreasing the angle between the upper and lower legs. Contract the quadriceps to extend the knees. This brings the thighs perpendicular to the floor, deepening the backbend (especially when the hands are holding the bottoms of the feet). Review the section on facilitated stretches to see how isolated stretching of the fronts of the shoulders and hips can improve this pose.

Notice how the individual parts work together to deepen the asana. For example, combine the subplot of extending the shoulders with the subplot of extending the knees to “triangulate” the spinal extension. Then engage the abdominals to produce the abdominal “air bag” effect. This prevents hyperextension of the lumbar spine and aids to protect the lower back.

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Basic Joint Positions

  • The knees flex.
  • The ankles plantar flex.
  • The hips extend, internally rotate, and adduct.
  • The trunk extends.
  • The shoulders extend.
  • The elbows extend.
  • The forearms supinate.

Ustrasana Preparation

Begin with the hands on the hips and draw the elbows back and towards each other. Press downward on the hips to lift the chest. Then begin to arch the spine. Because this is a fairly advanced pose, work in this intermediate position at first to condition the muscles that arch the back—the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum. Contract the quadriceps to extend the knees and bring the thighs to an upright position, perpendicular to the floor. Practice easing into and out of this position by pressing the shins down and attempting to straighten the knees. This levers the body upright.

Once you have a good sense of balance, let the arms fall back symmetrically toward the feet. If you’re unable to reach the feet, then keep the hands on the hips. When you have gained sufficient flexibility, place the palms of the hands onto the soles of the feet. Take care not to rotate the body during this movement. Rotational movements while extending the spine, especially if unplanned, can result in injury. Maintain soft and steady breathing throughout.

Step 1

Activate the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum to extend the back evenly throughout the length of the vertebral column. Notice how these muscles connect with the sacrum and ilia of the pelvis. This creates lumbopelvic rhythm, whereby the pelvis tilts forward as the back extends to create the final pose.

Step 2

Engage the gluteus maximus to extend the hips and femurs. This also retroverts the pelvis, tilting it back and down and drawing it in an opposite direction to the back muscles described in Step 2. This combination of forces stabilizes the pelvis. The fibers of the posterior third of the gluteus medius assist the gluteus maximus in this movement. The posterior tilt of the pelvis helps to counteract hyperextension of the lumbar spine. The hamstrings synergize the actions of tilting the pelvis back and down and extending the femurs (when the lower legs are fixed on the mat). As you deepen the pose, relax the hamstrings, or they will bend the knees and draw the thighs away from their vertical position.

Step 3

Engage the posterior deltoids to extend the shoulders. You can review this action in the muscle isolation section. Contract the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles to externally rotate the shoulders. Use the triceps to extend the elbows, and activate the supinator muscles of the forearms to rotate the palms so that the outer sides preferentially push down on the feet. Then balance the action of the supinators by pressing the mounds at the base of the index fingers into the soles, engaging the pronator teres and quadratus muscles of the forearms.

Step 4

If the pelvis drifts backwards toward the lower legs, most people’s instinct is to engage the buttocks to push it forward. This can actually draw the pelvis back more, because the gluteus maximus is tilting it back and down. A more efficient but less obvious action is to engage the quadriceps, as illustrated here. This increases the angle between the thighs and lower legs and easily levers the pelvis forward. The cue for engaging the quadriceps is to press the tops of the feet into the floor, as if trying to straighten the knees.

Step 5

Contract the rhomboids to adduct the shoulder blades toward the midline, opening the chest upward. Then engage the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior to expand the ribcage. The cue for engaging the pectoralis minor is to constrain the scapulae backward in adduction against the spine, and then attempt to roll the shoulders forward. The shoulders will not move, so the force of the contraction is transmitted to the origin of the muscle on the ribcage, lifting it. To engage the serratus anterior, hold the scapulae in place and imagine pressing the hands outward against a door frame.

Step 6

Finalize the pose by activating the rectus abdominis. This produces the abdominal “air bag” effect, wherein the increased intra-abdominal pressure supports the lumbar spine. The rectus abdominis also pulls upward on the pubic symphysis. This synergizes the action of the gluteus maximus in retroverting the pelvis, aiding to protect against lumbar hyperextension. Use the pubococcygeus and piriformis muscles to engage mula bandha and nutate the sacrum. This aligns the sacrum with the iliac bones, helping to prevent hyperextension of the lumbar spine.

Disclaimer Always, in your particular case, consult your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Yoga must always be practiced under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor may reduce the risk of injuries. Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor, in addition to the direction of your health care provider, can also help determine what poses are suitable for your particular case.

The information provided in the blog, website, books, and other materials is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. The author, illustrators, editors, publishers, and distributors assume no responsibility or liability for any injuries or losses that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The author, editors, illustrators, publishers, and distributors all make no representations or warranties with regards to the completeness or accuracy of information on this website, any linked websites, books, DVDs, or other products represented herein.


Ray Long, MD, FRCSC

Ray Long, MD, FRCSC, began his study of human anatomy and science at a young age under the guidance of his father, David Michael Long Jr., MD, PhD, a cardiovascular surgeon and research scientist. He went on to graduate from The University of Michigan Medical School and became an orthopedic surgeon.  
Ray was introduced to the alternative healing arts by author and mystic Robert A. Johnson, who taught him about shamanism, dream work, and ceremony. He began practicing yoga while a medical student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after graduation travelled to India to study with Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, his daughter Geeta, and son Prashant. During his time at the Iyengar Institute, Ray spent many hours observing and documenting Yogacharya Iyengar’s personal practice. These observations formed the foundation for much of his later work.
Dr. Long is the author of the bestselling books The Key Muscles of Yoga and The Key Poses of Yoga and the recently released Yoga Mat Companion anatomy series. Ray also writes a popular blog, The Daily Bandha, which details tips and techniques on how to combine modern Western science with the ancient art of Hatha Yoga. He leads workshops internationally and can be reached at Ray lives in New York with his French bulldog, Frank.


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