Recently one of the practitioners in my class asked about ustrasana, a difficult backbending posture known in English as ‘camel’.
Several years ago I remember my teacher saying that it took a whole class to prepare for this posture, and I’ve never seen reason to question that. Backbends, like twists, require a whole lot of parts of the body to co-operate – to be warm and receptive to a strong movement that can be powerful in, hopefully, a good way.
The longer I have practised and taught yoga asanas, the more respect I have for backbends and the more I love them. More than the inversions such as headstand and handstand, they are, for me, akin to the Holy Grail of the physical practice – the postures that welcome you only when you are truly ready, when you have humbled yourself before them, when you have offered yourself up to their greater power. They are the river between heaven and earth – between the physical heaven of sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head and the physical earth of mooladhara chakra at the base of the spine; they open up sushumna nadi between those chakras, requiring udana and apana vayus to be flowing, connecting you to the energy of the metaphysical heaven above and the very real earth beneath our feet. They require you to possess both sthira - steadiness - and sukha - ease in the body or embodied joy. All asanas require that you balance these two qualities, but that balance is particularly challenging in backbends, where there are so many things that can make us feel unsteady and, thus, less at ease.
When you’re ready for a backbend such as ustrasana – when you have practised the principles of vinyasa, working mindfully towards your asana, preparing legs, hips, shoulders, spine – there is no physical sensation like it. The sense of release, of bliss, of surrender is extraordinary.
You don’t necessarily have to be in ustrasana – you could be in the more accessible dhanurasana, which is the same posture but in a different relationship to gravity, or the more grounded yet often just as challenging urdhva dhanurasana. But there is something about that posture that made the student in question ask about it, and that something is probably what a lot of people experience in the pose: a sense of instability and of the world being slightly tilted on its axis; of not knowing where you are in time and space.
Thus ustrasana does what every challenging posture should do: it makes you question what business you have even being in it. If you’re not ready for it, why are you even in it? What’s the rush? Why don’t you come back next lifetime and do it? Of course, you don’t want to wait because the fruits of the posture are so tantalising: that heaven–earth thing, again. So we persevere in the hard backbends, and eventually we either give up or find a way to surrender to them.
My favourite backbend is one I learned from Shiva Rea, which I believe came out of her own practice: radhakrishna-asana. More than any other backbend, it will tell me what’s going on in my body and my life: if I’m not ready for it, I simply can’t do it so well and I will have to back off; if I am ready for it – if I flow towards it – then it rewards me with rapture and joy and, yes, heaven and earth, literal and metaphysical and energetic.
And this is why coming back to the mat, time after time, remains so rewarding and so beautiful: this practice of yoga — of body, mind and breath and spirit — is truly and literally embodied in postures such as these. Only if I take my time, though; only if I don’t rush it. I have to be patient. I have to accept that the posture is not mine to take but it will be granted to me if I’ve prepared for it.
Sometimes, obviously, there are very real physical limitations that prevent someone backbending – but this does not mean there are not other postures or variations of the backbending postures that cannot provide the same bliss. Lying on the ground in savasana is also a connection between earth – the back body is lying on it – and heaven – the front body is open to it.
Every yoga practitioner no doubt has at least one asana that represents this for them – this sense that they are the conduit between heaven and earth. If you don’t think you have one, next time you’re on the mat, act as a witness to your own practice and just see what happens. There will be one, I guarantee it – possibly savasana, possibly ustrasana, possibly something else completely different. And once you realise that it’s your heaven–earth posture, well ... how wonderful. You’ve found your connection. Enjoy it.
- Sophie Hamley