The ‘Camel Train’: Safely Doing Simple to Complex Backward-bending Postures and Movements

Safely Doing Simple to Complex Backward-bending Postures and Movements:
‘THE ADVANCED CAMEL TRAIN’: In this 3 minute video I demonstrate and describe what you need to be aware of to safely come into postures such as the ‘Camel posture’ (Ustrasana) and related postures such as Laghu vajrasasana, Bhekasana and Kapotasana. I call this advanced sequence ‘The Camel Train’. It is from the Yoga Synergy Advanced Water Sequence and it is lots of fun! 
*** Ustrasana 
*** Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana 
*** Janu Laghu Vajrasana 
*** Supta Virasana 
*** Supta Bhekasana 
*** Kapotasana 
*** With Hamsasana between each posture. 


Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier (from left to right in each row) (a) Ustrasana ('Camel posture'); (b) Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana; (c) Janu Laghu vajrasana; (d) Supta Virasana; (e) Supta Bhekasana ; (f) Kapotasana

Figure 1: Simon Borg-Olivier (from left to right in each row) (a) Ustrasana (‘Camel posture’); (b) Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana; (c) Janu Laghu vajrasana; (d) Supta Virasana; (e) Supta Bhekasana ; (f) Kapotasana

In each of the ‘Camel’ postures the emphasis (for reasons I describe below) is to activate the spinal flexors (mainly the abdominal muscle rectus abdominis) to become active in order to reciprocally relax the back muscles. To balance this activity I practice The ‘arm-balancing swan posture’ (Hamsasana), which activates the the spinal extensor (back muscles) and thus reciprocally relaxes the abdominal muscles and frees the internal organs. Hamsasana is similar to Mayurasana but uses the more challenging forward pointing hand position.

(Caution: Please note that is an advanced practice is not a practice for most people, but the principles I give here can all be used in simple backward-bending component of the spinal movements sequence Bianca Machliss and I have already described in a previous Yoga Synergy blog.

Most modern bodies are already too tense and compressed in their lower backs so the essence of a safe and effective backward-bending practice is as follows:
*** to create length and relaxation in the lower back muscles and joints,
*** maintaining length in the back of the spine while bending backwards, 
*** bending backwards by lengthening the front of the body and not shortening the front of the body, and also 
*** by activating the spinal flexors (such as rectus abdominis), which reciprocally relax the spinal extensors (the usually very tense lower back muscles) while making the abdomen very strong. 
Working like this even in simple ‘backbends’ is the basis for relieving lower back pain, mobilising the spine, massaging and nourishing your internal organs and deriving tremendous energy as blood flow is enhanced through the vessels around the spine. 
The solution to safely bending backwards relies on gaining control of and learning to use a combination of the following important muscles:
*** Psoas major – bends the hips forward (hip flexor activity) and also bends the spine backwards (spinal extensor activity). If the psoas is over tense or in spasm it can be the cause of lower back pain because it will pull the L5-S1 joint of the lower spine into a backbend (spinal extension).
*** Rectus abdominis – the abdominal ‘six pack’ muscle that can keep the front ribs inwards and is the main muscle of bending forward which when active can help to reciprocally relax you back muscles, which are often too tense.
*** The diaphragm – the main muscle of breathing, which when used makes you more relaxed and make you feel like you are breathing into the abdomen.
*** Hip extensors (such as the backside muscles and the hamstrings) – these muscles can help to stop the hips from bending forwards and help to prevent the psoas muscle from hyper-extending L5-S1 and causing lower back pain.
It is possible, in any backward-bending position, to use a combination of muscles to prevent the hips from bending forward (enhances hip extension), which thus helps to prevent the usually weak and compressed L5-S1 region from bending backwards. The simplest instructions to get this effect are to move sitting bones forward (towards the belly), the top of the hips backwards (away from the belly) and move the navel forward.
Moving the navel forward can be done using a combination of the diaphragm and/or the rectus abdominis. This action tends to also pull the L5 vertebra slightly forward and can relieve lower back compression. This action can be trained if you practice abdominal (diaphragmatic) inhalation while doing a half sit up or practicing abdominal inhalation while carefully leaning slightly backwards from standing (which is safe for most people to do) like the beginning of what you would have to do if you are about to ‘drop back’ to Urdhva Dhanurasana (the ‘Inverted bow posture’ or ‘back arch’ posture), which is not that safe for most people. If you do want to learn to ‘drop back’ then a safer and simple posture to practice for most people is Ustrasana (the ‘Camel posture’), which I describe here and in my video. However, please note that for many people kneeling in the ‘camel posture’ is not good to do and most people are safer if they do not actually touch their ankles in the ‘camel’ and their related postures.
Once you can immobilise your hips in extension (lengthen the front of the hips) and breathe into your abdomen, especially if your rectus abdominis is active, and holding your front ribs inwards, you usually start to feel the middle of your back beginning to bend backwards (sometimes for the first time since being a child) while actually relieving any compression around L5-S1. This is largely due to two main reasons:
1. The fact that the psoas muscles actually join onto the transverse processes of the vertebrae T12-L5 and can therefore bend the spine backwards at these vertebrae if they are not allowed to make the L5-S1 region of the lower back bend backwards. 
2. The fact the the diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle that actually joins onto the psoas and so when the diaphragm becomes active (i.e. when it contracts as you inhale into the abdomen) it pulls on the psoas and even causes the psoas to become active (via the ‘stretch reflex’), which will cause the T12-L5 begin to bend backwards.
You can apply these principles in any backward bending (spinal extension posture (even while simply standing up straight).
While slowly lowering down into either the Ustrasana (‘camel posture) or Kapotasana (‘pigeon posture’), in the period before your hands touch your ankles the rectus abdominis is obliged to be very active and so no ribs can stick out. The trick is to keep this activation voluntarily when you touch your ankles with your hands. Once you feel your ribs sticking out in any back backward-bending posture you can be pretty sure your L5-S1 region of your lower back has been compromised. This is of course what happens to most people once they touch the floor in a back arch or their ankles in the ‘camel’ or ‘pigeon’ postures. In fact there is less risk of injury while lowering to a back arch (urdhva dhanurasana) from standing than there is once you touch the floor. This is of course hard to control and much easier to do in the ‘camel’ or even the ‘pigeon’ pose. The real art is to keep the rectus abdominis on while in the final stage of the ‘back arch’, ‘camel’ or ‘ pigeon’.
Supta vira uddiyan pranayama: This is one of my favourite morning activities. I lie down with my hips between my heels in Supta virasana, which is really great for stimulating the stomach meridian as well as tensioning the femoral nerve. Then I inhale fully and hold my breath in. Next I apply a positive pressure chin lock (ha-jalandhara bandha) to prevent pressure changes to my brain. Then while holding my breath in I apply positive pressure muscle co-activations around the chest and abdomen like exhaling but not exhaling (ha uddiyana bandha and ha mula bandha), which create in effect a Valsalva manoeuvre that gives the positive effects of hyperbaric oxygen therapy while releasing and relieving any stress in my spine. Then I exhale fully and hold my breath out. Next I expand my chest like inhaling but not (tha uddiyana bandha) which essentially ‘sucks’ my internal organs towards my chest thus relieving any potential for organ prolapse and stimulating my digestive, immune and reproductive systems in a really positive way. 
Supta Bhekasana: (the inverted frog pose): One of my favourite movements in the Yoga Synergy Advanced Water Sequence, which this video is an extract of.
It is quite fun going from Supta Virasana to Supta Bhekasana. You need to kind of wriggle and squiggle (that’s yogic technical jargon!) to get your hands under your feet. Keep your neck safe with a tha-jalandhara bandha (throat forward and head up), lengthen the front of your hips moving your sitting bones forward and up and the top of hops down to lengthen your lower back, then breathe diaphragmatically to expand the front of your body, release your lower back, stimulate the psoas muscle, stimulate your kidneys and bring blood to your digestive system. Mr Iyengar once told us that these postures are great therapy if you feel you have really eaten too much. He said do these postures for about twenty minutes then you can go and eat some more food! Mr Iyengar was such a great man with an amazing sense of humour and jest. He made yoga so much fun when we studied with him. Thanks and love to you Guruji.
Laghu Vajrasana: I show two forms here. The first form is call Kulpha Laghu Vajrasana and was taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois in second series Ashtanga vinyasa just before Kapotasana. The second one is called Janu Laghu Vajrasana, which is a slightly more advanced version shown by Sri BKS Iyengar in ‘Light on Yoga’. Both versions require tremendous strength in the knee extensors (quadriceps) or else they can be dangerous for the knees. The eccentric control of the central abdominal muscle (rectus abdominis) is key to maintaining and expansive (tha) Mula Bandha around the waist and a compressive (ha) Uddiyana Bandha around the chest. It teaches you that this muscle that is obligatory active to get into the posture should also be maintained during this posture and also in almost every back-bending (spinal extension) posture, including urdhva dhanurasna (which also obliges the rectus abdominis if you come into it from a standing ‘drop-back’ but not of you lift up from the floor into the posture). Any breathing is possible here but the most useful is a diaphragmatic (abdominal) inhalation and a chest (or passive) exhalation. This breathing in this posture also assists in improving your backend (by correctly activating the psoas muscle to act as a spinal extensor from T12 – L4 without causing the often damaging hyper extension at L5 – S1).
Here is another video I made some time ago explaining a slightly different way how to do the camel and its relating postures such as laghu vajrasana and kaptoasana. The information in this video is good  but unfortunately there is a background noise which you need to simply filter out with your brain to listen to it.

You can learn more about how to work like this by joining our live or online training.
It would be great if you can join Bianca Machliss and I in our 200 hour live course in Goa India from 19 March to 17 April 2016 ( ) (Both our online courses below are included with this training).
In our award winning online course ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ ( ) you will learn how to teach yourself or other how to do safe and effective practice for strength, flexibility, vitality and longevity in a comprehensive ashtanga vinyasa-based practice developed with the understanding of the body that that Bianca Machliss and I have acquired as physiotherapists and yoga teachers. 
If you join our course on the ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ ( ) you will get the key to understanding how to completely revolutionise any yoga practice on all levels.

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Comments 2

  1. Hi Simon,

    I have been practising your methods for two years now.
    I have read your text book and watched your Lectures and Elements DVDs.
    They have helped immensely.

    I tend to get compression in L1 at times, but recently L3-L4, and never L5-S1. Could I be over activating the PSOAS in spinal extension? I have strong, independent control over lower and upper TVA, and also rectus abdominus, and can perform both ha and Tha Nauli. However, I still struggle to do Urdhva Danurasana because I don’t allow the L5-S1 to bend, and, if I relax the rectus abdominus I tend to compress L1.

    My main question is, how does tensing rectus abdominus in Tha mula bandha support the lumber spine if I am also breathing into the upper TVA with the diaphragm active? The lower TVA I can, since childhood, activate at will, or, by tucking the tail bone or moving the sit bones forward. Is there much difference between tucking the tail bone versus “tucking” the sit bones? Aldo, in a post, you mention to move the sit bones forward and the top of hips back. I can since child hood “roll” my stomach which means I can move the naval forward at will by relaxing the upper TVA. Can the rectus abdominus contract whilst the upper TVA relaxes? How does moving the hips back reciprocally relax the upper TVA? And you also say to turn the thighs outwards in down dog after moving sit bones forward and hips backwards: Monica at eight limbs yoga in Perth wrote a piece on backbending and described, in addition to sacral nutation, how the activation of groin adductors helps activate mula bandha which in turn lengthens the spine. I wonder how this ties in with your instruction to keep the outside of the feet parallel but to try to turn thighs outwards (which I am guessing is external rotation close chain). Could I be right in supposing that the groin adductors are both anterior and posterior, and close chain external rotation of thighs amounts to squeezing the heels together thus contracting posterior adductors. Does posterior adductor activation lengthen the posterior spine more than the anterior spine, thus causing slight flexion of the spine?

  2. Post

    Dear Aiden Deem,
    Thanks for your kind message. It is great you have been working with our dvds and lectures for a few years.

    It is hard to assess you without actually seeing you but your suggestion re the psoas is a definite possibility. The L5-S1 is the most common compression zone but by no means the only place to get compression. If your L5-S1 is not compressing and you are not over-extending there maybe you dont need to restrict the movement there so much.

    The mechanisms of how things work are not fully understood and there is still research going on at very high levels. The abdominal muscles, back muscles pelvic floor and breathing muscles have complex interactions and they also interact with the enteric nervous system as well as many other body systems. It would be great if you can come to our live ten day course in sydney in May on the applied anatomy and physiology of yoga in the middle of May. Or perhaps come to our live ten day course in sydney in August on yoga therapy – then we can really look at you in the postures you mean and also symptomatically.

    Verbal communication on these issues can be confusing and i have found that although we are both trying to be clear with our words there can still be misunderstanding. Tucking tail bone and sitting bones can sometimes have different effects yes. Rectus abominus can contract while upper TVA relaxes. Moving the hips back does not necessarily relax the upper TVA. What Monica says is true yes. And Finally posterior adductor activation may or may not lengthen the posterior spine more than the anterior spine, thus causing slight flexion of the spine. There is not enough information here to tell. I hope this helps a bit. Cheers and best wishes, simon

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