I’m the kind of person who is pretty sure that every benefit and change that yoga offers can be backed up by good science. Here’s the thing: science is not really the “drive behind my kick” so to speak. I am generally more interested in what yoga philosophy has to say about various poses, including a pose called ustrasana, or camel pose.
Most people experience strong sensations in ustrasana. Here is an list of just some of the physical experiences I have while in the pose: nausea, numbness, nerve pain, surges of energy, dizziness, emotions (including tears welling up, though not from pain), lower back pain, constricted breathing, muscle fatigue, and deep stretching.
Although it may not look particularly challenging, it’s an intense pose. In Western culture, we spend a lot of time hunched and rounding forward: at our desks, at the computer, as we drive, watching tv on the couch, etc. So, at first, it can feel really foreign to open up the chest in this way. Most of us are really unaccustomed to doing it.
Backbends are supposed to be the “healers of the spine.” By practicing regular backbends, we keep our spine flexible and in turn, help lubricate and stimulate the myelin sheath, which leads to better nerve function and that leads to better overall health and good feelings in the body. The pose also helps to builds core strength and stretches the front body and hip flexors, which get tighter as we age and as we sit in front of computers all day. Although the pose is intense and can make you want to hold your breath, once you start breathing in the pose, the lungs and chest are open and optimal for really deep breathing, which, in turn, helps send fresh, oxygenated blood throughout the body.
According to yoga tradition, part of the physical reaction to the pose has to do with opening up the fourth chakra, which is the heart chakra. In theory, we hunch forward to protect our emotions. When we open up that chakra, intense energy flows through the chakra and helps release emotional energy that, for whatever reason, we weren’t able to release when we first experienced the emotion. If energy flows through the body all the way from the root chakra to the crown chakra, then it is possible for energy to get stuck at a chakra and thus effect the energy flow through the rest of the body. A regular yoga practice, including ustrasana for the heart chakra, can help these energy centers to become and remain balanced for optimal physical, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional health. That’s according to yoga philosophy, but chakras are also physically connected with nerve bundles in the body, and so the metaphor works on several levels.
Recently, one of the Bikram teachers said, “You’ve got to feel it to heal it” during class. It’s one of those things that you might hear many times in class before it really resonates. The idea that “you’ve got to feel it to heal it” works for physical injures. For example, I overstretched my hamstring a few months ago. In order to heal it quickly, I was attentive to it. I had to move, walk, and gently stretch it in yoga. I am certain that this extra care helped the injury to heal quickly. But, I had to go to the sensation; I had to feel the injury in order to heal it. I am convinced that sitting on the couch and ignoring an injury and never doing anything that might pull, stretch, or otherwise remind us that we had an injury in the first place, only slows the healing process.
The adage also works in an emotional sense. When I am deep in ustrasana, emotions well up and other physical reactions happen that seem to emanate from my chest. In a traditional yogic sense, it would seem that I have to feel those emotional sensations in order to work through them and release them from my body. Old disagreements and confusing situations also come to mind during the pose. It’s clear to me that this is my mind and body’s way of letting me know that, although I might think it is long gone, I’m still physically and emotionally working through the problem. And yoga is the catalyst for helping me feel the things that I need to heal.