Color is back! Contrasted with winter’s palette of greys, spring’s panoply of brights invites us to open up, to expand, to step out after a long hibernation. Spring is the time for a deep inhale, a time to take in the vibrant abundance of color and new life around us. Even the word “April,” from the Latin aperire, means “to open,” in celebration of the opening of flowers and tree buds.
According to the Chinese medical model, the wood element becomes predominant in spring. Wood symbolizes growth and new beginnings. In the Chinese system, each element supports a vital organ. Wood is associated with the liver and gall bladder, said to be the home of both anger and determination.
This month’s pose is a variation of Ustrasana, Camel Pose. The camel is a symbol of determination, trudging as she does through the desert sun and sand, carrying a reservoir of fatty tissue—her energy source—on her back. Ustrasana can lead us to the well of energy that dwells inside us. Like the camel, who replenishes her energy by metabolizing her reserves, Ustrasana revitalizes us when we feel dull or fatigued.
A backbend with an element of spinal rotation, this Ustrasana variation tones the liver and gall bladder, enhances respiration by expanding the whole front body, and invigorates the body and spirit. Backbends also strengthen your back and shoulders, and can elevate your mood.
While the traditional version of Ustrasana yields the same benefits as the variation, I find the variation to be accessible to more people. I also enjoy the additional side body elongation that comes with this variation. In general, I prefer to place any backbend into the middle of a practice, warming up with poses that elongate the quadriceps muscles, sides of the body and front body, and poses that expand the chest. Here are a few suggestions:lunges to lengthen the quadriceps, Parighasana to stretch the side body, Setu Bandha Sarvangasana for expanding the front body and chest. Take your time preparing. There’s no hurry to get to Ustrasana. Remember that yoga is practice, not performance. When you give your body the warm-up time it needs, Ustrasana will feel expansive and exhilarating.
Begin by sitting on your heels. If your knees will not allow this, feel free to place a rolled blanket or block under your hips to start. Place a block next to the outside of your left foot. Take a moment to feel your body. What is the character of your energy? Slow or quick? Downward or upward moving? Calm or agitated? There’s no need to try to “correct” what you feel; simply notice what is present.
Press your knees and shins into the floor to lift your hips off the heels, bringing you to a kneeling position, with your pelvis directly over your knees. Reach your right arm straight up toward the sky. Place your left hand on the left hipbone. Ground your knees and shins, lifting your chest, so that your low back lengthens. From this lengthening, root your pelvis right over your knees (don’t let it fall back toward your heels), and begin to bend back from the waist. Place your left hand on your block and then press your hand into the block to help lift the left side of your chest. Now reground your right knee and reach your right arm out from the shoulder joint. Breathe and expand. Stay here, breathing fully, from 30 to 60 seconds.
Press your knees into the floor to help bring your body back to upright. Release both arms to your sides and return to sitting on your heels or your block or blanket. Close your eyes and be aware of your body’s energy. Has anything shifted? When you feel ready, move the block from outside your left foot to outside your right foot, and repeat the pose on your second side.
If your lumbar is flexible in backbends, you can do this again, placing your hand on your heel instead of a block. Otherwise, feel free to repeat the pose using a block to support your bottom hand. In either case, remember to take care to keep your pelvis aligned over your knees. After practicing Ustrasana, practice a simple seated or supine twist. Then practice at least one seated forward bend to balance and contain the energy you’ve created in your practice of Ustrasana, and finish with Savasana (supine final relaxation pose).
Like the earth whose potential energy bursts forth in springtime, and the camel who survives harsh conditions by drawing on her own reserves, our bodies contain a well of energy. Ustrasana teaches us how to utilize these energies and tap into the larger container of joyful, springtime energy that’s all around us.