Ahhhh heart openers. Just the sound of that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. But what exactly are heart openers and more importantly, why should we do it?
Before we delve into this, take a moment to observe your posture. As you read this, notice if your shoulders are slumped forward. Does your chest feel collapsed? Is gravity pulling you down? Do you sit at a desk in front of a computer for long hours? Do you feel low self-esteem and lack a solid sense of self-confidence?
If you answered yes to any of these questions or if you often find yourself in a rounded upper back position, then heart openers are for you.
But to open the heart, it is important to identify where this area is in the body.
The heart center begins in the most obvious place, literally your heart that pumps blood through the whole system. This vital organ heart lives within the thoracic cavity surrounded by the rib cage, comprised of 12 ribs on the right and 12 on the left plus your sternum and collarbones in the front and the spine in the back. These bones are held together by soft tissues, cartilage and ligaments. In addition the heart center includes the lungs plus the deltoids (shoulders) and the pectoralis(chest) muscles.
Aside from an anatomical perspective, the heart center also relates to the seat of our emotional intelligence serving as the center of our feelings. Whether we love or hate, feel scared of joyous, we sense this in our emotional heart. Beyond that, in the yogic philosophy, there is the deeper, innermost heart called hrdaya, the spiritual heart. This refers to our Higher Self, pure consciousness, our connection to the divine. This is the part of us that never changes regardless of outside circumstances. Unlike our emotions that tend to change based on our conditioned patterns of belief and previous experiences, hrdaya is the manifestation of love that is our true nature.
Why should we open the heart?
On a basic level, opening the heart improves the capacity for breath. Any time we feel scared, challenged or pressure, we usually stop breathing and close the chest. Such defensive, shallow breathing patterns can cause muscle tightness. Heart openers, therefore, help keep the rib cage mobile preventing it from becoming rigid and restrictive so the lungs have space to expand completely.
Heart openers also alleviate tense shoulders and necks by counteracting the forward rounding of the torso. Usually, someone with rounded shoulders and a collapsed spine are viewed as having less confidence, being more fearful or possibly even depressed. Its akin to having strong armor to protect our wounds. Practicing heart openers can evoke a stronger sense of self-confidence and self-esteem and help us let go of past traumas. They help us find vulnerability and self-awareness in our bodies, allowing us to open up to something new.
The heart center is the location of the Anahata Chakra, one of the seven main energy centers of the body. This chakra is associated with love, kindness and forgiveness both towards ourselves and others. The opening the chest area symbolizes the opening of our emotions, enhancing feelings of compassion and connection. This may mean finding forgiveness for someone with hurt us or expanding our capacity for loving ourselves more deeply. We can use heart openers to help us prepare and deal with challenging situations or relationships with difficult people.
Heart Opening Poses
Many heart opening poses are generally considered backbends because they help counteract the forward rounding of the torso and collapsing of the heart. Remember before beginning any movement, warm up properly, listen to your body and honor how you feel. Heart openers can also be intense because they stimulate release of emotions. So remember to be gentle with yourself!
Before beginning any poses, practice slow, gentle, deep breaths. Keeping your mouth closed and your jaw relaxed, take an inhale breath filling your belly, lungs and ribs. Try to expand from your sternum outwardly. As you exhale, release from your ribs, lungs and belly. Find evenness of breath and avoiding forcing, straining or any aggressive breathing. Keep it smooth, steady and simple!
Restorative Heart Opener
1- Lay down on your mat in a supine position.
2 – Place one block underneath your shoulder blades on the lowest height. Place another block at the base of your skull on the medium height. (If this doesn’t feel totally comfortable, play with the heights of the blocks until you find what works.)
3 – Allow your arms to rest comfortably. You can choose to place one hand on the belly and one on the heart. You can take your arms overhead and clasp opposite elbows or allow them to fall alongside the body with palms facing up.
4 – Either extend your legs straight out and let the feet splay or bring the soles of the feet together to create a diamond shape with the legs. (Blankets or blocks can be used under knees for additional support.)
5 – Close your eyes, relax your face, neck and jaw.
6 – Stay for as long as you like as you practice deep breathing. Feel the gentle opening of the heart and chest. When you are ready to get out of the pose, slowly roll to one side, pause for a few breaths and use the help of your hands to sit up slowly.
Crescent Lunge – Anjaneyasana
1- Begin on all fours and place your right foot forward. Move your left knee slightly back and place a blanket or bolster underneath for added cushion and support. Place hands on hips.
2 – Track your right knee over your second and third toe as you gently bend the right knee forward, allowing the pelvis to sink. Keep the left leg pressing into the ground and parallel to the edge of your mat.
3 – Inhale and lift your arms overhead. Exhale take arms behind your back and interlace your fingers. Roll your shoulders forward, up, back then down. Straighten the arms and bring the palms together.
4 – Try to lift your pubic bone towards your belly button and press your tailbone downwards.
5 – Lift the chest without dumping into your lower back. Use the bottom angle of your shoulders blades to help you open the heart. Move your arms and hands away from your body.
6 – Gently lift head upwards while relaxing the neck and jaw. Breathe into your heart center for 5-10 deep breaths.
7 – Mindfully release the hands down, step right knee back, switch sides and repeat.
Camel – Ustrasana
1 – Kneel on the floor with your knees hip distance apart and thighs parallel to the floor. (You can kneel on a blanket if you have sensitive knees.)
2 – Move your hands to your hips and encourage the front hip points to lift while simultaneously releasing the tailbone down. Press your shins and the tops of your feet firmly into floor.
3 – Move your hands to your heart center in a prayer. Inhale, lift the breastbone, widen the collarbones and extend up and out of the pelvis. Press your shoulder blades against your back ribs.
4 – As you exhale, lean back without dumping into the lower back and release your right hand to your right heel (or to a block) and your left hand to your left heel (or to a block).
5 – Move the pelvis forward and release the front ribs to keep the lower spine as long as possible. Press your palms firmly against your heels with your fingers pointing toward the toes.
6 – Turn your arms outwardly so the elbow creases face forward. You can keep your neck in a neutral position or drop your head back but be careful not to strain your neck and tense the throat.
7 – Take 5-10 breaths here then slowly bring your hands back to prayer at the center of your chest. Inhale and lift the head and torso up by pushing the hip points down towards the floor. As you exhale, move into Child’s Pose for a few breaths.
(Both Crescent Lunge + Camel are deep, powerful heart openers so be mindful that you expand and extend up and out of the pelvis to avoid compressing the lower back!)
Now over to you. Do you practice heart opening poses? If so, what is your favorite heart opening pose? Comment and share below!