If February is the month of love, it's a great time to take a deeper dive into the benefits heart opening yoga. From improved posture, strengthened core and improved breathing to greater capacity for confidence and compassion, a heart opening practice will develop self-love and expand it out into the world.
What is heart opening in yoga?
Heart opening refers to yoga poses where the breastbone moves forwards and up, expanding the chest, leading from the heart area. The heart opening effect or 'leading with the heart' is an expansion of the chest and the front of the upper body which develops a feeling of openness, confidence, strength, connection and compassion. Alternatively, heart opening can also mean other types of practice, including meditation, which focus on the heart centre and on developing the same feelings and sensations.
What are heart opening practices in yoga?
Common examples include Bhujagasana (cobra pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (upwards facing dog), Virabhadrasana II (warrior II) and Ardho Mukha Svanasana (downwards facing dog).
Mudra and other gestures can also be heart opening; reverse prayer and 'cactus arms' are often used alongside strong lower body positions to open the heart and the hips or hamstrings.
Breath practices which focus on expanding the ribcage and the top of the chest (such as the three part breath) or breathwork practiced in a heart opening position, e.g. with a yoga block between the shoulder blades can work to expand the chest and create a heart opening practice.
Heart opening mediations include gratitude and loving-kindness practices, which ask us to lead with the heart in developing kind and compassionate feelings toward ourselves and others.
What are the benefits of heart opening in yoga?
Heart opening yoga has many benefits for the physical and subtle body. Heart opening poses involve drawing the shoulder blades together and moving the heads of the shoulders down and back, the opposite movement to the daily hunch that many of us develop when sitting at a desk, driving, or bending over a phone or laptop. Heart opening poses keep the physical body more open and supple in the shoulders, neck and upper back which can ward off unwanted stiffness as we age, improve posture and even reduce everyday neck and shoulder pain that often results from being in one position for too long.
Heart opening poses and pranayama give us the chance to expand the whole ribcage from bottom to sides to top which may result in a fuller, freer breath and more oxygen entering the body. We may notice a marked difference in the quality and strength of the breath after a heart-opening practice.
As heart opening poses open the front of the body they allow us to feel more present and connected with the world in front of us. This is, in a practical sense, the opposite of yoga poses where we turn inwards and anchor our attention on what's going on inside. In heart opening poses our bodies and hearts come forward to greet the world and we often feel a sense of expansiveness, confidence and joy at our ability to do this. Heart opening poses are extremely beneficial for nurturing confidence and good feelings, and as such regular practice can make a real difference for physical and mental wellbeing.
It isn't only the poses that foster beneficial feelings. Pranayama which expand the whole ribcage, such as the three part breath, will also connect us deeply with our bodies and our breath to create a sense of expansion, joy and openness.
When practicing meditation, especially loving kindness meditation, for example, we develop a sense of compassion and connection with ourselves and others as we begin to open our hearts in those directions.
How do we practice heart opening during yoga practice?
Most yoga classes will contain some heart opening practices. Even simply lying down in savasana or constructive rest and allowing tension to be released from the shoulders, whilst noticing the weight of the shoulder blades sinking into the mat is a heart opening practice (try it now and notice how it feels!).
In a practical sense, heart opening poses should be practiced with mindfulness and control. It's always a good idea to balance their back bending nature with some forward folds and bends (the classic being child's pose or balasana) and, whilst focussing on moving the heart forwards, also bring awareness to the hips and the shoulders moving into alignment with the ribcage, activating the strength of the core muscles. This not only helps to strengthen and stretch the core muscles, it also protects the lower back from over flexion.
The heart opening qualities of numerous yoga poses can be enhanced by, for example, including a reverse prayer mudra (or holding opposite elbows behind the back), taking 'cactus arms', deliberately drawing the shoulderblades down and together or placing a yoga block across the bottom of the shoulderblades.
We may also gain a fresh view on a familiar pose, pranayama or meditation practice by considering how we could lead it more with the heart. This might be in the physical sense: how could we be more heart-forward in the posture? Or in the emotional and compassionate sense: how might we bring our heart more into the practice? Perhaps by being kinder to ourselves, more compassionate, or more deliberately present in what we are doing.
Is there anyone who shouldn't do heart opening in yoga?
Those who have severe shoulder and or neck issues (e.g. rotor cuff injury or frozen shoulder) may find heart opening yoga postures are not suitable for them. There are, however, many options for creating different amounts of heart opening, so most people will find something, however small, that they are able to work with and find the benefits.
People who are struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges may find heart opening extra difficult, intense or even at times impossible. We often turn deeply inward during these experiences and the physical movement involved in heart opening can feel vulnerable and alien. If this is you, it doesn't mean you can't benefit from heart opening in yoga, but it's a good idea to work one on one with a teacher to figure out what's going to feel safe and appropriate.
Heart opening postures should also be practiced in conjunction with mindful core muscle control and activation so that we don't 'dump' too much flexion into the lower back. If you have a lower back problem or injury, extra care should be taken around which versions of the poses you decide to try, and ideally under the supervision of a teacher. Some poses (such as upward facing bow or urdhva dhanurasana) should not be attempted if back issues are present.
Ready to do some heart-opening yoga practice?
Book a 1-1 or small group session which will be tailored just for where you are at and what you want to get out of your yoga practice.
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