If you’ve been to even just a few yoga classes, you’ve probably heard the term “heart opener”. This term, though often used to describe back-bending, chest-opening postures, actually digs so much deeper than that. Heart opening in yoga can happen through posture, breath, or meditation – and affects not just the physical structure of the chest (layers of tissue, bone and muscle) where the heart resides, but the energetic and emotional capacity (love, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, to name a few) of ourselves as well. So why do we work on that space so often in yoga, and how does this affect our lives off of our mat?
Firstly, it’s helpful to understand how it all works together. Your physical structure of your body, the energy you have in your daily life, the way you perceive the world around you, the thoughts you have, and the emotions you experience – are not all separate functions that operate in isolation. But in fact, all of these aspects of yourself are part of the many layers of your being, which are intricately tied together. It’s nearly impossible to affect one without having an affect on the other.
In yoga, we largely focus on this – how the movements, postures, and breath within our physical body affect our internal landscape – shaping our thoughts, emotions and whole state of being. We also consider the energetic realm of our self: chakras (energy centers that have a physical location in the body) being some of the more common considerations.
Heart-openers are widely used in yoga because many of us develop a shield, or a sort of armour around our heart-space from years of improper, or unsupported physical posture, and emotionally challenging or damaging experiences. Stiff muscles and inelastic tissues, cause the bones (ribs, breast-bone, and spine) of the chest to fix in place, and restrict the mobility and flexibility of the chest & space around the heart. The heart chakra (Anahata chakra) also has it’s physical location in the center of the chest – and partially depends on the circulation of energy, life-force, chi, or prana, to be stimulated and kept in balance. This physical and energetic shield also restricts our emotional capacity to relate to one another, to open up and show our true selves, to love, feel compassion, empathy, and gratitude towards ourselves and others.
Through postures that extend, expand, lift, and add more mobility and space to the chest, we being to remove some of that tension in the tissues (softening the armour), and encourage more circulation of blood, oxygen, and prana through the area, and the heart chakra. With heart-openers, we may feel a release of upset emotions, as well as a flood of joyful emotions. The effects can be immediate and also long-term.
Yoga, through all of the different approaches, attempts to remove any blockages we have that prevent us from understanding ourselves more deeply, and relating to others from a more authentic place. Heart-opening is some of the most effective work we can do for the above reasons. It allows us to experience greater depths of our own selves, and to recognize and understand these qualities in others. As you begin to access that space within yourself more readily, you can balance the influence that your head and your heart have on your thoughts and actions, and may even find that you have a greater sense of “flow” in life – with less challenges, less blockages, and a smoother, easier time achieving your goals and desires.
And since these effects can last long after you roll up your mat and leave the studio, heart opening has the power to positively affect the way you see yourself and the world around you, and how you interact with others. For this reason – heart openers are some of my favourite experiences to share – because it causes a ripple effect from every individual into their lives and everyone they connect with.
So WHAT are heart-openers? Like I said before, they can come in many forms – from postures, to breath-work, meditations, and even journaling or deep introspection. Common heart-opening postures include: cobra pose, upward-dog, camel pose, boat pose, bridge pose, fish pose, and dancers pose, to name a few. Almost any pranayama (or breathing technique) could be considered a heart opener, as it will all help to bring more oxygen in, and balance the right and left sides of the body (and heart). And there are many meditations that focus on clearing physical, energetic, or even mental blockages from the heart-space, which can also be very effective for healing old traumas (all part of removing the armour). To build more heart-opening into your practice, keep an awareness of this space, work on lifting the chest and collar-bones (especially with the inhales), keep the shoulders soft down the back (when possible), and visualize or feel an invigorating energy moving towards the heart.
Consider building a more heart-centered approach in your yoga practice, and watch how it positively changes your life off your mat.
Love & Light,