Opening the Heart
When we talk about 'opening the heart' in yoga, we are referring to both a physical and psychological/emotional practice.
Our heart space is that area of the mid-chest, protected all around by our rib cage, together with the sternum (breastbone) at the front and the spine at the back. Our intercostal muscles connect between each rib, and the dome-shaped diaphragm forms the floor of this thoracic cavity, separating the heart and lungs from the digestive and reproductive organs below.
We round our shoulders and stoop forward to protect our heart if we're carrying emotional wounds, and as our nervous system works in a feedback loop with our body, we are sending messages to our brain which reinforce these feelings. If we spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or driving, our body also adopts this posture, so we begin to see the importance of counteracting this compression through our yoga practice, unblocking and opening the free flow of energy through the body.
Through the practice of pranayama (conscious breathing), we can begin to bring awareness to this area, gently stretching, opening and truly expanding into this three-dimensional space. Imagine there's a balloon inside the heart space that you fully inflate and deflate with every breath cycle. To deepen the practice, begin to imagine that you are breathing energy, warmth and compassion into the heart space as you inhale, and radiating that through the body as you exhale.
Notice what happens to the breath when you feel physical or emotional pain... it becomes shallower and moves higher up in the chest, which restricts the movement of the diaphragm and causes a feeling of tightness in this whole area (chest, shoulders, upper back).
Once you have settled into this expansive breathing, to encourage a feeling of heart opening in your asana (posture) practice, gentle backbends are perfect, expanding the front rib cage and drawing the shoulder blades towards the spine and down the back. Try Anahatasana (heart opening pose), Ustrasana (camel pose), any of the prone backbends including Bhujangasana (cobra pose) or Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (up dog).
Through these practices, not only will your posture improve, but you will feel more energy and more connection to yourself and others. Sceptical? Give it a go and see what happens! x