It is February, Valentines day is approaching. We are getting closer to Spring and the days are getting longer. This month the focus for my classes and blog will be opening the heart.
In yoga, the heart centre is the space in the centre of our chest, the place in which we express emotion and feelings. It is common to be restricted or feel closed in this area, either physically or emotionally.
Let’s look at the physical causes first. The modern lifestyle in the developed world involves too much sitting down, either at a desk, home computer or slumped over a steering wheel. Unless close attention is paid to our posture during these many hours of daily sitting, we may find ourselves slouching with the upper back rounded and shoulders drawn forwards. In this position the chest collapses and the back of the neck shortens to keep our head upright. Gradually over time our bodies get stuck in this way of sitting and our soft tissues i.e. muscles, ligaments and fascia, become rigid, making it even harder for us to correct this posture. To make matters worse, correct breathing becomes impossible so our overall health and wellbeing is compromised.
From a psychosomatic perspective (where we understand the connection between body and mind), this tightening of the heart area is often seen in people who are or have been broken hearted. Drawing the shoulders forward and collapsing the chest is a way of self-protection, of using our body to build ‘armour’ around our hearts to prevent us from further hurt. If this tension is not addressed, then it may not be possible to let go of the need to protect oneself and at the same time to be able to offer love, compassion and express our emotions freely.
Here is where yoga can help us; by practicing stretches and postures to break down the rigid armour, restore correct posture, allow us to breathe correctly and open our hearts. It is worth mentioning that during or after a yoga practice, we may experience the release of stored emotions. Sometimes opening the shoulders and chest can evoke feelings of vulnerability or bring to the surface emotions that have been locked away for a long time. This is all part of the process of yoga. By letting go of these chronically held tensions in our bodies, we will emerge feeling stronger, happier and free from unhelpful behavioural patterns that are no longer relevant.
To open the heart centre and correct slumped posture, introduce shoulder and chest stretches and gentle twists into your daily routine (you can even do them at your desk!) along with back bending postures in your yoga practice. If you are a beginner, please practice back bends under the supervision of your yoga teacher.
Here are a few shoulder and chest openers to get you started. These can be practiced by anyone and you don’t need to warm yourself up first. They will take just a few minutes of your day, and if practiced daily, you will notice a real difference.
Benefits: lengthens the triceps, latissimus dorsi and pectorals of the upper arm; lengthens the long head of biceps, pectoralis major and upper trapezius of the lower arm. Encourages a slight extension (back bending) action of the thoracic spine.
This shoulder and chest stretch is the upper body part of the full Gomukhasana (cow face) posture. Here I am sitting on my heels, but you can do this standing or sitting in a chair, as you wish. If your fingertips do not meet, then use a belt or tie as shown in the second picture and walk your hands towards each other.
Once you have set your arms, check that your spine and neck are in neutral, aligned and that your lower ribs are gently drawing in. Stay for at least a minute (longer if your shoulders are tighter). You may notice that one side is significantly tighter than the other, in which case it’s a good idea to hold the stretch for longer on the more challenging side.
This can be a real challenge if your shoulders and/or pectoral muscles are tight. To keep the heel of the hand and the thumbs connected, the shoulders must stay back. If the palms do not join, start by holding opposite elbows or forearms with your hands, as shown in the second photo, encouraging the chest to broaden and open whilst drawing your shoulder blades down your back. Breathe deeply into your chest to encourage the opening of the heart centre.