In a yoga class, you might often hear the phrase "open the heart or heart opening." These phrases describe two different actions depending on whether one is speaking of backbends or twists. In a backbend such as "the Cobra", we try to arch the upper back, expand the chest and soften the shoulders back. In a twist, we try to lengthen the spine and expand the space between the shoulders while rotating the chest to one side.
Breathing plays a vital role in helping this opening and to mobilize the ribcage, and area which can be quite stiff through habitual shallow breathing. Learning to breathe throughout the chest in 3D - in the front, side and back of the body –enlivens the whole torso creating space and a freedom of movement that revitalises the body.
Opening the heart with the breath and yoga positions is more than a beautiful phrase to describe a movement. Our heart is a place of vulnerability, which we often protect physically by rounding the shoulders and crossing the arms, or by building an inner wall to not feel pain and often both at the same time – creating ourselves stiff ribbed armour.
Just as the state of our minds affect our bodies and our posture, so can our posture can affect our minds. Opening the heart in a yoga practice can bring to the surface emotions (often repressed feelings of vulnerability) and impact our mood. Often, backbends are felt as freeing and energizing.
Furthermore, when we learn how to bring softness to these heart opening positions and movements, a softness which transforms these into something truly beautiful, we learn to take care of ourselves and unlock our hearts.
For a joyful backbend practice:
Don’t overstretch (practice Ahimsa).
Work with the breath.
Use the core muscles to stabilise and ground these positions.
Have fun with them.
If emotions come up during or after class, allow them to flow without needing to understand, suppress or fix them. It is just energy moving.
Take plenty of time to allow the body to relax and be calm after backbends.