Similar to the way yoga and meditation can help open the mind, yoga can also do wonders in opening your heart. Often times, “opening the heart” is related to accepting love and increasing intimacy in relationships, not necessarily the physical aspect of strengthening through breath and movement.
To understand how this works, start by conceptualizing the physical mechanics of how the heart is positioned in the body. Your heart lives in what is called the thoracic cavity, which is surrounded by a bony cylinder, the rib cage, your sternum and the spine. The bones surrounding the heart are held together by soft tissue including muscles, cartilage and ligaments. Your diaphragm then forms the floor of the thoracic cavity, creating a “home” for the strongest muscle in your body and driving life force.
Conscious breath work is the key to heart opening yoga, with the goal being to “breathe into” those spaces in the thoracic cavity to increase mobility, gently stretch the surrounding soft tissue and literally open up the heart space. Defensive breath patterns stemming from nervousness, threatening thoughts, pain, pressure, and overall tenseness result in erratic breathing patterns and in turn, makes the heart muscles tighten up, creating stress on the heart.
Here are a few heart-opening yoga poses to incorporate into your practice:
1) Anjali Mudra (Seated Pose) – Sit on your mat with your ankles crossed and engage mula bandha by gently lifting the pelvic floor muscles and sitting tall. Place your palms together in front of your heart, gently bow your head and make a mental list of five ways love and happiness exist in your life. Dwell in this stillness for a few minutes before starting your practice.
2) Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) – Begin in Mountain Pose (standing up straight with your feet together). Step the right foot about three feet ahead of the left, turning the right foot and knee outward from the top of the thigh. Turn the left foot in at a 45-degree angle and distribute weight evenly between both legs. Inhale and raise the arms to shoulder height keeping the shoulders lowered, stretching through the fingertips. Exhale and extend the side body over the right leg and shift your hips backward, squaring the hips to the facing wall. Place the right hand on the right ankle, mat, or on a block. Straighten the left arm overhead and look up toward the left hand. Breathe for ten long, evenly spaced breaths, and direct the breath to the space within the thoracic cavity. Repeat on the other side.
3) Natarajasana (Dancer Pose) – Starting in Mountain Pose, inhale and shift your weight onto the right foot and lift the heel as you bend the knee. Keeping the torso upright, reach the left hand back and grasp the outside of the foot or ankle. To avoid compression in the lower back, lift the pubis bone towards the navel while simultaneously pressing the tailbone towards the floor. Begin to lift the foot away from the floor and torso. Extend the left thigh behind you, parallel to the floor. Sweep the right hand and catch hold of the inner left foot, lifting the leg even higher. Stay in this pose for 20 to 30 seconds and breathe deeply. Release the grasp on the foot and place it back on the floor to repeat this same sequence on the other side.
4) Savasana (Dead Man’s Pose) – To complete your daily practice, place a bolt or rolled blanket at the base of the tailbone to increase the heart opening properties of this pose. Slowly lower yourself to the mat and place the hands (palms facing up) by your side. Relax the feet completely, allowing them to fall open. Relax the shoulders. Relax the jaw. Let the eyeballs sink into the forehead and breathe freely. Remain in this blissful stillness for at least five minutes before slowly wiggling the fingers and toes, rolling onto one hip and gently pushing the ground away and coming to a comfortable seated position to end your practice.