Opening the Heart
For many, "opening your heart" implies receptivity to love and intimacy in a romantic relationship—bring on the candy and flowers. However, everyone, including single yoga practitioners, can experience heart opening in other kinds of relationships: with caring friends and family members, pets, teachers and mentors, and with our own students.
With deep introspection and honesty, you can also practice heart opening in more challenging situations, such as your relationships with difficult people or those with whom you disagree philosophically or politically. As you visualize and practice opening your heart in your various relationships, you're learning ahimsa, or compassion, which is number one on the list of yamas and niyamas.
Know Your Physical Heart Space
Just as you can practice heart opening in your thoughts and emotions, you can also experience opening the heart space in your physical body. Your heart resides within the thoracic cavity, which is surrounded by a bony cylinder, the rib cage, comprised of 12 ribs on the right and 12 on the left; your sternum (breastbone) in the front; and the spine in the back. The bones are held together by soft tissues, including muscles large and small; cartilage between the vertebrae in the spine, between the three parts of the sternum, and as part of each rib as it attaches to the sternum; and by ligaments, which join bone to bone. There are ligaments, for example, between each pair of vertebrae, and ligaments holding each rib onto its adjacent vertebrae. Your diaphragm, the dome—shaped muscle that separates the heart and lungs above from the digestive and reproductive organs below, forms the floor of the thoracic cavity.
Ideally, the soft tissues supporting the bony cylinder remain resilient for a lifetime, so the cylinder is able to expand freely with each breath and the rib cage doesn't become a rigid and restrictive container for the heart and lungs. You might picture a stiffened rib cage like armor: The lungs won't be able to expand completely to receive a deep, full breath; and the rigidity may also limit blood flow to and within the heart. An immovable rib cage is also a limiting factor in pPranayama and many yoga poses, especially twists (which require rotation) and backbends (which require spinal extension), because its rigidity prevents the thoracic spine from moving through its normal range of motion. The lack of thoracic extension in backbends can contribute to lower back and neck pain caused by the lumbar and cervical spine hyperextending (overarching) to compensate for the lack of midback movement.
Conscious work with the breath is one of the best ways to improve rib cage mobility, gently stretch thoracic soft tissues, and open the heart space. Any time people feel threatened, be it by pain, challenge, or pressure to perform, the need to guard or defend oneself usually results in holding the breath or breathing in shallow, erratic patterns. These defensive breath patterns cause muscle tightness in the very areas we're trying to open, as well as gripping in the upper abdomen, which restricts the normal movement of the diaphragm. By teaching your students to practice slow, gently expansive breathing (while avoiding aggressive action, such as pushing or forcing the breath, which generates more inappropriate muscle tightness), you'll help them start to break up rib cage rigidity and the armor of tightly gripped chest, back, and abdominal muscles.
Page 1 2
Subscribe to YJ
Join Yoga Journal's Benefits Plus
Liability insurance and benefits to support
teachers and studios.