Opening the Heart
Simple Positions to Open the Heart
To avoid setting off guarding mechanisms while practicing breathing that expands the rib cage, it's best to use simple, pain-free positions. To open the chest and abdomen, a wonderful position is a gentle and supported backbend. Try it while lying over a rolled blanket or towel (use a smaller roll for very tight students), placing the roll crosswise under the thoracic spine (the midback, where the ribs attach) and resting the arms in an open position, with palms up. This position gently expands the front rib cage and upper abdomen with each inhalation. Keep the knees bent and place one to two inches of support under the head to help prevent lumbar and cervical hyperextension.
Simple twists invite expansion of the side ribs. Try lying on your right side, with your knees pulled up toward your chest to create a 90-degree angle at the hips. On an inhalation, open your left arm behind you while turning your head to the left. Don't let the left arm dangle in midair. Place just enough support (a block or blanket) under the left arm so you feel some stretch—but no pain—in the chest and/or side ribs. If your midback, including the space between the shoulder blades, is tight and flat, practice Balasana (Child's Pose) with arms overhead or beside your calves. People with stiff spines and hips may not be able to get their heads to the floor and so will need support under the head in this pose. Usually a block or folded blanket under the head provides enough height to support the weight of the head, so the neck muscles can relax.
Whether opening the chest in a supported backbend, the side rib cage in a twist, or the thoracic spine and rib cage in Child's Pose, talk to yourself or to your students about breath patterns. Invite your inhalation to gradually become a little slower, smoother, and deeper, again avoiding any tension-producing forcefulness. Then bring your awareness to the part of the rib cage you want to open (such as the front ribs in supported backbends and the side ribs in twists). It may help to place a hand on the area so you can feel the expansion from the outside as well as the inside. Let the inhalation gently expand and open the ribs, then relax and surrender to gravity with each exhalation.
Practice breathing in each position for two to three minutes, a few times a week if not every day. You'll be rewarded with deep relaxation, improved breath awareness, opened heart space, and—if you so choose—a life-altering practice of ahimsa.
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.
Page 1 2
Subscribe to YJ
Join Yoga Journal's Benefits Plus
Liability insurance and benefits to support
teachers and studios.