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Menses, pregnancy, breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause are some of the shape shifts women face in a single lifetime. And the breasts, intimately connected to a woman’s health, relate to these physical passages in profound ways. One in eight American women will receive a breast cancer diagnosis in her lifetime. Cysts, myofascial issues, heart disease, and hypertension, which can result in cardiac arrest and open-heart surgery, are also common. Yet, aside the recommendation of a monthly self-exam American women, don’t get much in the way of tips for maintaining breast health. The good news is yoga practice can be a powerful tool for healthier breasts.
What Yoga Can Teach American Women About Their Breasts
American cultural attitudes about breasts careen wildly from festishization to repression: while we are accustomed to seeing women’s breasts objectified on the covers of magazines and advertising, breastfeeding women often need a place to retreat and hide just to nourish their babies. But around the world, Goddess images attest to a more reverent and profound connection to this important area of the body. In Tantric art and Hindu iconography, bare-breasted goddesses such as compassionate Tara and Ferocious Protector Kali embody a more sacred view of the breasts. These deities are open-hearted, brave, and courageous, as their physical language shows in paintings, sculptures, and modern-day posters and advertisements. The chest has long been associated with love, courage, and confidence in many cultures. In Ayurvedic medicine, the 5,000-year-old wisdom and healing tradition of India, the heart and chest are viewed as intelligence centers, “The heart is the seat or root of the brain,” as Dr. Sheila Patel, medical director of the Chopra Center explains. So how can you better nurture these important parts of the body?
How Yoga Practice Can Boost Breast Health
“A well-rounded yoga practice will benefit the breasts,” notes Bobby Clennell, Iyengar Yoga teacher and author of Yoga For Breast Care: What Every Woman Needs to Know. Expanding the heart center in backbends and twists suffuses the chest and lymphatic system with circulation, facilitating optimal immune function. Although inconclusive, research from several studies suggests that tight or ill-fitting bras may contribute to breast cancer risk by limiting circulation and blocking the flow of lymph. Asana can also counter the postural issues—hunching, tightening and closing off of the chest—modern devices pose. The deep breathing (like Sama Vritti and Kapalabhati) and retention (Kumbhaka) yogis practice in pranayama enable oxygen to reach the upper lobes of the lungs, facilitating the release of more oxygen to the upper chest and lymphatic areas, boosting immune function.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Yoga, yoga poses and practices reduce stress and boost immunity. Some research studies show a positive correlation between the stress response and breast cancer, particularly in resurgence or relapse and the relaxation response and survival rates. Forward folds and resting poses, especially, soothe the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the fight-or-flight stress response, and switch on the the parasympathetic system, which enables optimal immune function.
Additionally, Yoga Journal’s 2016 Yoga in America study found people who practice yoga are more inclined to engage in cardiovascular exercise, which is known to reduce heart disease and cancer risk. Yoga’s mindfulness component also fosters an intimate connection with the body, which can heighten one’s awareness of changes and aid in early detection of disease.
See also How to Use the Body Affect the Mind
The Anatomy of the Breasts
To understand how yoga practice can impact this important area of the body better, let’s briefly look at its anatomy. Mammary glands, or breasts, are made up of lobules, glandular structures that produce milk in women. The lobules drain into ducts, connecting to channels that transport milk to the nipple. Between glandular tissue and ducts lie fat cells and tissue. (Male breast anatomy is nearly identical to females’, except for the milk lobules.) Breasts do not contain muscle, but are adjacent to the pectoralis muscles of the upper chest. Blood vessels and lymph gland and lymph node networks for draining and detoxifying impurities run through the breasts, the surrounding armpit, upper chest, and groin areas.
The Energy of the Heart Center
Energetically, the Anahata Chakra, or heart center, the seat of wisdom in Ayurvedic medicine, lies at the sternum, between the breasts. Opening this energetic and physical area results in feelings of expansion, vulnerability, joy, and sometimes pain, as grief resides here, too. It seems appropriate then that the breasts and heart are so intimately connected. The classic bare-breasted icon of Green Tara, goddess of Compassion, typifies this view of sacred feminine power. And open-hearted, bare-breasted Kali, the ferocious but compassionate manifestation of the feminine divine, reminds us it takes courage to live from the center of one’s heart.
Use the following practice to boost circulation, lymph flow, and energy through your heart and chest for healthier breasts.
A Yoga Sequence for Chest & Breast Health
Start by standing or sitting, placing your hands in namaskar at your breastbone, the energetic seat of the heart, bowing to the feminine divine presence embodied in your breasts. Breathe in directly to your heart space, the anahata chakra, imagining love and health residing there. Honor this area as the nexus of many energetic pathways and the source of compassion and love.
See also Heart Chakra Tune-Up Practice
Breast Benefits: Balasana compresses the front body to expand and lengthen the back. The lungs, liver, kidneys, and spleen receive prana.
How To: Kneel on your mat or your carpet and bend forward over your legs, drawing hips to the heels and draping your belly over your thighs. Let your forehead rest on the floor or create a thin cushion to support the curvature of the cervical spine with a soft layer of padding such as a thinly folded blanket.
Seated Spinal Twist
Breast Benefits: The rotation of the thoracic spine coupled with the release of the shoulders and the expansion of the chest in this pose contribute to detoxifying the back organs and the lymphatic system, while expanding the front of the chest.
How To: Find a stable, comfortable seat on the mat. Extend your left leg forward, then bend your right knee and pick up your right foot. Step the right foot outside the left leg and ground the right foot to the floor. Keep the left leg straight for a level one variation, or bend the left knee behind you and place the left foot outside the right hip for the more classical variation. Lift up your left arm along its ear, then bend at the elbow and hold the knee with the elbow crook around the right knee. Hug the right knee toward the belly. Take the gaze over the right shoulder, broadening and evening the collarbones as you go. Keep lengthening the spine, and breathe deeply. Press down the sitbones. Hold for at least 8 slow breath cycles, then switch sides.
Breast Benefits: Virabhadrasana II opens the heart chakra for courageous vulnerability, confidence, and feelings of connection. It also facilitates lymphatic drainage when arms are lifted at a higher angle above the shoulders.
How To: Step with your feet one leg-length apart. Start with your right foot forward, bend the right knee until it is aligned over the ankle and turn the left foot in toward the right foot slightly, plant your left foot firmly and strengthen the inner thigh of the left leg. Open your arms to a “T” and look at your right middle finger, drawing the shoulder blades onto the back. To emphasize lymphatic drainage, lift the hands to a higher angle than the shoulder blades, as you expand the front of the chest. Breathe into the expansive opening of the chest and upper arms. Hold for 8–10 long breath cycles, then switch sides.
Cow Face Pose
Breast Benefits: With an arm bind that stretches the inner armpit and pectoralis muscles, Gomukhasana stimulates lymphatic drainage of the armpits and upper chest. The arm bind improves shoulder flexibility and general posture. Forward folding in this seated pose helps to cool the sympathetic nervous system, producing calm and switching on the neurological “relaxation switch.”
How To: Sit, bend both knees, and cross the right over the left like a sand bag. Wiggle your feet out from under your hips. Sit on a block or a blanket roll if your hips don’t touch the floor. Make your shins equidistant from one another and sit between them (note: beginners or those who are tight can extend the bottom leg in a straight line under the bent top knee as a variation). Flex the feet slightly. Inhale and lift the left arm up along its ear, lengthening the sides of the torso, then bend at the elbow and place the left hand behind the neck, or between the shoulder blades. Extend the right arm out in a straight line from the chest palm open, then internally rotate the right arm behind the back. Bend the right elbow downward toward the hips, then reach the right hand up the back to catch the left in a bind. If the hands don’t meet, use a towel or a strap to join them, or simply allow the hands to rest where they can go. Hold and breathe, then switch sides.
Bridge and Wheel Pose
Breast Benefits: Backbends provide back organ compression, detoxifying the liver, kidneys, and spleen, shifting prana to the lungs, and placing pressure on the back of the heart, while stretching the abdomen, chest, and belly. The inner armpits and lymph areas are stimulated and receive oxygen, as the heart chakra expands, producing a sense of well-being and length in the front of the torso. Urdhva Dhanurasana stretches and strengthens the interior muscles of the shoulder, benefitting the posture and the breasts.
Bridge Pose How To: Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Place the palms next to the hips face down, roll the upper arm bones under the back, and lift the low, middle, and upper back as much as you can while maintaining parallel legs and feet. Roll your upper arm bones under you and interlace the hands, pressing into the feet and lifting up the thighs and spine.
Full Wheel How To: Start as you did in Bridge, but place your hands by your ears, fingers toward shoulders, palms flat. Inhale and place the crown of the head on the floor, then exhale to lift up the chest and straighten the arms and legs. Encourage parallel lines in the legs and feet, and press your heart’s trajectory towards and through your upper arms.
Breast Benefits: Pincha Mayurasana expands the front of the chest, builds strength and flexibility in the shoulders, reverses the downward flow of energy (apana), and provides compression to the back organs.
How To: Take a Downward-Facing Dog, then drop your forearms to the floor shoulder-width apart, palms wide, thumb and index spreading into an L-shape. Bring your elbows closer together. Make sure you are stable in the forearms, then walk your feet toward your hips until you can align hips over shoulders. Lift up one leg, pause, and lift your sternum. Then lift the other leg, bending that knee, and then straightening as you lift. Look slightly up and forward and emphasize the expansion of the front of the chest and the arch in the upper back. Note: You can do this at a wall with the soles of your feet pressing into the wall for stability and to further enhance the low back stretch.
See also Build a Forearm Balance
Reclining Supine Twist
Breast Benefits: This pose opens the heart, wrings out the internal and back organs for detoxification, and is a powerful lymphatic drainage pose expanding the front of the chest, especially with the “cactus arms” variation.
How To: Lie on your back and bend your knees to your chest. Cross one knee over the other, and twist the knees to the opposite side of the top knee. Extend your arms out from the center of your chest or in “cactus arms” for increased lymphatic drainage. Inhale deeply and allow your shoulders to release to the floor. Turn your gaze the opposite direction of the knees.
Breast Benefits: This pose is a marvelous heart opener and a supported backbend that allows the sides to lengthen. It directs prana to the heart and lungs, with the firm foundation and counter resistance of the forearms pressing down and the legs stabilizing.
How to: Lie on the back and arch your back by lifting from the center of the sternum. Bend at the elbows, pressing the forearms and backs of the hands on the floor. Point the toes, and breathe through the side body.
Breast Benefits: Parighasana, a side opener, facilitates lymphatic drainage, expands the front of the chest, and twists the spine.
How To: Sit up and extend the left leg forward, lifting the spine tall. Bend your right knee toward your belly, then open it out 90 degrees to the right. Lift up the arms and twist to the right, left hand on right knee, right arm behind the back like a second spine, bracing the vertical lift of the spine. Lengthen the spine and look over the right shoulder for 5 breath cycles. Now rotate the gaze and spine halfway forward. Drop your left arm alongside your left leg, reach your right arm up alongside its ear, and bend the right arm overhead, cupping the back of the head with the right palm. Breathe and reach the crown of the head toward your left foot. If you are able, grab your left toes with your right hand, or use a strap to loop around the left foot and hold with the right hand. Keep breathing and twisting the chest and belly upward toward the ceiling. Stabilize with your left leg, flexing the left foot. Switch sides and repeat.
Breast Benefits: Corpse Pose switches the nervous system into the parasympathetic state in deep restful relaxation. Regenerating and immune boosting, this pose is the most important pose to any yoga practice.
How To: Lie on your back, extending the arms a few inches away from the hips and the palms open and outward, with the backs of hands on floor. Spread your legs a bit wider than hip-width. Put a blanket roll under your knees to support the back, and if you have cervical spine issues, slightly pad at the base of your skull with a thin roll of blanket or towel (an inch or so) to support the curve of the cervical spine. Optionally, cover the eyes with an eye pillow or blindfold and darken the room. Take 10 minutes to rest in this pose.
See also The Purpose of Corpse Pose
How to: Sit in an easy cross-legged seat. Or for a more restorative variation, lie in Supta Baddha Konasana, Reclining Goddess Pose. Place one hand on your low belly and one on your heart. Breathe from your low belly to your heart center and feel the expansion at the center of your chest. Imagine the energetic heart receiving healing, and hold the inhale for a count of four before releasing the breath slowly back out through the nose.
See also Calm Heart Meditation
Daphne Youree is a freelance fitness, lifestyle, and event photographer. She resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two sons. Daphne is currently working on a project called Fem Forward, documenting women in the sports and fitness world.