For a while, I avoided yoga classes because I was afraid the instructor would tell me to open my heart. Besides, I’d be expected to breathe through that process. The mere idea of finding myself in that situation tightened my chest further and shallowed my breath.
At that time, I was yet not aware that I was experiencing symptoms of vicarious trauma—which occurs from repeated exposure to other people’s trauma—due to my work as a journalist. I didn’t feel I had the inner resources and emotional bandwidth to handle whatever was going to emerge in my body during heart openers, including bigger backbends. Over time, I began practicing gentle heart opening sequences. I found solace in the subtle moves, and found this approach helpful to my healing.
Slowing Down to Heal Your Heart
Heart-opening sequences offer the opportunity to heal, the capacity to feel love for both ourselves and others, and even a pathway to overcome grief and loss. A practice focused on opening the heart should allow you to attune to your body and listen to its sensations without overwhelming you. In this way, it will be easier to notice the appropriate level of care that makes sense for you. Embracing vulnerability and tuning in to what our body needs not only requires courage and willingness, but also inner resources, and most likely a strong network of support.
Memories and experiences are stored throughout our bodies, and any kind of healing should come with the opportunity to restore and create a new experience in the body. By opening up the front body, we can identify what it’s inhabiting within us and begin reclaiming a safe space within ourselves. Sometimes we may just feel what’s in there; other times we will identify it and try to breathe through it. Fewer times, we may be able to release and connect with our bodies. But we will be there, step by step, showing up for ourselves, for our individual healing, and, by doing our personal work, we are contributing to our collective healing.
One Pose at a Time
This gentle heart opening sequence by yoga teacher Chantal Flores invites your body to feel and move with care and softness. You can try any of these poses throughout the day, or make some time to practice the entire sequence. Pandemic fatigue has taken a toll on our bodies, so instead of worrying if you’re doing the right sequence or the correct pose, focus on the sensations each asana reveals in your body.
Discomfort and uncomfortable feelings may arise, but continue deepening your breath to remain centered in your practice. If long breaths feel unattainable, bring your attention to the part of your body that is touching the ground and do your best to stay present. If something doesn’t feel right, listen to your body to modify or simply skip the pose. The pose will always be there for you when you’re ready.
Balasana (Child’s Pose)
Sit on your heels, place your toes together and separate your knees as wide as feels comfortable. You can put a blanket over your mat if your knees need padding. Extend your arms out in front of you, and allow your forehead to rest on the ground or a yoga prop, and and sink your hips toward your heels. Take three deep breaths by inhaling through your nose and releasing fully through your mouth. Use the breath to soothe yourself, and stay in this pose until you feel ready to release.
Shoulder Stretch with a Twist
Lie on your belly and extend your arms wide in line with your shoulder, palms facing down. Rest your right cheek on the mat and place your left palm on the floor in front of your chest. Press down as you roll onto your right side. You can stay here breathing, or lift your left leg and bend the knee as you twist your upper body upwards. Bring your left foot to the outside of your right leg and place the sole on the ground. Reflect on where you feel tight or spacious, and direct your breath towards that area of your body. Hold for at least 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Sphinx with Brahamari Breath
Come back to the center with your palms, forearms, and elbows parallel on the ground in front of you. Align your elbows with your shoulders, press your palms into the mat and lift your chest. Press the tops of your feet into the ground and lengthen your spine. Release your shoulders away from your ears and relax your face muscles. On an inhalation, feel the space between your shoulder blades. On an exhale, release a gentle humming sound with your lips closed. Allow yourself to feel the vibration in your chest and the space it fills. Repeat as many times it feels good.
Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) Variation
From Tabletop, come into a Low Lunge with your right foot forward and your left knee on the floor. Stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor, and cross your arms in front of your torso so that your left arm is above the right. Bend your elbows and lift them up while bringing your palms together and drawing your shoulders down and away from the ears. You can give yourself a big hug if eagle arms are not feeling right today. Listen to your body with your own breath and hone in on the sensation on your upper back. Notice the fullness of your breath. Hold for at least 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Extended Puppy Pose
Return to Tabletop with your hips above your knees and your shoulders over your wrists. Rest the tops of your feet on the ground and keep them hip-width apart. Walk your hands out in front of you as you exhale and slowly rest your forehead to the mat or a yoga prop. Allow your chest to release toward the floor or rest it on a yoga prop. Feel the extension from your fingertips to your spine. Hug in your front ribs to protect your lower back while your hips reach up and back. As you deepen into the stretch, you will free up space in tight muscles. Hold for at least 5 breaths.
Find a comfortable seated position. Place your hands on your knees and inhale through your nose. As you exhale, open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue toward your chin, and make a “ha” sound. Repeat at least three times. This is a great self-regulation tool to release tension and anger, and build confidence to speak up.
Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) and very gently expand your feet and legs away from each other. You can slightly bend your knees if necessary or place a rolled blanket under your hips for extra support. Walk your hands forward and find a Sphinx-like position of your upper body. Slow the breath and soften the muscles. Feel the support in this posture and the space created with each exhale. Make the exhalation twice as long as the inhalation.
Supta Matsyendrasana (Supine Spinal Twist)
Stay on your back and extend your arms wide in line with your shoulder. Lift both knees to your chest and slowly drop them to the left. Turn your head slightly right to look over your right shoulder. Keep both shoulders on the mat. Close your eyes and allow your body to release. Stay here for 5-8 breaths. Inhale, come back to center, and repeat on the other side.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
Lie down on your mat and let your feet release slightly wider than hip distance. Relax your arms by your sides, palms facing the sky. You can place one hand on your heart, one on your belly to settle your energy. Relax your jaw and allow your body to breath naturally. Take this time to feel your breathing flowing freely and easily while your body supports you. Stay for 5-20 minutes (or longer).