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Modern life is taking us into the opposite state of open-heartedness. We sit at desks, stare into screens, and type all day long, spending a lot of time hunched over our phones or devices. And while we may think this is only negatively affecting our posture, many yogis (myself included!) believe it’s also making us closed off to the world and less compassionate.
For many of us, the only time we think about changing our hunched-over, closed-hearted ways is during a yoga class. Heart-opening yoga poses are beautiful, and they also encourage us to be more compassionate and present in our lives.
I designed this mini-sequence to help you delve deeper into mobilizing your thoracic spine and shoulders, which in turn, will leave you feeling awake, open-hearted, and ready to greet the full experience of this life.
7 Poses to Open Your Heart
Supported Fish Pose
There are many ways to set up Supported Fish Pose. The height and position of your blocks will largely depend on the mobility in your thoracic spine. Supported Fish is a great way to gently open up the heart space by allowing your mind to get comfortable with the opposite body pattern most commonly found in everyday life. This pose suggests openness, and this variation is the most extreme in terms of heart opening.
Set up your two blocks on the highest setting, with the long edge of the block parallel to the short edge of your mat. There should be about six inches between the two blocks. Sit in front of your blocks and slowly recline until you find the first block meet your back. Adjust the block so that it sits at the tip of your shoulder blades. Continue to recline until the back of your skull finds the second block. Lay here for 15 breaths.
Child’s Pose Variation
This variation of Child’s Pose offers several benefits. If you are looking to increase the range of motion of your shoulders, adding the blocks under your elbows will get you there.
First, bring your big toes together so that they touch. Take your knees comfortably wide. Place the blocks outside of the distance of your head on the lowest setting, then rest your elbows on blocks while allowing your forehead to rest gently on your mat. Take your hands to prayer and drop your prayer hands behind your head. Pause here for 5 breathes. If you feel ready to deepen this stretch, gently start to walk your elbows forward on the blocks.
Puppy Pose Variation
There is nothing more yummy for the shoulders and the heart than a deep Puppy Pose. Start on all fours, with two blocks about a foot in front of your hands. Reach your hands forward and place them on top of the blocks. Send your hips back, coming into Puppy Pose. Continue to reach the blocks forward and sink the chest closer to the mat for a deeper stretch. Stay here for 5 breaths.
This drill will help with shoulder stability and increase active range of motion of your shoulders. It’s also a great exercise to help prepare for Forearm Stand. Be mindful to avoid dumping into your shoulders and instead, push out and away from them.
Take one block on the lowest height. Place the long edge of the block parallel to the short edge of the mat, then come into Downward Dog with your thumb and index finger (L-shape) of both hands framing the bottom corners of the block. Lower into Dolphin Pose, one forearm at a time. From Dolphin Pose, rise high up onto the balls of your feet. Shift your weight forward into your hands and tap your forehead or nose on the block. Remember to keep your core and quads engaged. Push yourself up and back to Dolphin Pose. Melt your heart closer to your legs with each repetition. Repeat 10 times.
Plank Pose Variation
I’m always looking for ways to get creative with Plank Pose. This variation challenges your core by taking away the use of your hands.
Place your blocks on the lowest setting, shoulder-distance apart and put your hands on the blocks. Extend your legs back, coming into your straight-arm plank. Shift your weight forward into your fingerprints and toe tips. Bend your elbows, like in Chaturanga Dandasana, until your shoulders gently tap the blocks. Keeping the core, quads, and glute muscles engaged, lift your hands off of the blocks and swim your arms by your hips, palms facing down. Hold for 5 breaths, then return your hand to the blocks and press back up to straight-arm plank. When you’re finished, relax for a few breaths in Downward Dog or Child’s Pose.
Get ready to turn up the intensity. One of the biggest misconceptions about yoga—or really any physical practice—is that it is one-dimensional. Yogis are often incredibly flexible, but if you focus solely on flexibility and don’t have the strength to safely navigate range of motion, you will get injured. Deficit pushups ask us to be strong in the “open position”—shoulders, chest, and heart. With a traditional Chaturangas, your shoulders stop at about elbow height. In deficit pushups, we want to maintain the same bend of the elbows, but lower the chest deeper to create an opening in the heart and pectoral muscles, while the triceps, abdominals, posterior chain, and quads stay incredibly active.
Start with one hand on top of each block in a table top shape. Extended one leg at a time backward, tucking your toes on the ground to arrive in High Plank. Shift your weight forward and grip your fingertips. Slowly descend by bending at your elbows for a count of four. The tips of your shoulders should lightly tap the blocks; your chest should be below your hands close to the ground. Press yourself back up to a straight arm Plank in one swift movement.
Deficit Pushups gave me both the open-heartedness and the strength to finally nail my Chin Stand. Like all inversions and arm balances, they require a ton of stability. Chin Stand is essentially a deficit pushup with your feet above your head instead of on the ground.
Start from Down Dog with your hands on blocks on the lowest setting. Extend your right leg into the air to Down Dog Spilt. On an exhalation, roll forward into three-legged Plank Pose, keeping your right leg as high as possible. Bend your elbows, like in the deficit pushups, lightly tapping your shoulders on to the blocks. Keep your right leg as high and as strong as possible, then draw your left knee into your chest and extend it to meet your right.
About the Author
Kristin Calabria is a Los Angeles–based yoga and fitness instructor currently pursuing her master’s in social work. Learn more at kristincalabria.com