Open your heart with yin yoga
There’s a reason why yoga teachers love sequencing heart-opening classes — in fact, there are plenty. To start, us modern-day Westerners spend an awful lot of time contracting the front of our bodies (think of our posture as we sit in front of a computer or in a car), and it’s rare that we balance this behaviour with opening the eastern face of the body. The result? Short and constricted front bodies, less effective breathing patterns and a temperament that is closed rather than open and receptive to the world. Yin yoga can make a huge difference.
The Vedic traditions, Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and bodywork therapies all agree that the importance of the heart reaches far beyond its physical functions and plays a profound role in our energetic, emotional and spiritual lives. Yin yoga, with its gentle, passive poses, is the perfect practice to encourage the liberating experience of opening the heart while also providing grounding and support.
Thomas Myers and Feldenkrais
Fascial expert Thomas Myers has been instrumental in mapping the Anatomy Trains that complement and corroborate the Chinese medicine concept of meridians (or energetic pathways), and often cites the late Israeli physicist Moshé Feldenkrais in his work. To Myers and Feldenkrais, contraction of the front line of the body is largely an emotional response, with Feldenkrais saying, “All negative emotion is expressed in flexion.” That is, lengthening the back of the body and shortening the front.
In his book, Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists,Myers writes: “The general truth of this statement is brought home to any observer of human behaviour every day. We see the hunch of anger, slump of depression or the cringe of fear many times and in many forms. They all involve flexion.
In other words, closing down the front body is what we instinctively do when we’re overcome by an unwanted emotion. From an evolutionary perspective, it means we’re protecting our vital organs (this is why child’s pose feels so nurturing). Putting our bodies into shapes that open the front body can make us feel vulnerable, but if we can do this in an environment where we feel supported, it signals to the mind that we are safe — in much the same way that deep breathing does.
To extend the front side of the body is to step into trust and vulnerability. As the Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax says, well-adjusted humans have strong backs and soft fronts.
Each of the seven chakras is important, but the heart chakra — anahata— has the essential role of uniting the upper and lower chakras, of connecting the spiritual and the physical. Anahata is the centre for love, joy and compassion — including self-compassion. When in balance, these qualities flow freely, while an out-of-balance heart chakra is said to manifest as fear, sadness or a lack of trust.
The heart chakra sits at the centre of our chest (not to the left side, where our physical heart is) and extends all the way through to the back. It affects not only our heart but also our lungs, chest, arms and hands. The element of anahata is air (or ether), which makes sense when we consider the close relationship and proximity between the heart and lungs (a relationship that’s especially emphasised in TCM).
Traditional Chinese medicine
Similar to the Vedic traditions, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views the heart as the site of love and joy (including excessive joy, or mania). The heart is known as the emperor of the body. It is so important that the pericardium is assigned the job of protecting the heart, because, as Dr Daniel Keown writes in The Spark in the Machine, “If anyone could freely access the heart he would be vulnerable not only to physical but also mental and emotional attack.”
The heart is also seen as the home of inner peace and shen, which translates to spirit. A healthy shen determines our zest for life. TCM holds that a person’s shen can be observed in their eyes, meaning clear, bright eyes are one indication of balanced heart qi(this explains why we might notice someone’s eyes brighten once they start talking about a subject that interests them, or a person they love). As explained by Ted J Kaptchuk in The Web That Has No Weaver, “Shen is the awareness that shines out of our eyes when we are truly awake.”
To extend the front side of the body is to step into trust and vulnerability.
When heart qi is balanced, shen is nourished and we respond enthusiastically and appropriately to our environments. Our movements and behaviours convey liveliness, and we’re able to freely express ourselves. We experience joy and a sense of gratitude and abundance.
In TCM, the heart is thought of as a kind of second brain. This is backed up by Western medicine, where it’s recognised that the heart’s neural crest is comprised of the same type of cells that are found in the brain and spine. As Keown explains, this means these cells “will create memory — they will have ‘intelligence’”. Due to this “intelligence”, an out-of-balance heart can create muddled thinking and forgetfulness. The shen is said to rest in the heart at night, so a disturbed shen can lead to insomnia, excessive dreaming or nightmares.
Together, the heart and small intestines form a yin-yang pair, with the heart being the yin component. The pair rules blood, which in TCM is not just a physical element, but also an energetic one. The chief role of blood is to circulate through the body and nourish our vital organs.
The heart “opens out” into the tongue and governs our sense of taste. An imbalance in the heart can manifest as issues such as mouth ulcers, as well as an irregular heartbeat, poor circulation in the hands and feet, varicose veins, hot flushes, heartburn and heart disease. The role of the small intestine is to separate pure food from impure food, meaning disturbances in the small intestine may present as abdominal pain or digestive issues.
Yin yoga sequence to balance the heart and small intestine meridians
Naturally, the heart meridian (or energetic pathway) begins in the heart, travels along the axillary artery to the armpit and then makes its way down the inner seam of the arm to finish at the little finger (a separate channel travels upwards to the eye, while a third branch runs downwards to the small intestine). The small intestine meridian starts in the little finger and travels up the outer seam of the arm, and from there diverges into a branch that runs up past the eye to the ear, and a branch that travels downwards into the heart, diaphragm and stomach.
Because the lung and large intestine meridians also wind their way across the chest and arms, it’s difficult to target the heart and small intestine meridians without also targeting the lungs and large intestines, so often a sequence focused on the former will also help balance the latter.
In TCM, the heart is thought of as a kind of second brain. This is backed up by Western medicine, where it’s recognised that the heart’s neural crest is comprised of the same type of cells that are found in the brain and spine.
While the heart and small intestines are governed by the fire element, which is associated with summer, there are good reasons to practise heart-opening yoga year-round. We can use heart-opening asanas as a way to boost energy when we’re feeling fatigued; when we’ve been doing activities where our spines are excessively rounded (such as gardening or working at a desk); when we’re finding ourselves too caught up in our heads; or when we’re wanting to generate greater compassion for ourselves and others.
While practising, bear in mind the three main principles of yin yoga: softness — coming into the pose at an appropriate edge, where sensation is felt but not pain or extreme discomfort); stillness — remaining in the pose without excessive moving or fidgeting; and steadiness — holding the pose for an extended period of time.
Begin lying on your back with a block, bolster or rolled-up blanket lengthways between the shoulder blades (that is, the long edges of the object will be parallel to the long edges of your yoga mat). If it doesn’t feel appropriate to drop the head back, place a blanket or pillow under the head. Your legs may be bent with feet flat on the mat and hip-distance apart, they may be extended or you may have the soles of the feet touching and your legs in a diamond shape. Ensure you feel supported by the object while also experiencing an opening and softening through the chest and shoulders. Rest here for five minutes, observing the rhythm of your natural breath, and then come to lie flat in savasana for a minute.
With your legs fully extended, take both feet over to the bottom right-hand corner of the mat. Keep your hips planted as you shift your shoulders and upper body over to the right side of the mat so that you feel a lengthening through the left side of your body. Extend your arms above your head and hold opposite elbows, or hold the left wrist with the right hand. Stay for three to five minutes before returning to centre, observing the difference between the left and right sides of the body, and then repeat the shape on the other side.
Come to lie flat on your belly.Bring your elbows directly beneath your shoulders with your forearms resting on the mat so that your arms are forming a right angle, and then bring your elbows an inch forward. Find a balance between pressing the forearms into the mat and relaxing into the shoulders. If you have sensitivity in the lower back, very gently engage the glutes and inner thighs. After three minutes, you might like to straighten your arms and come into seal for one minute, and then lightly draw in your belly and slowly lower yourself back onto the mat.
Child’s pose, arm variation
Bring the hands beneath the shoulders, press yourself up to all-fours and then push back into child’s pose. If possible, keep your knees together to encourage rounding of the spine and bring your hands into anjali mudra (prayer position) behind the head. Stay three to five minutes before pressing back up to all fours.
Melting heart or quarter dog
Keeping your knees directly beneath your hips, walk the hands forward until your forearms and forehead come to rest on the mat. If this is too intense in the shoulders, bend one arm and bring the hand to rest on the elbow of the straight arm, swapping sides halfway through if necessary. Allow your heart to melt towards the mat for three to five minutes, and then lie flat on your belly to rest and rebound.
Butterfly or star
From a seated position, bring your legs into a lose diamond shape and slowly fold forward. The soles of your feet might be touching, or you could come into star pose by having the feet a foot apart and threading your arms underneath your lower legs with the palms facing upwards. You might like to place a block underneath your forehead to support the weight of your head, or make a ramp out of a block and bolster. Stay for three to five minutes.
Half butterfly, lateral variation
Still seated, extend your right leg long and bring your left foot to the inside of your right thigh. Rest your right elbow on your right thigh and your right cheek in your right hand, so there is a feeling of spaciousness through the left side of your waist. If need be, place a bolster along the length of your right leg and rest the elbow on the bolster. Reach the left arm overhead to rest on the left side of the head. Hold for three minutes each side.
Lying down, draw your knees into your chest and on an exhale, allow your knees to drop to the left-hand side, keeping both shoulders on the ground if possible. Place your left hand on top of your right knee and make an “L” shape with your right arm, so that the elbow is slightly higher than the shoulder, and your palm is facing upwards. Rest here for three to five minutes per side.
Lying flat on your back, place your arms beside you, palms facing the sky, or one hand to your heart. Bring to mind three things you feel grateful for, or three people in your life for whom you have unconditional love. Notice the sensation this creates in your heart space at the centre of your chest (for example, it may feel warm and fuzzy). Allow this feeling to flood your whole body. You might like to place one hand on your heart, or have your arms by your side with your palms facing up and imagine your hands filling up with all the things you are grateful for. Stay for five to 10 minutes.
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