Posture

Opening The Chest And Shoulders

In a screen-focused world, hunched shoulders are causing physical ailments and limiting mental capacity. This yoga sequence recalibrates the chest and shoulders for better physical posture and clear pathways for energy to flow freely.

For generations, adults have corrected children’s posture. “Don’t slouch!” parents have scolded. “Sit up straight!” teachers have cried. Even when I was young, before we had smartphones to exacerbate our slumped shoulders, it was drummed into us to have good, or neutral, posture where the bones, joints and muscles are stacked in a balanced way. This is because when our posture is anatomically neutral, the body is in harmony with all parts working together. With this stature, we maintain wellbeing, prevent pain and improve breathing.

Physical impacts

Today, both adults and kids alike are fighting an uphill battle to maintain neutral posture. The overuse of mobile phones, gaming, sitting at desks all day and staring at television screens all evening mean we consistently slump. As we hunch, the head drops, flexing the neck, rolling the shoulders forward and limiting the diaphragm from being able to take a full breath. Commonly known as “tech neck” or “text neck”, it creates stress and strain in the cervical spine, shoulders and thoracic, which in turn causes tension, discomfort, chronic pain, spinal misalignment, weakened muscles and breathing difficulties.

“Physically, when we hunch, our chest and shoulders can feel restricted and tight. This can affect our overall posture by creating tight and weak pectoral muscles, overworking our trapezius and promoting forward head carriage,” explains Vicki Smart, founder of Mission Yoga & Therapeutics.

Yoga can reverse the tendency to close off the chest and shoulders all day. By strengthening and stretching these areas physically, and bringing the neck out of flexion, you can actively undo the imbalance created by the daily habits of modern life.

Energetic impacts

From a yogic perspective, when the spine is long, sushumna nadi or the major energetic channel that runs along it is free and clear. However, when the thoracic isn’t open, the head drops forward, the core is not engaged and the diaphragm is compromised — the body is akin to a hose with a kink, blocking water from moving through. In this position, the chakra system — the energetic hubs seated along sushumna — will be out of balance, especially those higher along the pathway. Each chakra has an element and bija or “seed” mantra associated with it, thus impacting different relationships and aspects of our being.

Manipura

When the third chakra situated around the naval, manipura, is in equilibrium, the core is strong and our sense of self is grounded and confident. The element associated with this chakra is fire, which has the capacity to light us up and give us energy to burn. It’s connected to our sense of self, our ego. When we slump, our fire is extinguished. Our self-assurance, ability to act and will to keep on keeping on is stifled. Taking a pose of deflation sends the message to our energy bodies that we are not enough, creating a feeling of self-doubt and unworthiness.

Sitting or standing up tall with an open chest requires manipura to wake up physically and energetically, igniting the fire of will and sparking our self-belief and enthusiasm. In addition, it stimulates the healthy movement of samana vayu, the “wind”, which helps us process everything that happens to us. It governs how we digest information, food, events, all aspects of our life. If we don’t allow that process of ingestion to happen, we might get stuck in grief, disappointment, hurt and resentment. This renders us unable to move on with our lives or take on anything new. To grow and thrive, manipura needs to be strong, clear and the flow of samana in harmony with all that is.

Anahata

The fourth centre or anahata, ruled by air, is in balance when the chest is proud and open. In this way, we can breathe fully and completely, bringing vitality to the entire physical and energetic body. Udana vayu, the movement of prana (our life force), can flow freely when we sit in a neutral spinal position. This allows us to move from the lower levels of consciousness, where everything is about “me”, “my” and “I”, to greater connectivity to others, elevating our deepest desires and ultimately serving the world around us. We can then use the fire from manipura to serve those around us with courage, kindness, integrity and love. It also connects us to our voice, allowing us to speak articulately and clearly.

When we close off the anahata, or “heart chakra”, we  send the message that we need to protect our heart and shut down our joy. Life has a tendency to ravage our tender heart. None of us are immune to the losses we will inevitably endure. But the more we build a fortress around the heart to protect it and close it off, the less happiness we will experience in the future.

Jade Clark, a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor at Whiteowl Clinic, says releasing emotional pain helps open the chest, so we can move towards more happiness. “Openness through the chest can be an indication of one’s heart energy. A vulnerable heart afflicted by sadness, loneliness and rejection will naturally contract to shield oneself from further hurt,” she says. “We unconsciously employ our shoulders to fall forward and our chest muscles to contract as a means to emotionally protect ourselves. Releasing emotional pain to encourage the heart’s natural expression of joy and generosity is therefore essential to enjoy openness through the chest and shoulders.”

Vishuddha

The fifth centre, vishuddha, is situated around the neck and throat space. It is ruled by ether, as the elements become more subtle, the higher we move up the energy body. Vishuddha is the “poison-free place”, and when we are connected to a healthy manipura, anahata and vishuddha, we will use our clear, powerful voice for good, speaking with confidence from the heart. We say what we mean, mean what we say and listen to those around us. When the head tilts forward and we flex the cervical spine, this chakra is literally closed off and distorted. Keeping the chin parallel to the earth and the neck long, maintaining its natural lordosis or curve, is essential if we want to be great communicators and if we desire enlightenment.

Breath

One of the greatest benefits of posture with an open chest is the ability to take a full breath. When we are hunched, the diaphragm can’t expand fully, so the breath is shallow. The body will naturally recruit other muscles to help the breathing process, engaging the neck and chest, which tire and result in pain and headaches. Taking a full breath with good posture has been shown to have many benefits including reducing the heart rate, blood pressure and stress. It triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, taking us out of fight or flight and into rest and digest mode.

The more time you find yourself slumping forward, the more you need to practise the below, in order to bring physical, emotional and energetic balance back to the body and prevent the suffering caused by our dysfunctional modern posture.

Practice

This practice is designed to strengthen and open the shoulders and chest, and reprogram the body to take neutral posture in the spine. Use it as a daily practice, doing as many of the suggestions as you can.

Tadasana Mountain Pose

Standing with feet hip-width apart, lift the kneecaps and quads. Tilt the frontal hip bones up to set neutral pelvis; set shoulders over hips. With arms either side of the body, externally rotate the arms and then spin the palms in towards the body. Broaden the collarbones, lifting the sternum up to the chin. Crown of the head and sternum moves up to the sky. Stand tall and proud, heart and chest open, tips of shoulders moving back.

Standing Anahatasana to Forward Fold

Standing with feet hip-width apart or a little wider, place palms in the lower back, fingers pointing up or down. Elbows hug towards one another. Open the chest as you lift the sternum up to the sky. Take five breaths. On an inhale come back up to neutral alignment. Interlace fingers behind the back sending hands towards earth. Bend the knees as you hinge forward from the hips to fold forward, let the wrists descend over the head, and extend the legs as much as you can. Take another five breaths.

Anahatasana

Start on all fours. Leave hips over knees, walk hands forward and place forehead or chin on earth. If the shoulders are tight, the hands can go a little wider. Option to bend elbows and take hands in prayer towards the neck. Take five breaths.

Dolphin Pose to Forearm Plank

Start on all fours. Place forearms on earth shoulder width apart. Lift shoulders out of wrists. Walk the feet towards the head without the shoulders moving forward. Lift heels up to shift weight into forearms. If shoulders are tight, take palms together and interlace fingers, but keep elbows under shoulders. Take five breaths. Walk the feet back to a forearm plank. Take another five breaths. Lower hips to the earth.

Sphinx Pose

Lying on the stomach outstretched, place forearms on the ground in front and firm them down, lifting head, neck and shoulders. Stretch the feet and buttocks back, and climb the sternum up, stretching the front body. Keep collar bones broad. Stay here or extend arms.

Shoulder Stretch on the Belly

Lying on the stomach, stretch the arms out to the side. Bend the left arm as you slowly roll the body open. Bend the right elbow if needed. Take five breaths. Over to the other side.

Downward Dog

Start on all fours. Set the wrist line in front of the shoulder line. Feet hip width apart. Tuck toes and extend legs. Take five breaths.

Gomukhasana arms

Start kneeling. Reach the right arm up, bend right elbow and take fingers behind back. Internally rotate left arm, bend the elbow and try to reach right hand with left. Use a strap if needed or hold right elbow with left hand. Take five breaths. Release slowly unravelling arms. Swap to the other side.

Option to also include a hip opener: Start seated with legs extended. Bend right knee and cross right knee over left, then wrap right heel around to outer edge of left hip, bend left knee and take left heel outer edge of right hip. Elevate seat with a block if both sit bones don’t connect to earth equally. Reach right arm up and add the arms. Take five breaths. Swap legs and arms to other side — left knee on top, left arm reaches up to start.

Reverse Prayer

Kneeling, internally rotate arm bones, bend elbows as you take hands behind you, either setting hands in prayer behind you, or fists pressed together. Open the collarbones and move the shoulder heads back. Take five breaths. Release, stretching the arms out. Release the arms.

Supported Heart Opener

Set a block under the chest where the shoulder blades are, and one under the head. Allow the shoulders to drop down as the chest opens and melt into the block. If you have a bolster, you can recline on that instead. Legs can be extended or add hip opener with knees bent soles of feet together, knees out to the side.

Lying in a T to Reclined Twist

Lie on the back with knees bent and arms open out into a T. Take a few breaths here. Drop knees over to the left and keep grounding the right shoulder blade down. Take five breaths and over to the other side.

Article Featured in WellBeing 209

Rachael Coopes

Rachael Coopes

As a mama, writer, Play School presenter and yoga teacher, Rachael Coopes loves storytelling and yoga philosophy. A Certified 800-hour Jivamukti teacher with more than 1000 hours of training and a decade of teaching, she currently facilitates Yoga Teacher Training programs at BodyMindLife. She is eternally grateful to all her teachers.

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