Follow this yoga sequence for an open heart
Your heart, a muscular organ on average the size of a fist, has four chambers. It can be found in the chest cavity between your lungs and just to the left of your breastbone. The heart beats, contracts and pumps blood through the arteries, veins and capillaries, all which form the cardiovascular system and circulate the blood around your body.
Needless to say, a healthy heart is crucial to your health, responsible for multiple processes in your body. Its primary function of pumping blood carries nutrients and oxygen to all of your organs, together bringing carbon dioxide to the lungs to initiate exhalation.
Joy is the emotion associated with a balanced heart chakra
Your lifestyle, exercise regimen, sleep patterns, body weight, genetics and diet affect the health of your heart. Living in the age of stress and overwhelm can also put a huge strain on your heart. When you experience a physically or mentally stressful situation, the body releases stress hormones, which in turn raise your heart rate and blood pressure. This can strain the heart and increase the need for more oxygen production.
A great body of research has revealed that yoga, breathing (pranayama) and meditation practices could have a positive effect on the health of your heart. However, your heart is more than just a cardiac muscle.
Have you ever pondered how every language and culture has idioms and metaphors referring to the heart? For example: “She has a heart of gold”; “They were heartbroken”; “He spoke from the heart”; “I thank you from the bottom of my heart”; “She wears her heart on her sleeve”; “They helped us out of the goodness of their hearts”; “He sang with his heart and soul”; “With a heavy heart they said goodbye.”
As you can see, there is much more to our hearts than just the physicality.
Healing modalities such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and yoga recognise the heart as a physical organ but also as your emotional centre and the centre of your subtle (energy) body.
A connection between your emotional and physical heart can be observed through how your thoughts and emotional responses impact the state of your physical heart. For example, emotions like anger, fear, anxiety and overexcitement can increase your blood pressure and speed up your heartrate.
In this article, the heart will be looked at from a holistic perspective, inspiring you to implement yoga and meditation practices that will physiologically benefit your heart as well as foster the opening of your chest, ribcage and the back of your heart. The yoga sequence will help your emotional and energetic heart to soften and expand.
Ayurveda and yoga
Together with the physiological functions of the heart, Ayurveda and yoga recognise the hridaya (heart) as the seat of prana (life force). It is the emotional and energetic centre of/for love, empathy, compassion, forgiveness, self-acceptance and peace.
The anahata (heart chakra) is the centre of the chakra system, located in the thoracic spine behind the heart. Anahata is also the home of jiva-atman (soul) and is seen to be the connection point between the physical and spiritual, the material self and the transcendental self. Your deepest emotions such as love, joy, loneliness, grief and pain are experienced through this chakra.
The heart chakra encompasses the chest, diaphragm, shoulder blades, ribcage, thoracic spine, heart, thymus gland and arms as well as your respiratory and circulatory systems. It is ruled by the air element and relates to how you give and receive love. By practising pranayama, you can learn how to open your heart. Joy is the emotion associated with a balanced heart chakra.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the xin (heart) is considered the monarch of the body, ruling the yin-in-character organs and corresponding to the fire element. It houses the shen (mind and spirit) and, similarly to the ayurvedic and yogic view of the heart, is associated with intellect. It is attributed similar qualities that Western medicine ascribes to the brain: responsible for cognition, thought and emotional activities.
With the heart meridian being coupled with the small intestine, a balanced heart qi is linked to healthy digestion and nutrient absorption, positive moods, happiness and quality sleep, together with being warm-hearted, inspired and motivated.
The heart meridian, which will be nourished through the yin yoga poses featured below, has three branches originating from the heart. One of the branches connects the small intestine, the other branch superficially moves from the heart to the armpit, flows down on the inner side of the arm and ends in the small finger.
Yoga sequence for an open heart
This yoga sequence will bring vitality to your body, stimulate circulation and expand your physical and energetic heart. The poses will assist in opening your shoulders, inner arms and side ribs and the inclusion of mild backbends, forward folds, twists and side bends will create length at the front and back of your thoracic cavity.
Fish Pose Variation
- You will need two blocks, a tightly rolled blanket or bolster and a cushion to support you in this reclined pose.
- Place one block with its long side (or a bolster or a rolled blanket) just under the bottom edge of your shoulder blades, determining whether the lowest of medium height suits you better.
- Use your second block on its high-set or medium side to serve as a cushion underneath your skull.
- Recline over the props, keeping your feet flat on the floor or the soles of your feet together.
- Once settled into the pose, begin the practice of ujjayi pranayama for the duration of the pose (4–5 minutes). Ujjayi is produced by creating a soft hissing audible sound on both the in and out breaths. It occurs when you narrow the vocal cords slightly, constricting your “whispering muscles” and allowing your breath to softly pass along the glottis.
Standing Heart-Warming Flow of Tadasana, Uttanasana, Parivrtta Uttanasana and Parsva Tadasana
- Begin standing in tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet hip-distance or a little wider apart.
- On the inhale, open your chest by bending your elbows with palms facing forward. Your shoulder blades should move towards each other. Stay in the pose for 2-3 breaths then inhale.
- On the exhale, interlace your fingers behind you (or hold a strap, if you are experiencing tightness in your shoulders), lift your chest on the in-breath and draw your shoulders back. On the exhale, bend your knees as much as you need to and fold forward from your hips into uttanasana with clasped hands. Remain in the pose for three breaths, finishing with the exhalation as you release your fingertips onto the floor (or block if you need more height) slightly in front of your feet.
- Keeping your left fingertips on the floor and your knees soft, lift your right arm up and twist to the right (alternatively, you can rest the back of your right hand on your sacrum). Remain in the pose for three breaths, then inhale and release on the exhalation. Change hands and open your chest to the left as you lift your left arm up on the in-breath. Once again, remain in parivrtta uttanasana for three breaths before releasing both hands towards the floor on the exhalation.
- On your next inhale, sweep your arms up and take your left wrist into your right hand. Lean to the right, laterally flexing your spine. Stay in parsva tadasana for three breaths. On the in-breath, bring your spine back into vertical position and, as you exhale, change the grip of your hands. Take your right wrist into the left hand and lean to the left. After three breaths, come out of the pose, release your arms and perform three shoulder-rolls before repeating this sequence a further four to six times.
- As you get familiar with the sequence, reduce the hold from three breaths to one breath. This will make your practice more fluid.
- If you are familiar with sun salutations, incorporate the sequence above in the beginning of each sun salutation.
Supported Melting Heart Pose (Anahatasana)
- Begin on all fours. Keeping your hips above the knees, bring your left forearm onto the floor parallel the front edge of your yoga mat and perpendicular to you right arm. Extend your right arm forward.
- Rest your head on the left forearm or the floor, feeling your abdomen and armpits pulling towards the floor. Remain there for 3–4 minutes.
- Rest and change sides.
Lateral Dragonfly and Dragonfly
- Come into a seated position on the floor on a cushion or a block (if you need to modify) with your legs stretched out as wide as comfortable.
- Lean your torso to the right and place your right forearm on the floor or the block along the inseam of your right leg. Lift your left arm upwards and overhead, without forcing the pose.
- Keep your gaze down so you don’t strain your neck. Remain in the side bend for three minutes before taking a short rest and changing sides.
- To transition into dragonfly, sit with your legs spread wide apart and roll forwards, allowing your back to round. Rest your hands or forearms on the floor or on a block. Breathe into the back of your heart, remaining in this pose for further three minutes.
Broken Wing Pose
- Begin by lying flat on your yoga mat with your right cheek on the floor and your legs extended.
- Extend your right arm out to the side and keep your palm facing down so that your right hand is in line or slightly lower than your right shoulder.
- Gently push your left hand into the floor to help you roll onto your right side or, for a deeper variation, open the front of your body upwards and bring your left foot on the outside of your straight right leg. You should feel the opening in the front of your right shoulder, inner chest and right arm. To intensify the pose, bring your left arm around your back or interlace your fingers. Remain in the pose for three minutes before taking a short rest and changing sides.
Open heart meditation
- Set your timer for 10–20 minutes and find a comfortable seat either cross-legged on a cushion or a chair. If you’re using a chair, keep your feet flat on the floor. Ensure your spine is upright, your head, face, neck and shoulders relaxed, your eyes closed or downcast and your hands resting on your thighs.
- Bringing awareness to your breath, take a few moments to notice the in and out flow of your breathing without changing or manipulating it. With every exhalation, allow yourself to soften deeper and deeper as you settle into the meditation.
- Take your awareness to your heart space and feel the front and back of your heart soften and expand.
- Then, bring to mind a moment of time where you experienced a feeling of great joy and contentment. Perhaps when your child said their first word, you saw the sun rise, a walk through nature or being in a breathtakingly beautiful place with your loved one.
- As you keep this moment of joy in your mind, attempt to recollect as much detail as possible. What sounds, smell and sights surrounded you? What was the temperature? Recall silently what the emotion of joy felt like to you and where in your body you felt it most.
- Drop into that feeling deeper, allowing yourself the emotion of joy to enter the very front of your awareness.
- Eventually, let go of the details from the happy moment you recalled and remain with the feeling of joy in your heart. Focusing on the warm feeling in your heart space, take a few deep inhalations and exhalations.
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