Too much time at the keyboard causing your shoulders to sag? Feeling the need to give your heart some love? There’s always a good reason to explore heart opening yoga, and making these poses part of our regular practice can help keep our shoulders from rounding forward and our hearts from closing to the blessings in our lives.
Gravity works against good posture, causing that shoulder slump. Think about hours spent over your computer or the steering wheel. We also have an emotional tendency to round forward to protect our heart vs. open it, especially if we are feeling scared or vulnerable. Heart openers can be intense and bring about release, often in the form of unexpected tears. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are protecting ourselves so fiercely.
On our Cowgirl Yoga retreats, we emphasize the importance of heart opening yoga. It’s logical that we work on hip opening to address being physically open for riding; but we also work on heart opening, to address being emotionally open to our experience with horses. Horses know right away when you’re faking it, and they want nothing to do with that because it reads as a threat. If you’re scared or anxious and covering it up, they will move away from you. If you are honest and open about what you’re feeling, they will accept you. How many times has someone asked you how you are, and you pretty much lie and say fine? As humans we are adept at hiding what we are truly feeling, which can cause us to be emotionally disconnected. One of the benefits of yoga is that is makes us be emotionally honest.
The following yoga practice includes strong heart opening poses like full camel and bow; and, more supported heart openers because our hearts often need support as they learn to be more open. Be gentle with yourself, and don’t be surprised if you experience tears or very strong emotion. It means the poses are working. Think of heart openers as an emotional cleanse. Get rid of what is not serving you and open your heart to your blessings.
Props: 2 blocks, 1 strap.
- With the exception of the supported heart opener, these poses are best practiced after you have warmed up with sun salutations and some standing poses. Deeper backbends like camel and bow are usually sequenced towards the end of a vinyasa flow practice, after you have built internal heat.
- Take a building block approach to backbends. Start with the modifications and work your way up. Don’t shock your spine with a cold backbend or pushing beyond your limits.
- Remember that backbending requires paying attention to the need for counter poses. A counter pose for a modified backbend is a neutralizing down dog. Balance a deeper back bend like camel with child’s pose, and after wheel, a slow knees-to-chest. Avoid a deep forward bend following a deep backbend.
Supported Heart Opener
You may not ever want to come out of this. Place a block at the base of your shoulder blades (don’t try to lie down on it, press it to your back while you are sitting up and hold it in place as you lie down). Place another block underneath the top of your neck, as shown in the photo. Cross your legs, or bring the soles of your feet together. Breathe deep and stay as long as feels good. Practice this supported heart opener when you feel emotionally drained.
Lie flat on your belly with your shins up the wall. Bring your hands between your shoulders and hips and slowly push up into cobra pose. Keep your elbows soft and your shoulders away from your ears. Move your shins towards the wall as much as possible. Hold for 5 deep breaths and lower down. Repeat a few times, gently and carefully coming a bit higher each time if possible.
Lie on your belly and take your left arm forward, pressing down through the palm. Reach back with your right hand for the arch of your right foot. Push your foot into your hand to lift the leg. Your left elbow can stay on the floor, or straighten the arm to go deeper. Hold for 5 breaths and repeat on the left side.
Variation: To deepen this pose and really work into the shoulder, loop a strap around your foot and take your arm up and back.
Place a block under your upper belly. Reach back for your feet or ankles. You might have to adjust the block to make sure it is supporting you. Keep your thighs on the ground, and think about strongly moving your shins back. Hold for 10 breaths.
Dhanurasana – Bow
Lie on your belly. Reach back and take hold of the tops of your feet, or your ankles. (If you cannot reach both feet, keep practicing half bow on each side.) Push your feet into your hands, and use the strength of your legs to lift up. Keep your feet and knees coming towards one another, vs. splaying out (your ankles should line up over your knees). Hold for 5 breaths. Try to avoid rocking on your belly with the breath or cranking your neck – lift your gaze vs. your chin.
Remember to do a neutralizing counter pose in between backbends, such as downward dog or child’s pose.
Always start with baby camel as a pre-pose warm up for half or full camel. Camel is a very deep, intense backbend, so easing into it makes all the difference. Tuck your toes under, and fan your fingers out as you press the heels of your hands into your sacrum. Lift from your sternum as you slowly lean back. Don’t drop your head back, keep your head lined up with your spine and lift your gaze to the ceiling. Hold for 5 breaths.
If full camel is too much, half camel is the answer. Continued practice will prepare you for the full pose.
For half camel, start with your hands supporting your sacrum. Take your right hand back to your heel or ankle (toes can be tucked under, or foot flat). Keep your hips moving forward and avoid twisting to the right. You can keep your left hand on your sacrum, or reach it up and back for a lengthening side body stretch. Hold for 5 breaths. Bring your left hand back to your sacrum and come up slowly. Repeat on the left side.
Ustrasana – Camel
For full camel, you can keep your toes tucked under or put the tops of the feet on the floor (this deepens the backbend). Start with your hands on your sacrum as in baby camel and then carefully take your hands to your heels. Lift your chest from your sternum and keep your hips moving forward. Allowing the head to release back is optional; don’t do it if it makes you feel dizzy or nauseous. You can keep the head lined up with the spine and look up at the ceiling. Hold for 5 breaths. Repeat 2-3 times, taking child’s pose in between; backbends are best in multiples of 3.
Your head should come up last, don’t whiplash it up. A good way to ensure this is to bring your hands to your heart center first.
Take child’s pose after any camel practice.
I like this option, especially if you are building strength for full wheel pose. More importantly, it’s fun. However, you need to be able to briefly do vasisthasana, side plank, to come into it.
From downward dog, come into plank pose with your feet together. Turn your heels to the right as you lift your left arm. Take your left arm up and back opening across your chest.
From side plank, take your left foot behind you as you arc your left arm up and over. Straighten your right leg, push off your right foot, and lift your hips. Allow your head to release. Wild thing! Stay here for 5 breaths and return to downward dog. Repeat on the left side.
Urdhva Dhanurasana – Wheel
The ultimate heart opener, but I don’t presume to be able to walk you through it if you are new to the pose. Please find a qualified teacher that can guide you through steps towards the full pose in person, and that are right for your practice.
Tip: If you are struggling with wheel pose, be sure to work on your upper body strength – think lots of chaturanga (here are my chatranga do’s and don’ts).
If you already practice wheel, make it a culmination of heat and backbends. I like to do it 3 times for 5 breaths each, with one deep breath in between.
Happy heart opening. ? Namaste.
Photo Credit: Larry Stanley, Big-Sky-People.com
Big Sky Yoga Retreats popular Yoga & Hiking trip adds a summer date and a new twist – Wildflowers & Wellness. Yoga, hiking, gourmet food and a western wildflowers class where you’ll learn how to use what you find on the trail for your wellbeing. August 7-10, 2014.