Heart Opening Yoga
As we move through life, it is inevitable that we will experience pain and suffering. Over time, these experiences can lead us to close and constrict our heart space. The Charaka Samhita teaches, “hridaye chetana sthanam,” which translates to “the seat of consciousness is in the heart.” Consciousness can be defined as the state of being awake and aware of one’s surroundings and also the actual state of the mind being aware of itself and the world. Thus, if the heart is the seat of our consciousness, we should be encouraged to spend our energy maintaining an open-heart space. Focused work will give us the fluidity, flexibility, and strength needed to experience our true nature as conscious blissful beings.
The topic of heart-opening yoga most often brings forth images of various back-bending yoga postures. While these chest-forward expressions are helpful in creating space, a student can perform backbends until Armageddon and still have restriction to the heart chakra and the flow of prana, our life force. Our life energy moves through the heart space. Being bendy is good but having a truly open heart is vital. We need to remember that asana, the physical postures of yoga, are only 1/8th of the equation. For lasting benefit and healing, we also want to implement the other seven limbs of yoga—yama (ethical standards), niyama (self-discipline), pranayama (breath work), pratyahara (withdrawal or restriction of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (integration).
Opening The Heart and The Eight Limbs of Yoga
When applying the eight limbs of yoga to our heart-opening goal, it is wise to begin with the first yama, ahimsa, or non-violence. If we move through life with the foundation of non-harming, softness and openness in the heart will naturally occur. As the practice evolves, this will blossom into being truthful, not stealing, moderation of the sense organs, controlling sexual urges, and non-grasping.
When one’s heart is closed, it might result in feeling actual physical pain or emotional restriction. One may also experience indecisiveness, lack of compassion, and may find themselves overly dependent in their relationships with others. The individual may experience low self-esteem and become overly critical of themselves, and possibly overly critical of others. Also not uncommon are feelings of disconnect, which may lead to the fear of rejection and abandonment.
The appreciable contrast of having an open heart shows up as feelings of love, kindness, compassion, and having the ability to see the positive in yourself and others. Furthermore, you are able to move through life with hope, optimism, and a healthy give-take balance in relationships.
“I stand before what is with an open heart.
And with an open heart I dwell in possibility.”
The Breath as a Bridge
The air element is related to anahata, the heart chakra. Just as this fourth chakra is the bridge between the lower chakras and the more ethereal higher chakras, our breath is the bridge from our physical body to our mind and emotions. Practicing pranayama techniques and bringing awareness to the quality, quantity, and placement of the breath can have a great impact on the heart space. Because most of our cognitive awareness of the senses is directed outward from the front of our bodies, we tend to be unaware of our side and back bodies. The opening of our hearts happens in a spherical manner. Learning to breathe with the entire body can bring a fuller awareness to physical tightness and trapped emotions, and breathing into the side body and back body is an essential part of the practices that will support an open heart.
“I am never alone wherever I am. The air itself supplies me with a century of love. When I breathe in, I am breathing in the laughter, tears, victories, passions, thoughts, memories, existence, joys, moments, and the hues of the sunlight on many tones of skin; I am breathing in the same air that was exhaled by many before me. The air that bore them life. And so how can I ever say that I am alone?”
Try this exercise. Place your hands on your ribs on the sides of your body. Direct the breath to expand your ribs on the inhale and deflate on the exhale. Do this several times to become comfortable breathing into your side body. Breathing into the back body can be more easily found beginning in Child’s Pose (Balasana) with the arms resting by the sides, palms up. Breathe deeply through the nose expanding the back ribs toward the ceiling and then allowing them to gently collapse as you exhale. Again, do this several times and then sit up on your heels. Now see if you can direct your breath toward the back body in an upright position. Notice if there is a protective shell on the backside of your heart and if it begins to soften.
Hands on The Heart Space and Mantra
Another heart-focused breathing technique to try is to place the palm of your left hand on the center of your heart then place your right palm on top of the left. Press both palms into this space with firm but comfortable pressure. Focus your awareness at the center of your chest. Take a moment to notice the emotions and texture of your heart space. Do this with compassion and without judging or attaching a story to what comes up. Begin to breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Stay connected and aware of any emotions that surface while allowing them to be released on the exhale. Repeat this breathing technique several times. Once you become comfortable begin to infuse the practice with sound by adding the mantra “Yam” (pronounced “yum”). This is the Bija, or Seed Mantra, for the sound of the heart. Adding the vibration of mantra helps to cleanse, heal, and nourish.
Mudras to Deepen The Experience
Using specific mudras, or hand gestures, will have an impact on the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of an individual as well. Hridaya is the mudra for both the physical and energetic heart. It can be helpful to release stuck emotions while creating space for prana to flow. You may want to use Hridaya mudra while sitting in meditation holding awareness on the heart space. Curl the tip of the index finger to the root of the thumb joint. Allow the tip of the middle and ring fingers to touch the tip of the thumb. Keep the pinky finger extending straight. With your hands in this mudra position, place them palm side up on your knees, close your eyes and allow your body to relax while you breathe into your heart space.
When I feel the need to do asana postures to open my heart, I begin with a gentle restorative practice. Start by rolling a blanket into a long jelly roll. Place the roll at the base of the spine and lay back onto the blanket. Your head can either be on the blanket or perhaps a small neck roll. If you have a bit more flexibility, place the blanket across the back just at the lower tips of the shoulder blades. Lay back on the roll allowing the heart space to open. With either option, allow the arms to extended out to the side and allow the shoulders to soften and relax. You may lay with your legs extended or bring the soles of the feet together with the knees to falling to the sides, depending on what is most comfortable for the lower back. Take 20–30 slow deep breaths, expanding and surrendering with each cycle.
After you have completed this warm-up posture, you can then move into Cat/Cow (Marjaryasana-Bitilasana) flexions and extensions followed by a few Sun Salutations before jumping right into deeper backbend options. Once you feel ready, pick from the following asanas to express your heart body.
There are many more active postures that can help bring expansiveness to your heart space. My advice would be to find a qualified instructor to lead you through a heart-forward practice. Remember to let the seven other limbs of yoga help guide you too. I hope you receive the gift of openness, acceptance, and love in your refreshed heart space.