February is full of hearts; heart candy, heart arts & crafts, heart decorations and hearts all over greeting cards. They say Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark created holiday. Meh…I say who cares and celebrate the heart-ones in your life. While you are at it, open your heart wider. That is, open the space that contains it, your chest area all the way through your ribs to your collarbones. Go ahead, try it. Spread your arms out wide and take a deep breath, expanding your belly, your ribs and expand in the chest. Hold it for a second, and then relax. How did it feel? Did it feel calming and peaceful, make you feel more open, make you feel more exposed, or possibly make you feel courageous? All feelings are acceptable and all come from releasing tension and opening your heart space. Yoga classifies the poses that accomplish this as heart openers, and as backbends.
But why even bother with backbends? Many of us hunch our shoulders forward: on the computer, texting on a cell phone/scrolling through Facebook, doing the dishes, and even when playing with our children. This closes off our heart space when what we need to do is open and free it. A person who is depressed, anxious, withdrawn, or just going through an emotional or tough time also unconsciously closes up their heart space by crossing of the arms, hugging their arms, along with hunching their shoulders and dipping their heads. This closing is constricting to our breathing and our blood flow, not to mention it creates tightness in the muscles in the front body.
When we wake in the morning the first thing we do is either stretch our arms overhead or put our arms behind our head and inhale deeply. Without even telling our body to do this, it already knows to act in a way to open us up, getting us ready for our day. Stretching through our front body eases our circulatory system, extends our breathing and helps combat the tightness contributed to a hunched over posture. When we do heart-opening backbends, we open the heart space which also means we expose it. This can makes us feel vulnerable. But if we can push pass that, we are actually opening ourselves up to giving and receiving more love. Why? Because we are leading with our heart in these poses.
Let’s walk through the Cat/Cow Pose, a gentle backbend, to see how breathing and stretching in a Yoga pose helps to open this heart space. Most people might not see Cat as a heart opener, it looks like the opposite of a backbend. But, the rounding of the back, lifting out of the shoulders, and curling of the head inwards helps to relieve the tension in the neck and upper back that often keeps us from letting our heart space open. Remember that since this is a “closing” movement of the body, Cat is done on an exhale. While the chest expands into Cow it is the inhalation of the breath in to the chest that accomplishes this. Space is created in the chest by stretching the most often ignored strips of muscles in between the ribs (the intercostal muscle). Keeping these muscles supple helps the rib cage expand on the inhalation while you reach your heart forward opening the front side of your body. Your head is lifted with a soft gaze forward or up. You still stay lifted out of the shoulders, but now the shoulder blades slide down your back creating more space. This is considered a baby backbend, and it is the foundation for what the other backbends are built on.
Other backbends to open our heart space include the Sphinx, Cobra, Locust, Up Dog, Camel, Bridge and Bow Pose. Heart opening backbends not only strengthen the physical body. Backbends also strengthen the heart chakra by bringing energy into the heart space. Briefly, this chakra helps to bring about selfless love and compassion. When it is closed off we may feel anger, resentment, bitterness and depression. This does not serve us well and it certainly doesn’t serve others.
So you see, it is better to have an open heart…physically and emotionally. Happy Valentine’s Day! Or should I say, Happy Open Heart Day!