Yoga Heart Openers are the Antidote to Your Winter Blues
Winter is the perfect time for heart openers. When the weather is cold, we go all hunchy, concentrating our heat and ensuring the survival of our species by protecting our vital organs from hypothermia. Throw in the global hunching pandemic that has resulted from all the screens, all the time, and you’ve got a recipe for back, neck, and shoulder pain, not to mention a grouchy attitude. Stretching and opening the heart are the prescription you need to take daily.
Heart Opening vs. Back Bending
You may notice that the poses we’re calling heart openers could just as accurately be called backbends. We’re not trying to pull the wool over your eyes: it’s true that they are the same set of poses. So why does it matter what we call them? The terminology can actually offer a subtle difference in approach. Back bending puts the emphasis on the mobility of the spine. Since most people are most flexible in their lumbar spines, that’s where the curve goes when you ask your spine to move into extension. It takes a concerted effort to work on the rest of your spine, particularly the upper back which is behind the heart. (For yoga purposes, assume the heart is on your sternum.) When you call the pose a heart opener, you’ve gotten your chest, ribs, scapula, and shoulders into the action in addition to activating your thoracic spine. As you move into intermediate and advanced backbends, it’s key to think of your shoulder blades as the support system for your heart. It all helps make more space for your spinal extension and takes pressure off your low back. It’s also super important to set up each pose with the proper alignment to keep from putting undue pressure on your vulnerable joints, including the ones in your spine. You may need blocks and a wall along the way.
Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
If you do flow yoga, you probably do quite a lot of Upward Facing Dogs. Once you get the hang of the vinyasa sequence, it’s pretty common to switch on autopilot and go through it without really paying attention. Be vigilant! It’s not a race to see who can get back to Downward Facing Dog the fastest.
A lot of people get caught up in the rolling over the toes part of the transition from Chaturanga to Upward Dog. It does look cool and it’s a good stretch for your feet, but it also sometimes has the effect of putting your shoulders in the wrong position for the next pose. In Upward Facing Dog, it’s really important that your shoulders are over your wrists, not in front of them. You also want to make sure that your shoulder blades are on your back so that your chest can move through your shoulders. And, finally, make sure that your shoulders are far away from your ears. This also makes room for the thighs to come off the floor, which may seem like a struggle otherwise.
Liv’s Tip: If you bend your elbows, it’s easier to roll your shoulders back and down. If straightening your arms undoes this work, keep the elbows slightly bent throughout the pose.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Camel is a really nice heart opener for people with sensitive shoulders because the arms aren’t bearing as much weight here (hint: it’s your core!). There are also so many ways to adapt this pose. Just make sure that you are leading with your chest and you’re all good. In fact, before you do anything else, roll your shoulders up and then down and back so that your shoulder blades hug your back. Bring the palms of your hands (with fingers pointing down) to your sacrum and move your elbows toward the midline. This is a perfectly acceptable version of the pose. Opening the chest is the object here, not reaching your heels.
If you do decide to go for your heels, make sure your pelvis stays over your knees. There’s no point in taking your arms back if your hips go with them. There are many options for where to place your hands at this point. Your toes can be tucked under to raise the heels a bit or the tops of your feet can be flat on the floor to take things deeper. If neither of these work, blocks (at any level) on either side of your feet are another good choice.
You can really feel how the shoulder blades act as a little shelf for your heart here. Imagine that you’re trying to get some sunshine on your sternum.
Liv’s Tip: Take the Camel challenge by moving over to the wall. Kneel right up against the wall with your thighs pressing into it. Now you can really tell if your hips are staying over your knees when you lean back because your thighs should stay in contact with the wall the whole time.
Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
A safe wheel pose is all about the setup. Feet parallel, heels close to butt. Palms flat, roughly under your shoulders with wrist creases parallel to the back edge of the mat (or the ‘end to end lines’ on your Liforme mat!).
Push into your hands and feet to lift your hips and bring the crown of your head to the floor. I like this pit stop because it gives you a chance to check in on your alignment, in particular, to bring your elbows parallel if they’ve winged out to the sides and to firm your shoulder blades onto your back. If getting to this point seemed like a lot of work, just stay here for a few breaths before pressing firmly into your hands and feet again to safely lift your head and lower down.
If you want to continue on, straighten your arms on an exhale. Immediately check in on your feet. Did your toes turn out? Turn them back in. Are you clenching your butt? Release it so your tailbone has somewhere to go. Picture your chest moving through your arms as you continue holding the shoulder blades on your back. Let your head hang to release tension from your neck. After a few breaths, tuck your chin before lowering back to the floor.
Liv’s Tips: There are a few ways to use blocks to improve your alignment. First, you can hug a block between your thighs to make sure that they say parallel throughout. If the block falls out, you’re letting the thighs drift apart. Once you get the feeling of the using the block, you can usually replicate the action of hugging the legs together without the prop. Another block between the feet will help you keep them parallel too.
If you have tight shoulders and feel like you’re never quite gotten the gist of Wheel, I really recommend getting two blocks and heading over to the wall. Prop the blocks on the wall at a 45-degree angle with the short ends facing the wall. Place your hands on the blocks and press up. Get that aha! feeling as you finally experience why people like this pose. Move your chest toward the wall. If you have a friend handy, you can get the same experience by holding onto their ankles.
Liv’s Ultimate Savasana Tip!
I had a teacher who used to go around the room tucking everyone’s shoulders under in Savasana. It’s a really simple self-adjustment that you can do when you’re settling yourself for final relaxation. Just press into your elbows to lift your chest slightly, then roll your shoulders open, moving your shoulder blades onto your back and toward the midline of your spine. Your forearms will widen and it feels more natural to have your palms facing up. Now that you can really feel the support that your scapulae are giving your chest, look for that sensation in other more active heart openers.
P.S. What’s your favourite heart opening tip?
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