"Yoga practice is at its most transformational when we use it as a way to restore, nurture, and expand a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves. We do this not only for ourselves, but also because doing so changes the way we see others and interact with the world around us."
Evolving Your Yoga
Have you ever wondered what your yoga teacher actually wants you to do when she instructs you to open, soften, breathe into, or connect to your heart?
When asked to relate to our “heart” during a yoga class, we may intuit that we are being invited to connect with a deeper sense of Self or an inner space of positivity. Yet the heart can remain a vague concept. Let’s clarify.
What is Heart?
In yoga, the term heart can refer to one of three concepts: one physical, another transcendent, and yet another, energetic:
The physical heart, as we know, is the pulsating, blood-pumping, fist-sized muscle in the center of the chest.
The transcendent notion of the heart, hrdaya as it's known in Sanskrit, is said to be the seat of pure consciousness. Sometimes referred to as the Self, or the atman, this concept of the heart is often described as a refuge, a home, a resting place, or our spiritual core.
On an energetic level, the heart center, or anahata chakra, is one of the seven primary energy centers in the subtle body. It’s located within the spinal column at the level of the sternum and the first thoracic vertebra, just above the physical heart. In the Western psychological interpretation, the heart center is associated with qualities of unconditional love, compassion, empathy, harmony, and joy. (Learn more in Understanding the 7 Chakras.)
Yoga, when done as a practice of self-honouring, calls forth the power of our heart center. It amplifies the heart’s characteristic feelings of loving connection, wholeness and kindness, and turns those qualities within, toward our selves. Consciously cultivating these feelings in yoga can help foster self-acceptance, emotional healing, and a loving self-regard that encompasses all parts of ourselves.
It can be helpful to understand that the heart has the capacity to hold both our light and our darkness, offering us a space to embraces our entirety – even the parts that we may want to hide away. As our inner dialogue shifts to become more loving and accepting, we may also find it easier to express these qualities in our outer lives as well.
Here’s a sequence of chest-opening postures followed by deep relaxation and meditation that can open you up to the experience of your heart center:
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) With Hands in Anjali Mudra
Join your hands together in the center of your chest. Take a moment to connect with the space of the heart. Take a breath, relax your shoulders, and soften your facial muscles. Inwardly, welcome yourself exactly as you are. Gently bow your head toward your heart with an inner feeling of complete self-acceptance. Set the intention to honor yourself and your needs fully during this practice.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and Upward Salute Pose (Urdhva Hastasana)
On an inhalation, sweep your arms overhead close to your ears. With your palms facing each other, reach your arms up and lift your heart toward the sky.
Exhale, turn your palms away from you, and lower your arms back down to your sides.
Repeat three or four times more. Inhale and reach your arms out to the side and up overhead. Exhale and reach out through your arms as you lower them back down to your sides.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with Clasped Hands Behind the Back
Lengthen your torso up, roll the tops of your arms back, and interlace your fingers behind your back. Engage the shoulder blades onto the back of your ribcage. Lift and open your chest. Broaden your collarbones. Take a few breaths here, allowing the breath to gently expand the heart space and release your arms back down to your sides.
Mountain Pose with Cow-Face arms (Tadasana with Gomukhasana arms)
Raise your right arm up alongside your ear and and rotate it outwardly, turning the thumb to point right so the palm faces behind you. Bend your right elbow and take your right forearm down behind your head and place your hand on your upper back.
Take your left arm out to the side, turn it inwardly so the thumb points downward and the palm faces back. Bend your left elbow and take your left forearm to your lower back or, possibly, up to the spine between your shoulder blades. Clasp your hands together or use a strap if your hands don’t touch. Use the pressure of your hands into your upper back to lift and open your chest.
Tadasana with Eagle arms (Tadasana with Garudasana arms)
Stretch your arms straight forward and parallel to the floor. Cross your arms in front of your torso so that the right arm is above the left, then bend your elbows. Keeping your right elbow into the crook of the left, raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor. The backs of your hands should be facing each other, or simply have the backs of the hands touching.
Widen your shoulder blades away from each other and broaden the tops of your arms in opposite directions to stretch your upper back.Exhale to release and change sides.
Wide-Angle Standing Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana) With Clasped Hands Behind the Back
Step your feet wide apart with your toes pointing straight ahead. Lengthen your torso up, roll the tops of your arms back, and interlace your fingers behind your back. Engage the shoulder blades onto the back of your ribcage. Inhale to lift and open your chest. Broaden your collarbones.
Exhale and fold forward. Stretch your arms overhead, and move the wrists toward the floor. Take a few breath.
Release the clasp of your hands and place your fingertips on the floor. Walk your feet slightly together, take your hands to your hips, lift your shoulders away from the floor, lengthen your spine forward and lift your chest to come up to standing. Step your feet together. Take a few breaths and check in with your body and your intention of self-honoring.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Lie down your belly and place your hands a few inches below your shoulders toward your waistline. Extend back through your legs, press the tops of your feet down into the floor and firm your thighs. Draw your tailbone toward your feet. Firm the buttocks without gripping or hardening.
Extend your ribcage forward and slowing raise your torso up without pressing into your hands. Roll the tops of your arms back, firm the shoulder blades on the back, and move your upper back forward toward the sternum. Lift your chest.
Keep lengthening your tailbone down as you curl up higher. As you straighten your arms be sure to keep the tops of your arms rolling back as you lift your chest forward and up. Soften the heart forward.
To release, exhale and lie back down on your belly.
Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana)
Bend your elbows and spread your palms on the floor beside your waist so that your forearms are relatively perpendicular to the floor.
Inhale and press your inner hands firmly into the floor and slightly back, as if you were trying to push yourself forward along the floor. Straighten your arms and lift your chest and raise your legs a few inches off the floor. Keep the thighs firm and the arms strong. Turn your arms so your elbow creases face forward. Press the tailbone toward your heels. Firm but don't harden the buttocks.
Firm your shoulder blades against your back and move the chest forward through the arms as you lift your heart forward and up. Exhale and release back down onto your belly.
Child’s pose (Balasana)
Sit back on your heels with your big toes together and knees apart. For stiff hips or knees, place a folded blanket under your hips. Exhale and reach your arms out along the mat, moving your torso forward and down until your ribs nestle against your inner thighs and your forehead touches the floor. Relax your arms. If your forehead doesn’t touch the floor, support it with a blanket or block.
Move your hips back and down. Relax your neck and back. Breathe into the back of the heart.
To release, walk your hands in and raise your torso back up to sitting.
Enjoy a few minutes of heart-opening relaxation by lying back on a bolster. Place a bolster or a few folded blankets on the floor, or angled with blocks as shown here.
Sitting on your mat, lie back so your spine is centered on your support. Place a blanket or cushion under your head and neck as needed so that your forehead is slightly above your chin and the back of your neck is long.
If you feel any discomfort in your back, either bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor, or remove the support and lie flat on the floor.
Relax completely for 5-10 minutes. Rest your attention on your breathing and allow your shoulders and upper back to relax, and the heart space to gently open. To come up, bend your knees and slowly roll onto your right side. Use your hand to press yourself up. Take a comfortable seated position.
Meditation on the Heart Chakra
Sit for a few minutes of meditation focusing on the space of the heart center. You may wish to inwardly or vocally repeat the sound yam (pronounced “yum”), the bija mantra or seed syllable of the heart center. Allow the vibration of the sound to resonate in the space of the heart. Feel love and compassion flowing in your heart region.
To conclude your practice, join your hands together in the center of your chest in anjali mudra once again. Take a moment to acknowledge your efforts and thank yourself. Gently bow your head toward your heart with an inner feeling of self-honouring, unconditional love and appreciation for your efforts.