‘Open your heart – become more compassionate with heart opening poses!’ Instructions on these lines are common in yoga classes and in both online and print magazines. Here are some examples from respected online yoga magazines: ‘Heart opening poses help you become more receptive and eager to love!’ (DoYouYoga). ‘Heart openers like Bow pose and Cobra can help heal your body, mind and spirit‘ (Yoga Journal). And ‘Ustrasana is the mother of heart opening asana.’
For yoga students who are tight across the front of the shoulders and upper chest – through hunching over the computer, driving etc. – it can certainly be a good idea to practise asana that stretch the muscles in this part of the body. The asana that can have this effect – the oft named ‘heart opening’ poses – are backbends such as Bhujangasana, Shalabhasana, Dhanurasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana and Ustrasana. Students with the ‘hunched shoulders’ type of posture, might also have musculature that’s weak and long in the back of the body and short and overly toned in the front. Asana that gently extend the spine can help to bring the posture of these students into a healthier balance.
It’s also true that people who are depressed, sometimes adopt a round-shouldered, self-protective posture. But there’s a suggestion inherent to the ‘open your heart‘ instruction that students who are round-shouldered lack compassion and students with ‘open’ chests are compassionate. I’ve had experiences that confirm the simplistic nature of this assumption. Many years ago I was taught by a yoga teacher whose demeanour included strutting around class with his chest puffed out. He proceeded to display a distinct lack of compassion by locking me out of class after I left briefly to go to the loo! So in this instance, the ability to push the heart forwards did not correlate with a warm, generous spirit. On the other hand, I know many kind, generous people who are round-shouldered.
There can also be an assumption that pushing the heart further and further forwards in backbending asana should be the aim. This approach can lead to posture that is unbalanced, the ribcage may become overly lifted in front and the potential for breath movement may be inhibited in the back. Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen – innovator and leader in developing the Body-Mind Centering® approach – strongly believes that pushing the heart forward in backbending poses should be avoided. She says that practising in this manner may compress the pulmonary vessels between the heart and the lungs, causing stress to the heart. Instead she advocates the folding of lungs towards each other behind the heart, thus ‘holding it like a baby’, so that ‘the heart can remain soft and calm and the blood flow is open and free.’
In my own practice of backbends, I like to begin with the image of my heart nestling between lungs. As I move my thoracic spine into extension, I have in mind the lower heart tip moving forwards and the upper part of my heart moving back. I breathe into the back of my lungs – aiming for a feeling of spaciousness and quiet support for my heart. When I’m teaching backbends, I use words to help my students towards a similarly calm, spacious experience.
The concept of open heartedness suggests being trusting as well as compassionate. Body-Mind Centering® Teacher and yoga teacher – Amy Matthews – talks about the need to have a ‘heart that can open and close at will‘. Amy says we need to bear in mind that being openhearted isn’t always a safe strategy. She clarifies this by giving the example of walking around certain parts of New York at night and expecting to be able to trust everyone.
I like Bonnie’s advocation of approaches that help keep the heart ‘soft and calm’. For this to arise we need to allow breath movement in the back of the lungs as well as the front, to cultivate the ability to ‘open and close’ the heart at will, and to be able to say ‘I have my heart in the right place.’