The reason we create unconventional shapes with our bodies in yoga is to get us out of physical and mental patterns. Back bending counters almost everything that we do throughout our day. Writing, reading, typing, cooking, driving, eating, building, creating art, and even most sleeping positions require us to hunch forward a little bit, causing contraction of the pectoral muscles and other muscles around the heart. Moving in contrast to our repetitive motions will keep us out of habit and rigidity. Opening the chest will prevent us from aging prematurely, injuring ourselves, and enduring many other complications associated with habitual hunching. It is said that opening the heart can reduce anxiety, grief, and disease, while increasing energy, vitality, and vulnerability (which is a good thing).
Some studies show that the heart is actually more intelligent than the brain, and can perceive things that cannot be picked up on the radar of our other five senses. Being in touch with this area of the body is one of the most powerful things that can be learned, as the heart is believed to be the physical gateway to spiritual truth.
The heart chakra (Anahata), is associated with making decisions based on compassion, self love, altruism, kindness, respect, charity with others, and manifestation. It is connected to deep bonds with other people and nature. It is the part of the body that is tied to the soul, or the spiritual self.
My favorite prop to take my back bending practice to the next level is the yoga wheel. Below are four heart-openers that are enhanced with the help of this versatile tool:
Please, before attempting any backbends, make sure you give yourself time to warm up through some movement and gentle stretching, and that you are breathing deeply and intentionally throughout each pose.
The wheel is the perfect bridge to take your bind in natarajasana from one arm to two arms. From standing, take the wheel in the right hand reaching back for the toes of the right foot. Hook the wheel around the toes while flexing them to create a stable hook. Bend your leg and bring your elbow to the sky, and add the second arm when you feel stable. Engage your core and set a steady gaze. Take five to ten breaths, and then repeat on the left side.
The use of the wheel in setu bandha sarvangasana can bring an extremely satisfying opening to the front of the torso. In a seated position, place the wheel on the small of the back, and roll back onto the wheel. With your legs bent and the souls of your feet to the floor hips width apart, roll back until your shoulders come to the floor. Arms by your side with palms facing up.
Bridge with Shoulder Opening
Not only is it beneficial to stretch the triceps and neck, but doing so in this pose will increase spinal flexion and opening of the chest. Start in the same way you did for the supported bridge, but when you roll back, stop when your shoulders are about half way down the wheel. Reach your arms overhead and bend at the elbows to reach back for the wheel. Continue to roll back until your elbows and head touch the mat. Press your feet into the floor for support, and allow your hips to drop down onto the wheel.
Supported Fish Pose
This is one of the most effective yin-style postures for heart opening, and the curvature of the wheel creates a perfect cradle for the spine. Start seated on the ground with the wheel behind you. Lie down onto the wheel placed between your shoulder blades. Allow your head to drop back. This could be modified with a bolster under the seat, or a blanket folded up behind the head.
Opening the heart, like many other worthy aspects of our yoga practice, creates challenge and opportunity for growth and change. Do you dare to be open? Vulnerable? To accept truth without fear?
“A pure heart open to light, will be filled with the very essence of truth.”-Rumi
Please comment below with any questions, comments, or ideas to add!