Are Backbends "Heart Openers"?
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
In addition to my personal classes and private clients, I teach at a yoga studio. Every month we have a "pose of the month" which I really enjoy. By focusing on a particular pose multiple times per month, we get the opportunity to study the pose from different points of view, explore in our own bodies, play with different experiences, and sometimes develop strength and skills with the pose. And if it's a pose we don't like, it gives us the opportunity to practice Muditā, sympathetic joy for the happiness of others. We can practice breathing through discomfort and chilling out even if something isn't our favorite.
Our new pose of the month is Camel Pose. 🐪 Uṣṭrāsana. Pronounced “Oosh TRAH sun nuh”. Click here to hear an excellent pronunciation guide.
Camel Pose is a very deep backbend.
Backbends in yoga are often called "heart openers," because backbends give the appearance of making more space in the heart area of the body. But that doesn’t mean your heart is "not open" if backbends are challenging for you. Many of us have tight chests and upper backs -- and it’s just a physical thing. It doesn't mean we're grumpy, unloving grinches or anything!
And really, we can practice being "open-hearted" no matter what shape we're making in our body!
From a physical standpoint, when people request heart openers in class, a lot of time what they are seeking is chest, upper back and shoulder stretching.
Backbends can be excellent for reversing the effects of our work. While not all of us work in "offices" or "on computers" all the time, we still are probably rounding forward much of the day. Think about it! Dentists round forward to fix teeth. Pediatricians and Caregivers round forward to pick up babies. Bakers round forward to knead bread. And the list goes on. Even when you read something from a book or tablet, you're probably rounding forward. (And don't even get me started on the stressors of texting!). 😜
Backbends can reverse the effects of forward posture by passive stretching to open up, or by strengthening the postural muscles in the back that bring us upright.
Now let's reflect on the spiritual connotation of "heart opening."
When I am talking to a close friend, I feel "open-hearted" because I fully expect to be safe and have general positive regard from that person.
When I feel safe, energized and empowered, it's easy to practice patience, kindness and open-heartedness towards others. It's easier to lend a hand.
When I am overworked, overtired, sleep deprived or excessively hungry--I may be less able to help another person. I might feel more closed off and like I need to conserve my own energy.
Every one of us has been hurt by another, or suffered a loss. Have you ever had a bad romantic breakup? Sometimes we say we are heart broken. And then gradually we recover, but we may have some sore spots in our hearts. I know this language resonates with my experience.
Everyone is on their own healing journey. Sometimes we have to do some meditation, journaling or therapeutic work to heal from things that have happened to us. Sometimes we avoid doing the work because it feels hard. We stay busy, or distract ourselves with entertainment. Eventually, if we want to live our lives more fully, with less suffering, we will want to do the work.
When we invite heart-opening in yoga class, we are really just inviting reflection. To the extent that we are interested and able, we can create a safe space to feel into our own hearts, and see what we see. We can ask our hearts what is needed for the next step in the healing process. We can connect to the safety of the space and imagine putting down our armor and breathing into our hearts. We can send ourselves compassion, friendliness, genuine well-wishes, and wishes for our own healing. We can send the same compassion, friendliness, and genuine well-wishes out to others.
And if none of that feels right at the time, we have the agency to let it go and focus on other areas in our practice.
May this practice serve for our healing and awakening, and for the healing and awakening of all beings.
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness
May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering
May all beings never be parted from the joy of true freedom
May all beings dwell in equanimity and peace
What is an Open Heart? by Dr. Rick Hanson
Definition of Open Hearted on Vocabulary.com
Here's a link to my instagram where I describe a moving exercise to open up the upper back and chest.
And here is a link to a hilarious actor playing The Grinch! Thanks to the actress, Niecy Nash for sharing on instagram! niecynash1
A Quote from Chogyam Trungpa Ripoche
Even if a situation is very demanding or difficult, the warrior never gives up. He always conducts himself well, with gentleness and warmth, to begin with, and he always maintains his loyalty to sentient beings who are trapped in the setting sun world. The warrior's duty is to generate warmth and compassion for others.
Human beings should be tender and open