In yoga, heavy emphasis is placed on heart opening, a practice that has a profound number of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual benefits.
Indeed, heart opening yoga poses can act as the gateway to our deepest vulnerabilities. But what does ‘heart opening’ truly mean, and what does yoga have to do with any of it?
For many, living with an open heart refers to forming loving relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners without fear, judgment, or grudge-bearing. However, in ancient traditions such as yoga, the heart represents far more than relationships with others; it is the doorway to the soul itself.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- What is the Heart Chakra?
- What is Heart Opening?
- 5 Benefits of Heart Opening
- 8 Yoga Poses To Open The Heart
Let’s dive straight in…
What is the Heart Chakra?
Before we explore the powerful practice of heart opening, it’s important to understand the crucial role that the Heart Chakra plays in all of this.
Your Chakras are spinning vortexes of energy that ultimately create your body’s natural energy system and life force. These spinning wheels of prana are connected by the Chakra System – a complex network of energy channels. Think of this as a spiritual nervous system.
There are seven interconnected Chakras in your body that run along the length of your spine, each of which corresponds to different body parts and characteristics.
The Heart Chakra occupies a central place in the Chakra system. It is the energy center for love, compassion, and acceptance in our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives.
By opening the Heart Chakra and allowing energy to flow freely through it, you will transcend the preoccupations typically associated with the lower three Chakras, such as basic instinctual needs or concerns about social status, image, and power.
In other words, a balanced fourth Chakra fosters forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love for all around you. Living with an open heart invites access to innate soul qualities and divine wisdom, as well as the ability to move through life with grace, love and intention.
Signs of a blocked Heart Chakra
The symptoms of a blocked Heart Chakra can manifest both physically and emotionally.
The most common signs of a blocked or imbalanced Heart Chakra relate to an inability to love or be loved, an unwillingness to forgive or let go, and lack of emotional stability.
Emotional symptoms include:
- Being overly defensive
- Feeling closed down
- Fear of intimacy
- Holding grudges
Physical symptoms include:
- Lung infections
- Circulatory and heart-related issues
What is heart opening?
Heart opening refers to the conscious effort to stimulate the Heart Chakra, be it through physical movement (Chakra yoga), words, or actions.
You can achieve heart opening by practicing heart opening yoga poses – asanas that expand your chest and rib cage, lengthen your spine and improve your posture. This allows your thoracic soft tissue to gently stretch, opening your heart space. Consequently, many heart opener poses tend to be backbends.
However, opening the heart is more than a deep thoracic cavity stretch.
We are said to have three hearts: our physical heart, our emotional heart, and our spiritual heart. The pressure we feel in our thoracic cavity during heart opening yoga poses draws attention to all three hearts, revealing a clear picture of what’s really beneath the surface.
We can only begin to remove pain and suffering from being stored in our hearts when our innermost heart is unveiled to ourselves.
5 benefits of heart opening
1. Healthy Spine
Heart opening yoga poses help expand your thoracic cavity as well as your diaphragm, which separates your lungs and heart from the organs below.
2. Flexible Rib Cage
Although the ribcage needs to be strong to protect the heart, a stiff ribcage can significantly limit lung capacity.
An immovable rib cage can also be a limiting factor in Pranayama and many yoga poses, especially those involving twists and backbends, since the rigidity prevents the thoracic spine from moving through its normal range of motion. This can cause pain over time.
3. Improved breathing
Expanding your rib cage and improving the flexibility of your lungs allows for a greater lung capacity, which in turn allows for increased oxygen to your brain, heart and muscles.
Improving your lung capacity allows to you to take longer, deeper breaths, improving your asanas as well as alleviating symptoms of anxiety, improving sleep quality, increasing energy levels, and aiding digestion.
4. Improved posture
Psychologists such as Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen and Dr Monica Gauci have researched links between poor posture and emotional health.
They found that a forward collapsed chest relates to depression, while a hardened ribcage was associated with a rigid character. Much of this derives from the human tendency to hunch shoulders and curve the spine to protect the heart whilst suffering from internal wounds.
Therefore, due to nervous system feedback loops, when we adopt poor posture without needing to protect against internal wounds we send signals to our body and brain to feel fatigued, depressed and lacking in confidence.
5. Emotional release
Our hips and heart, among countless other “storage facilities” within our body, remember events of our past and hold the score. Heart opening yoga poses are particularly good for releasing sadness, grief, anger and frustration stored in your body.
The more you expand your sternum, rib cage and the rest of your upper body, the more blood, oxygen and nerve circulation will be freed up to invigorate you mentally and physically.
8 Heart Opening Yoga Poses
It’s essential to focus on your breathwork throughout these heart opening yoga poses.
On the inhale, breathe into your heart, allowing it to open. As you exhale, let go of past pains, traumas, tensions, and worries, releasing them into the light and redirecting that light inwards.
Before you begin the sequence, try completing 3-5 gentle Sun Salutations to get your body moving.
And lastly, when back-bending with the purpose of heart opening, it’s important to focus on engaging the middle and upper parts of the spine, rather than your lower back.
1. Cat-Cow Pose (Marjariasana)
Make sure your wrists are directly below your shoulders and your knees are below your hips. Inhale as you push your core to the floor and raise your head, and exhale as you tuck your head in and round your spine toward the ceiling.
Start by practicing this pose combination for 1-3 minutes at a time. Move between your cat and cow slowly, gradually increasing the speed as you feel your spine become looser and more flexible.
2. Sphinx Pose (Salamba Bhujangasana)
Open your chest and your lungs and stimulate your abdominal organs
This entry-level backbend asana is the perfect preparatory pose for Cobra Pose, a much deeper backbend.
Lie on your front and place your forearms in front of you, palms facing down and arms shoulder width apart. Your elbows should be directly below your shoulders and your hands should be in line with your elbows.
Slide your chest upwards and forwards, softening your shoulders away from your ears and relaxing your neck and jaw. Hold this pose for 1 minute.
3. Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Lie on your stomach and place your hands under your shoulders, palms down with elbows pressed into your ribs and pointing towards the ceiling. Gently press off the ground and lift your head, chest, and stomach off the ground.
4. Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
From a kneeling position with hands on hips, bend backwards slightly and clasp your feet with your hands. Straighten your arms and look to the ceiling.
Gently release your neck and open your throat by allowing your head to fall back.
5. Wheel Pose
This pose lengthens your spine, opens your chest, stretches out your stomach, and quite literally flips your perspective upside down. Practice with a yoga wheel for a greater stretch!
6. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
This reclining backbend and chest-opening pose helps stretch the spine, chest, and neck.
Lie in the center of your mat, and bend your legs. Raise your hips and press your interlocked arms into the mat. Use your shoulder blades as a little shelf to support your heart from behind.
If this pose feels too intense, try a supported bridge by placing a yoga block under your lower back.
7. Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
This chest opening pose is great for correcting your posture and improving your flexibility.
Lie on your stomach, legs slightly apart. Bend your knees and reach back with your arms to hold your ankles. Lift your chest and legs off the floor, pulling through your arms to deepen the stretch.
Extend upwards through the crown of your head. Feel your chest opening and radiating forward. Look straight ahead.
8. Triangle Pose (Trikanasana)
Stand straight with your feet in a wide stance. With a straight waist, bend towards the right and lift your left hand above you, anchoring yourself with your right. Bend your right knee, stretch out your left leg, and look up towards your outstretched arm. Repeat on the other side.
For a deeper stretch, try dropping your lifted arm behind your back to clasp your inner thigh. This bind will increase the opening across your chest.
If you find yourself putting too much pressure on your leg by leaning on it, you can use a yoga block to rest your hand on instead.
For a deeper dive into heart opening asanas, check out our resources on backbend yoga poses: