Yoga for the Heart

Ah heart openers! For beginners, front body openers or back bends can be intimidating but they are a beautiful and integral part of a practice. They can be empowering and help build confidence. Just think of the posture someone’s hold when they’re are feeling confident- spine straight and chest outwards- compared to they’re not feeling themselves that much- shoulders slouched and chest drawn in, almost like they want to hide their hearts. Whether love for yourself or others you’re trying to cultivate, try adding some of these poses to your practice!

Cat- Cow/ Marjaryasana- Bitilasana

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart
The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

Cat/ Cow is such a great warm up for the spine and to connect your movement to breath! Start on all fours, shoulders stacked directly above the wrist and hips above the knees with your feet in line with the knees. For wrist sensitivity, you can walk the hands out in front of by 2-5 cm and see how it feels. As you inhale, drop the belly down to the mat, untuck the tail bone and lift the gaze to the horizon. This is Cow- imagine your belly is a the udders on a cow. As you exhale, draw the navel into the spine, tuck the tailbone and tuck the chin to the chest. Imagine your a cat arching its spine and try to take the middle vertebrae all the way to the sky. This movement stretches the front and back body. Try 5 to 10 breathe cycles.

Adho Muhka Svasana/ Downward facing Dog

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

From all fours, come into Downward facing Dog. Your heels do not have to touch the ground if the hamstrings don’t feel comfortable going there! Rather take a slight bend in the knees and ground through the balls of the feet. Imagine drawing your thigh bones up into the hip sockets and “shine” your tailbone up to the sky (slightly stick out your butt!). Push the last feww ribs towards the thighs and bring the shoulders away from the ears. Focus on your connection the the mat through the hands, spreading the fingers wide. Take 10 breath cycles here, moving around for the first 5 by bending one knee then the other, shaking the head or rising up on the toes and then lowering the heels. 

This would be a good time to do some Surya Namaskar A or Sun Salutation A’s, here’s a great video to check out. I’d say 5 or 7 to warm up enough. Warm the body before any heart openers is very important. 

Shanti Virabhadrasana/ Peaceful Warrior

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

From a Downward Facing Dog, bring the right foot forward between the hands, right knee stacked over the right ankle and drop the left heal to the mat so the outer edge of the left foot is parallel to the short edge of the mat. Lift the torso, open arms, chest and hips to come into Warrior II. Flip the palms to face up, bring the right arm forward then scoop the left hand back. The left hand can rest on the left thigh, palming facing up or down- find which feels good to you. Imagine spinning your sternum up the sky with every exhale and check in with the right knee to ensure it stays over the right ankle. Hold for 5 breathes. Repeat on the left hand side.

Utthita Parsvakhonasana/ Extended Side Angle

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

From Warrior II, bend the right elbow and place the right forearm on the right knee, sweep the left arm overhead and gaze through the armpit chest. Imagine your right forearm is holding a tray so it stays parallel to the earth. Engage the left thigh so the right knee isn’t taking all of the weight. Spin the sternum up to sky with each exhale. Reach your left finger tips forward as if there’s something just out of your reach.

If you want more from the poses, try placing the right hand outside the right foot. The hand can be on a block or the mat, fingers tented or palms flat on the mat- it’s your choice so go as far feels good but not painful. If you know how to take the bind, that’s an option too!

Anjaneyasana/ Crescent Lunge

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

If you want to take it further keep the tailbone extended down to the earth as you lift the chest then take it slightly back. If gazing to thumbs is too much on the neck, come forward slightly. If you find this more challenging with the top of the foot on the mat, so see if toes tucked works for you. 

A personal favourite! From a low lunge, check that knee is directly over the ankle and imagine drawing your thighs into a center line- this will help your balance! Hook the thumbs, spread the fingers and engage your core as you lift the hands up to the sky. Biceps frame the ears and your gaze is at the thumbs. Tuck the tailbone and see if you can sink the hips a little lower, keeping the front knee over the ankle- not letting it come forward or lean inwards. 

Ardha Chakrasana/ Half Wheel

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

Start on your back, heels hip distance apart and trying to brush the back of your heel with your middle finger*.  Inhale to lift the lower, middle then the upper back off of the mat. Exhale, interlace the fingers under the spine, maybe the palms touch and reach your hands as they’re going between the heels. This will open up the chest and front body. Imagine there is a small fruit between your chin and chest, take care not to flare the ribs as your inhale. Knees should be parallel to the hips and directly over the ankles. Hold for 5 breath cycles then release the arms, lower the upper middle and lower back to the mat. Repeat up to 3 times.

*This is a general measure and may not be right for people with knee sensitivity but try it first. You can walk your feet a few millimetres towards the back of the mat if you need to.

Ardah Purvottasana or Purvottasana/Reverse Table Top or Inverted Plank

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart
The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

Inverted Table Top may not look elegant but it is so effective. Sit on the mat with your feet hip distance apart and quite close to the sit bones, hands are about 12cm to 15cm behind you with the fingertips facing towards the sit bones. Glue the chin to the chest, gaze at the knees and lift your hips towards the ceiling. If you can see your knees, keep the gaze where it is, if the knees disappear from view, take your gaze to the ceiling. Hold for 5 breath cycles, repeat up to 3 times. 

If you’re looking for a little bit more, sit in Dhandasana (sit with spine long, legs extended out long on the mat, arms alongside the body and hands next to the hips). On an inhale lift the hips upwards, engaging the legs and even pointing the feet slightly. To open up the shoulders and chest, lean back a little into the arms. Gaze up to the sky as much as the neck feels good. Hold for 5 breath cycles, repeat up to three times with recovery breathes inbetween.

Ustrasana/ Camel Pose

The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart
The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart
The Stylist's Notebook- Yoga for the Heart

NB: Camel is a beautiful opener for the chest but please listen to and honour your body. Ideally you’ve practiced this with a trusted teacher before and your body is warm from your sun salutations and the previous poses. Please never try deep backbends without warming up first. Some of us take a long time to be able to come into this pose and that’s ok! If you try it and it doesn’t feel good, or if it goes further than a slightly uncomfortable stretch and becomes painful, come out carefully. 

Start kneeling then take your hips directly above knees, observe this and check in with how it feels because you’re aiming to keep your hips above your knees throughout this asana (or pose). Tuck the tail bone and enagage the core as you take the palms to you lower back with the finger pointing up. This should feel like a supportive base for the lower back. Remember your goal of opening the chest and shoulders? Imagine drawing your elbows together. If you want to take it further start puffing the chest up then slowly taking it back. Only go as far as feels and keep the tuck of the tail bone so you don’t crunch into your lower back. If you feel like you more space in the upper and middle back, try placing you hands on the heels. Ideally, hips will stacked above the knees, shoulder will stack above the wrists. Once you’ve found a place in the poses that combines both effort and ease, stay there for 5 breathe cycles before coming out.

To come out, place your hands on the lower back, fingers pointing up for support and tuck the chin. Slowly, with control, lift the shoulders and chest until you are back to your starting position, then untuck the chin so it’s parallel to the earth.

Ardah Matsyandrasana/ Half Lord of the Fishes 

The counter poses to back bends are twists, my favourite is Matsyandrasana. Come to sit, place the right shin and thigh on the mat with a bend in the knee. The right heel should be outside the left hip, if not straighten the right leg so it’s out in front of you. Play around with the distance between the heel and the hip until it feels like a good stretch with no pain. Now bend the left knee and take it towards the chest, placing the left foot outside the right knee. Are your sit bones firmly on the mat? If not, straighten the right leg out. Lift the right hand up to the ceiling, left hand on the mat behind the spine and on an exhale twist hooking the right elbow outside the left knee.

For 5 breathe cycles, you’ll grow tall on each inhale and gaze a little further over the left shoulder with each exhale. Return to the center on an inhale and repeat on the opposite side.

Other great neutralising poses or asanas are downward facing dog and child’s pose. When you are finished with all of your back bends and have decided not to do anymore, finish with some forward folds and a gentle inversion of your choice.

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