In our modern world when we use the phrase “opening your heart” it often implies being ready or receptive to love and intimacy in a romantic capacity… cue the flowers, soppy poems and boxes of chocolates- yet in our yoga practice you will often hear teachers mention that a certain posture is a great ‘heart opener’… Surely they don’t mean that we’re preparing ourselves to be the leading man or woman in our very own romcom movie with a happy ending- and if that’s not what they’re talking about then what does ‘Heart Opening’ really mean?

The Physical Heart Space

Your heart resides within the thoracic cavity, which is surrounded by a bony cylinder, the rib cage, comprised of 12 ribs on the right and 12 on the left; your sternum in the front and the spine in the back. These bones are held together by soft tissue including muscles, cartilage and ligaments. The cartilage lies between the vertebrae in the spine, between the three parts of the sternum, and as part of each rib as it attaches to the sternum. The ligaments, which join bone to bone are for example, found between each pair of vertebrae, and ligaments holding each rib onto its adjacent vertebrae. Your diaphragm, the dome—shaped muscle that separates the heart and lungs above from the digestive and reproductive organs below, forms the floor of the thoracic cavity.

Ideally, the soft tissues supporting the bony cylinder remain resilient for a lifetime, so the cylinder is able to expand freely with each breath and the rib cage doesn't become a rigid and restrictive container for the heart and lungs. If the supporting tissues do become rigid then the lungs won't be able to expand completely to receive a deep, full breath; and the rigidity may also limit blood flow to and within the heart. An immovable rib cage is also a limiting factor in yogi breathing and many poses, especially twists and backbends, because its rigidity prevents the thoracic spine from moving through its normal range of motion. The lack of thoracic extension in backbends can contribute to lower back and neck pain caused by the lumbar and cervical spine (overarching) to compensate for the lack of mid-back movement.

Conscious work with the breath is one of the best ways to improve rib cage mobility, gently stretch thoracic soft tissues, and open the heart space. Any time people feel threatened, be it by pain, challenge, or pressure to perform, the need to guard or defend oneself usually results in holding the breath or breathing in shallow, erratic patterns. These defensive breath patterns cause muscle tightness in the very areas we're trying to open, as well as gripping in the upper abdomen, which restricts the normal movement of the diaphragm. By practicing slow, gently expansive breathing you'll help them start to break up rib cage rigidity and the armour of tightly gripped chest, back, and abdominal muscles.

Whether opening the chest in a supported backbend, the side rib cage in a twist, or the thoracic spine and rib cage in Child's Pose invite your inhalation to gradually become a little slower, smoother, and deeper. Let the inhalation gently expand and open the ribs, then relax and surrender to gravity with each exhalation.

The Emotional Heart Space

Just as you can practice heart opening in your physical body- with introspection and honesty, you can also practice heart-opening situations such as your relationships with difficult people or those with whom you disagree philosophically or politically. As you practice the physical aspect of opening the body around the heart we learn to sit more easily with breath, our stress-hormones are reduced and we are able to connect more easily with others. This provides us with an opportunity to visualize and practice opening our heart more in various relationships, learning compassion and finding a space to spare a little more kindness.

Is There a Happy Ever After For this Heart of Mine?

Yes… always! Yoga teaches us to be content in every moment regardless of our idea of what we think each moment should or shouldn’t be. Each moment that we have, where we can sit with gratitude and an open heart is the ultimate romance…. The one where we learn to love ourselves and see our own wonder!