By Linda Anastasia Ransom and Sharon Story
A note to our readers: This series is not necessarily designed to be done in a single session. (This post reflects an amalgamation of Gentle Heart Opener classes, including several poses that you must warm up for and work up to). One of the most important tenets of Healing Chair Yoga is that you must listen to your body and practice ahimsa (kindness, non-harming), and that includes not pushing yourself too far too fast. We are not here to change ourselves; we are here to meet ourselves where we are.
Heart openers, also called gentle back bends, counteract the all-too-familiar effects of hunching over a computer or steering wheel. Lifting your heart, moving your shoulders back, and lengthening the front and back of your body can decrease back pain and shoulder tightness, as well as improve your spirits.
Gentle heart openers have both physical and psychological benefits. The opening of the heart symbolizes expanding compassion and connection to others, thus decreasing isolation, depression, and anxiety. By opening up the front of your body, you can release and break through stress.
Heart openers help to tone the spine and increase the breathing capacity of the lungs. Improved breathing opens your mind and heart to new possibilities. Heart openers are energetic poses. Stretching your abdominal muscles and internal organs increases strength and feelings of trust. Heart openers relieve tightness in the back and shoulders. Other benefits include increased blood circulation and stimulation of the thyroid, pineal, and pituitary glands
Moving Heart Meditation
Let’s start with a heart meditation. Begin by sitting in a chair in seated mountain pose. Perhaps play light, soothing music. Closing your eyes, bring your palms together in Namaste or prayer position. Breathe and silently ask yourself “what makes me grateful?” Your attention may be drawn to a person, a significant event, or something small, like finding the perfect parking space today. What comes to mind is exactly what needs to be.
Keeping your eyes closed, bring love and thankfulness into your heart. Open your heart by extending your arms out to the sides, straight out from your shoulders, palms turning up to the ceiling. Focus on the intention to sharing this feeling of love and gratitude with everyone you come into contact with today. You may feel tingling energy into the palms of hands. Gently bring your arms up overhead or into goal post position and pause there for a few breaths. Draw your hands down the midline of body and place them back in Namaste. Feel the energy and mindfulness of this heartfelt love.
Begin to flow with your breath: Inhale with your hands in Namaste at the heart center. Exhale, bringing your hands out to the sides of your body, palms up. Inhale, bringing your arms up or into goal post position, looking up and keeping your neck long. Exhale, drawing your hands back to your heart center in Namaste. Do this for a couple of minutes, noticing the warmth you’ve created within your heart. Share this intention of loving kindness with everyone you meet today, by sending a kind smile, gesture, or thought.
Cat: Start by sitting in a chair with your hands on your knees. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, begin to round your back like a mad cat, placing your hands on the front of your knees to deepen the stretch. Look inward, at your heart center.
Cow: As you begin to inhale, bring your head and heart up, gently arching the back. Gaze up towards where the ceiling and the wall meet, keeping your neck long. Complete your inhale. Flow through cat and cow at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Repeat the flow five to ten times.
Begin lying on your back on the floor, with a blanket under the head and neck. Bend your knees and reach your fingertips towards your heels. Begin to slowly lift your hips toward the sky. Feel your heart rise towards the ceiling and allow the collarbones to broaden. If this is enough stretch, hold for as long as feels comfortable, then bring the hips back to the floor, starting with the shoulder blades and upper back and rolling down gently.
If you wish to move into a flowing bridge, lift your hands towards the sky, arms straight up, and palms facing towards one another. Then bring your arms overhead as you inhale, keeping the hips lifted. Move with the breath, making each movement meditative. As you exhale, bring your hands back up to the ceiling and down to your hips, rolling down through the spine to bring your hips to the floor. Your hips should touch the floor at the same time as your arms. Repeat the flow five to ten times.
Down Dog to Up Dog with Chair Flow
Place a chair in front of you. Stand in mountain pose, facing the seat of the chair. Bring your hands to the sides of the chair as you bend forward, extending your arms. Exhale as you bring your hips back to come into down dog. Feel the beauty of the stretch. As you are ready, inhale and come forward into a plank, bringing your hips in line with your shoulders and ankles, and keeping your arms straight but not locked. Gently bring your heart forward and up, rising into up dog.
Be sure to keep your neck long, and your shoulders back and down. If this is too much weight for your wrists, you may modify both poses by coming down to your elbows, either on the seat of the chair or on a block. Repeat the flow three to five times. Breathe deeply, and feel the heart open with strength, support, and love.
Warrior lunges are wonderful for opening the heart. Place your bolster in front of your chair, with the long side up against the front legs of the chair. Sit sideways in your chair, facing your left. Keep your left foot on the ground in front of the chair. Bring the right knee down to the bolster to come into a lunge. Your left knee will line up with your left hip, making a ninety-degree angle if possible. Keeping your alignment, bring your hands into Namaste. Keep your neck long and look towards where the ceiling and the wall meet. Feel your heart begin to gently open.
Check in with your body: you may stay in this position or, if it is comfortable for your shoulders, bring your hands to a goal post position or overhead. Hold the posture, moving in and out of various arm positions, for approximately thirty seconds. Repeat on the right side, with the other leg.
Come into Warrior One (above), with your right knee on the bolster. Take your right hand to the back of the lower leg thigh. Come into a gentle backbend, lifting the heart, and bringing your gaze to where the ceiling and wall meet. Keep your neck in line with your spine. The left arm may reach up to the sky, palm facing inward, or come to your heart. Make any necessary adjustments to ensure this pose feels good on your back, neck, and shoulders. Hold for about ten seconds and feel the love in your heart.
Restorative Bridge Pose
For this restorative pose you will need one or two bolsters, blanket and a block. Place the two bolsters together and a block under your neck. Or use one bolster, a block and a blanket. See pictures below. You may use a blanket instead of the block under the head to feel a deeper heart opener but only if it feels good to your neck. Remember your shoulders are on the bolster. An eye bag is an added delight! Simply breathe and be for approximately ten to twenty minutes, or as long as you would like.