The rib cage and the thoracic spine protect the heart from harm... but a tight chest and restricted rib cage and thoracic spine can come about as a means of "closing off" or "guarding" the heart excessively due to past hurt or trauma. This is often why working on back bends and chest opening can cause a great deal of emotion to come to the surface. Opening the chest is literally a means of opening your heart as well. - Rachel Krentzman, Yoga for a Happy Back
When you hear the phrase, "open your heart," what comes to mind? We use the phrase in many different ways. Since this is a yoga blog your thoughts probably immediately go to the physical body. You've probably heard me, or another teacher, use the phrase referring to the chest and upper rib cage - the general area where your literal heart is located in your body. But we also use the phrase, "open your heart" when we talk about falling in love, or giving someone the benefit of the doubt. We are asked to "open our hearts" to the plight of others and donate our money or our time to a cause. We also use the phrase "open heart" surgery.
All of these examples have something in common - vulnerability. Opening your heart, whether it's expanding the front of your upper body in yoga class, being open to a new person or idea, giving your time or money, or lying on a surgeon's table, mean exposing yourself, being vulnerable, and allowing for the possibility of hurt.
One of the reasons I ask you to "open your heart" on your mat is because our default position tends to be defensive in nature. We pull in. We armor up. We shield ourselves. We close ourselves off and in so that nothing, and no one, can hurt us. We spend the majority of our time in closed off positions - when driving, sitting in front of a computer, looking at our devices. Even when we get active, our position is often closed - running, cycling, rowing, lifting weights.
Practicing the art of opening your heart does something wonderful. It teaches us that allowing deep full breaths, even when the rib cage is stretched and the breath wants to stay shallow, won't kill us. In fact, allowing the ribs to widen and expand as the whole front of the body stretches and lengthens, shows us in a tangible way that it is possible to safely expose the heart - because this IS what you are doing in a very literal way! Your ribs are moving away from your sternum and further away from each other, leaving your heart open and vulnerable between those rib bones. Allowing this opening to happen, allowing this vulnerability, can allow for a new sense of freedom, even if it's a bit scary!
At the same time we learn (or we should be learning) that you don't throw your heart open without first stabilizing the supporting muscular and skeletal structures.
This is balance!
This is yoga!
We open, we stretch, we get more flexible, but we also strengthen and stabilize. This is true from a physical as well as a metaphorical position.
Opening your heart physically leaves you vulnerable to injury. Opening your heart metaphorically leaves you open to hurt. So don't be surprised if your physical body and your emotional and spiritual body act in concert with each other. Back bending is an emotional experience. But when we open and expose ourselves from a position of strength and stability we are less likely to find injury and / or hurt.