Teacher Speak: Open Your Heart

This column originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine in December 2014 

As postural yoga teachers and students we employ a variety of words and phrases that wouldn’t make much sense in polite society. We overload their meaning and use so heavily that we create a hugely subjective muddle. Let’s reclaim an understanding of these words, use them consciously, and deepen their effect.

Anatomically speaking

In common use, ‘open your heart’ has little to do with the anatomical heart and instead targets a commonly tight region that includes the upper thoracic spine and the fronts of the chest and shoulders. This phrase is used to instruct opening through slight external rotation of the upper arms, lift and spread of the collarbones, and modest movement of the shoulder blades down and towards each other. For those who have chest restriction and overly inward rolled shoulders, the instruction can be effectively used to motivate a modest amount of postural correction and freer breath. For back-bending, it may be summoned to inspire deeper stretch and engagement. However, it is a general prescription that needs more nuanced follow-up dependent on student ability. For example, deeper ‘heart opening’ may actually be stimulated through a muscular chain that begins in the front of the thighs. Invoke caution when using this instruction for forward folding or neutral spine postures as it may encourage unbalanced opening of the front body and destabilisation of the core and lower back.

Spiritually speaking

If this instruction has little to do with the anatomical heart, it has much to do with something more deeply defined but hard to pin down. The fill in the blank possibilities from new-age philosophy to traditional chakra systems give this instructive its power as well as its ability to become confused. Modestly and selectively, we can use ‘heart opening’ postures (commonly back-bends) as powerful physical metaphors to practice release from emotional hold-ups and inspire deeper feelings of love and devotional surrender. When we more ambitiously and broadly assume that postural habits and restrictions correlate to profound spiritual consequences, we may get in over our head. Someone’s inability to do scorpion pose probably won’t affect his marriage.

It is with lack of precise in-the- moment meaning and over use that instructing ‘open the heart’ for anatomical and/or spiritual aims becomes ineffective. Be deliberate, skillful, and clear to reassert its power and efficacy.