There are many reasons why we can feel tight and closed in the area of our heart:  the chest to the front and the mid (thoracic) spine at the back of our bodies.  On a structural level, poor posture caused by too many hours spent slumped in front of a computer will round the upper back, draw the shoulders forwards and collapse the chest.  In this position is it impossible to breathe properly and allow our lungs to function optimally.  If left uncorrected, eventually the soft tissues around the ribcage will become tight, making proper breathing even more difficult.

In yoga, the term heart centre relates not to the physical beating heart, but to the place in the centre of our chest that is home to emotion and feelings.  When we look at a closed heart centre from a psychosomatic  perspective, it is common to see this rounding forwards of the shoulders  when a person is in self-protection mode, as this creates ‘armour’ around the heart region.  If this pattern of holding the physical body becomes chronic, it can be hard to shift these feelings of wanting to protect ourselves unless we learn to break down this rigid armour. 

Yoga postures that open the heart and chest area include shoulder and chest opening stretches, spinal twists and spinal extensions (back bends).   Here are a few simple ways to undo tension in this area, making way to better breathing, improved posture and an open, receptive heart:

Conscious deep breathing

Sit in comfortably in a chair with your spine upright, shoulders relaxed and the back of your neck long.  Alternatively, lie yourself down placing support under your head if you need to.

Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing.  Notice if your breath is high in your chest; is there any movement in your ribcage or abdomen?  Is the breath irregular or shallow? 

Now place a hand on your upper abdomen, between the navel and the sternum.  Breathe slowly into your abdomen so that as you inhale, you feel the hand rising and as you exhale the abdomen softens.   Remain here for several deep breaths.

Now place each hand on the lower portion of your side ribs and encourage your breath to expand the ribcage sideways into your hands on the inhalation, and allow the ribcage to soften again on your exhalation.  Perhaps you can also feel your breath in your lower back ribs.  Remain here for several deep breaths.

Bring one hand to rest lightly on your upper chest underneath your collarbones and practice deep breathing into the upper chest, feeling the breath expanding and releasing this area.  Take several deep breaths.

Then rest your arms by your sides and recreate this feeling of expanding the upper abdomen, ribcage and chest with each inhalation.  Allow a feeling of releasing and softening on the exhalation.  Try to remain aware of each inhalation and exhalation.  

After a few minutes, relax.  Allow your breath to become natural and spontaneous, noticing if there is a change in the rhythm and depth of your breath from before you began this conscious breathing exercise.  Notice if you feel more calm and relaxed.

Note:  Always breathe in and out through your nostrils.  Never force or strain your breath.  It may take some time before you can fully expand your ribcage and chest, but with practice it will become easier.

Benefits:  conscious and correct breathing is one of the most important practices for good health and managing stress levels.  Your respiratory muscles will be fully utilised, undoing areas of chronic tension and rigidity in the thoracic area. 

Simple supported chest opener

Roll up a towel or blanket into a cylinder shape and place across your yoga mat or on the floor.  Lie down on your back so that the support is positioned underneath your shoulder blades.    

You may need to experiment with the thickness of your support – if you are very tight in your chest and upper back then you need a slimmer support to begin with.  You should feel that your chest is gently expanding.  Check that your neck feels comfortable; you may also need to place some support underneath your head.  Find a comfortable position for your arms.

Relax and close your eyes.  As you rest here, breathe deeply and notice how your heart area feels expanded, open and light.

Stay for at least 3 minutes.

Benefits:   A restorative way to correct poor posture of rounding the upper body forwards.   The effect is gently uplifting and refreshing.

Written by Ginny Haswell, Yoga Instructor

You can find Ginny on the Coast website as well as her own personal site