On Valentine’s Day, the idea of sharing our warmth and compassion with those we love is by no means a new concept. The medieval illustration associated with Thaibaut’s French love poem Le Roman De La Poire, written circa 1255, showed the first non-medical drawing of a heart. Connecting, perhaps for the first time, our physical heart to the act of expressing our love (1).
Ever since then, the very technical, anatomical drawing of a heart was replaced with, dare I say, a more pleasing representation on all Valentine’s Day cards — a pleasant change that surely won the hearts of many medieval (and modern-day) lovers!
The act of sharing one’s heart with those we love is rewarding, and time spent nourishing the connection with our own hearts can foster our ability to share our love with others. The art of self-love is a lifelong practice and comes in many forms, such as a warm cup of tea, a long bath, or perhaps some expansive heart-opening yoga poses! This Valentine’s Day, let us cherish our hearts with this nourishing heart-opening practice, best done in a calm, inviting atmosphere, such as a dimly lit room.
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Supportive tools for yoga, such as a folded blanket, a bolster (or a pillow), two blocks and a mat, may be used. We highly recommend moving in and out of the pose slowly and with compassion, trusting your body to clue you in on how long to stay in each pose. If any pinch or pain should arise, the best practice is to breathe deeply, move slowly, and make your way to a seated position before standing up.
This series of heart-opening yoga poses is designed to release tension in the shoulders, neck and upper chest, the progression flows from easy to intermediate. Feel free to stick with the first poses if you are new to yoga or for a more relaxed session. We recommend holding the poses for a few minutes each; notice how your mind wanders and if you are impatient to leave a pose early. Gently thank your mind for keeping you active and alive, then inviting your mind to return to the body and breath throughout the practice. Another option is to allow your mind to float about, knowing that whatever your mind brings to your attention is the appropriate thing to ponder.
As with all exercise, we recommend that you first speak with your doctor to devise a workout that fits your body and heart needs!
Begin with a gentle Child’s Pose to compress the heart and stomach, which in turn, may help stimulate blood flow in the upper chest and breast tissue (2).
Getting into the pose: Come to hands and knees, keeping your knees about hip-width distance apart, slowly move your bottom towards your heels. Allow your upper body to relax between your knees, either towards the floor or resting on a yoga bolster. Bring your hands out in front of you on to the floor and let go of any grip in your hands. Breathe deeply for a few long breaths.
Added support: If your knees complain, a folded blanket can be placed under the knees. If your ankles are not happy with the pressure of the upper body, bring a folded blanket between your heels and your bottom.
Time: Child’s pose can be held for as long as it feels comfortable in your body.
Coming out of the pose: Using your hands to gently push the floor away, walk your upper body to an upright position, allowing your head to roll up last. Keep your eyes closed and allow the blood to return to your head before moving any props out of the way. Slowly come to a comfortable seated position.
Precautions: Child’s Pose is not recommended for those who are pregnant due to the compression on the stomach. Wall Melting Heart is a wonderful alternative (see below).
Wall Melting Heart may be done as an alternative to Child’s Pose if any issues in the knees or ankles are present, or if you are pregnant. Wall Melting Heart can be done by using a wall for support to gently help stretch the chest muscles and shoulders.
Getting into the pose: Stand close to the wall, place both elbows on the wall about shoulder-width apart, making your arms look like the number eleven. Release any grip in the hands and slightly bend your knees. The number seven is a great visual on how your body should look in this pose, keeping your stomach engaged to support your lower back, bending at the hips and allowing your heart to melt between the support of your arms. Bring your elbows further down or up the wall to increase or decrease the sensations in the chest and shoulders.
Time: Wall Melting Heart can be held for as long as it feels comfortable in the shoulders and lower back. It is recommended to hold the pose between 3 to 5 minutes.
Coming out of the pose: Slowly begin to walk your hands back up the wall, until you are standing in an upright position. Keep your hands on the wall for a few breaths to allow the blood to return to your head. Allow your hands to come off the wall and to rest by your side for a moment. Gently move to a comfortable seated position in preparation for the next pose.
Precautions: Notice if the hands or fingers begin to tingle, which is often a sign of a compressed nerve. Adjust the arms and hand position to alienate the tingling sensation or avoid this pose (3).
Supine Heart Opener is a supported pose meant to stretch the chest muscles and relaxing neck and shoulder muscles.
Getting into the pose: Begin in a comfortable seated position with a yoga bolster, pillow, or rolled up blanket behind your back, making sure to keep your bottom on the floor (off the supportive prop). Bring both feet to the floor and bend your knees. Slowly lie back onto the yoga bolster or pillow support, allowing the support to run along the length of the spine. Bring your hands to your stomach or on the floor beside your body with palms facing up.
Advance the pose by bringing your arms out to the side and bending your elbows or above your head to rest on the floor. You can keep your knees bent and feet on the floor, or if it feels okay in your lower back, bring your feet out in front of you and reach your legs out long.
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Added support: If your lower back does not feel good with your legs out long, a folded blanket can be placed under your knees or simply bend your knees and return your feet to the floor. If your arms are overhead but your arms do not reach the floor, use two blocks to support your arms.
Time: As with Child’s Pose, Supine Heart Opener can be held as long as it feels comfortable in your body. Breathe deeply and come out of the pose if you experience pinch or pain anywhere, but especially in the shoulders or lower back. It’s important not to push through any numbness or pain in the shoulder blades, but instead, take care of the body by bringing the arms back to the sides.
Coming out of the pose: Slowly bring feet back to the floor, keeping the knees bent, begin to roll off the bolster to either side. Rest your head on your arm, using it as a pillow, allow your knees to remain bent on the floor. Move any props from behind you and roll onto your back, resting here for a few long breathes before coming onto the stomach in preparation for the next pose.
Precautions: Supine Heart Opener is a restorative pose but can cause discomfort in your lower back. Using a smaller bolster helps reduce the arch in your lower back. Another option is to release the pressure in your lower back by keeping feet flat on the floor mat width apart and allow your knees to knock together for a pose called Constructive Rest.
Sphinx Pose is a more challenging heart opener since it requires lower back and shoulder engagement to keep your upper body lifted. Sphinx Pose strengthens the small muscles along the spine while opening the heart. This pose also helps to stretch the chest, neck, and shoulder muscles.
Getting into the pose: If you are already on your back from the last pose, simply roll over to your stomach to move into Sphinx Pose. If you are in a seated position, come to your hands and knees and slowly lower onto your stomach. Bring your elbows onto the floor below or slightly in front of your shoulders, making your arms look like the number eleven. Keep your palms facing the floor, engage your stomach and lower back muscles to allow your chest to guide through your bent arms. This is a small movement and you should keep your chin tucked into your neck and eyes cast down or straight ahead, so as not to overextend the throat muscles by looking up.
Added support: If your head begins to feel too heavy and your neck hurts or feels pinched, place a block in between your arms on the floor and rest your forehead on the block. Sometimes the stress of holding a Sphinx Pose can creep up into our jaws and mouth. Opening and closing your jaw can help relieve this stress-related pressure.
Time: Hold Sphinx Pose for about 3 to 5 minutes if your lower back allows. If any pinch, pain, or numb sensation arises in the shoulder blades or back, slowly come out of the pose by lowering onto the stomach. Resting with your head on top of folded arms for support.
Coming out of the pose: If you used a block for your head to rest on, remove the block from between your arms, slowly lie back down onto the stomach. Bend your elbows and bring one hand on top of the other in front of you, and rest your head on the backs of your hands. Breathe a few deep breaths, feeling the sensation along your stomach and back. Slowly roll over onto your back in preparation for the next pose.
Precautions: If pregnant, use a yoga bolster across the top of your thighs to allow space for your belly to drop avoiding being pressed into the floor. Keep your forearms on the floor for a gentle curve in your lower back. Lying on your stomach is not recommended for those who are pregnant due to the pressure on your stomach. An alternative pose is Supine Heart Opener (see above) since there is no pressure on your stomach but your chest and lower back still get a lovely gentle stretch (4).
Supine Spinal Twist Pose allows us to stretch the chest and shoulder muscles while also providing a gentle twist in the spinal cord.
Getting into the pose: Start by lying on your back, bring your feet flat on the floor, while keeping your knees bent. Bring a yoga bolster or pillow to the left side of your body and allow your arms to spread out on each side. Advance the pose by bringing your arms out to the side and bending your elbows with palms facing up or into a “T” shape with your arms out wide to the side. Allow your shoulders to stay as close to the floor as possi
ble, begin to lower both knees towards the left, resting on the bolster or floor. Turn your head to look over your right arm, continuing the twist all the way up into the upper spine. After holding this side for a few minutes, return your knees to an upright position and allow your feet to return flat on the floor. Move any props to the right side and slowly drop both knees to the right, looking this time over your left arm.
Added support: If your shoulder blades start to lift off the floor, prop your knees higher by adding a blanket under a bolster. Or place a folded blanket under your shoulder blade. The idea here is not to force your shoulders to stay on the floor but instead to twist a little less to relieve the pressure on your shoulders. A folded up blanket in between the knees may be an added support if the knees do not naturally close together during this twist.
Time: Supine Spinal Twist can be held for roughly 3 to 5 minutes on each side.
Getting out of the pose: After completing this pose on each side, return the knees to an upright position with your feet flat on the floor. Bring your hands to your stomach and allow your legs to stretch out in front of you, unbending your knees. Rest here for a few breaths.
Precautions: Supine Spinal Twist is not recommended for those who are pregnant due to the pressure and twist on the stomach. Instead, an open seated twist is a great alternative since it does not compress/twist the stomach. To do an open seated twist, find a comfortable seated position on a folded up blanket. Place a block behind you on the right side. Keep your right leg out long as you bend your left knee and bring your left foot closer to your groin, keeping your left foot on the ground. Slowly begin to turn your upper body towards the right resting your right hand on the block behind you. Breathe here for a few breaths, slowly come out of the pose and repeat on the left side.
Our final pose, Wall Caterpillar, brings the legs up the wall, which supports the relaxation of the heart and brings more blood flow to the head (5).
Getting into the pose: In a seated position, bring your bottom close to the wall and lie on your back. Slowly lift your legs to climb up the wall, you may need to shimmy your bottom away from the wall a bit to allow your legs to go out long, but keep a small bend in the knees. Your arms can rest by your sides, overhead, or on your stomach. Breathe deeply into this rejuvenating pose.
Added support: If any pinch, pain, or numbness occurs in your lower back or behind the backs of your extended legs, move away from the wall a bit further and bring feet flat onto the wall with knees bent. A folded blanket may feel nice under your back or behind your head to be used as a small pillow.
Time: Wall Caterpillar Pose may be held for as long as it feels comfortable in the body and is recommended for at least 3 minutes.
Getting out of the pose: Slowly begin to move yourself away from the wall by a few inches to allow your legs to gently fall to one side. Resting on your side, keep knees bent and rest your head in a bent arm for a few breathes. Use your hands to slowly lift the upper body to an upright position and come to a comfortable seated position, allowing your head to be the last to roll up. Sit here and breathe for a few minutes to allow the blood to return to your head.
Close your heart-opening yoga practice by coming to a comfortable seated position with your hands resting in your lap, eyes closed, deep breathing into your lungs. Feel the rise and fall of your chest and give thanks and appreciation to your heart for all the work it does to keep you alive and well.
Photos of author Kate Diana courtesy of Ellie Barvinchak and The Little Yoga Studio in Boulder, CO.
Clark, B. (2011). The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. White Cloud Press. Yin Yoga Asanas, p87.
Clark, B. (2011). The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. White Cloud Press. Yin Yoga Asanas, p66.
Clark, B. (2011). The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. White Cloud Press. Special Situations, p185.
Clark, B. (2011). The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. White Cloud Press. Yin Yoga Asanas, p115.
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