The Untold Story of 'Opening Your Heart' in Yoga

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear the phrase “open your heart” it gets me all confused….and I’m even guilty of saying it. It’s a phrase us yoga teachers are supposed to learn, yet the meaning is so complex. Don’t forget, all these blogs are opinion pieces by an opinionated person. 

First, please don’t let anyone open your heart, unless they are a qualified heart surgeon. Seriously, if the only advice you listen to from me in the past 5 years of owning a yoga studio - please, please, please, listen to that one. 

What we actually are doing is working in “heart opening postures” is back extensions - poses like camel, bridge, locust, cobra, up-dog, etc…

I didn’t research where the connection between “opening your heart” and back extensions started or who coined the term because frankly, it’s not that important. What is important is to always remember the physical intention of the pose, and not the emotion it *could* bring up because that part is different for everyone. 

The physical intention of “opening your heart,” AKA back extensions, is to work against the force of gravity to strengthen the back muscles and abdominals. In a study completed by the Mayo Clinic, showed that people who regularly strengthen their back extensor muscles experience fewer osteoporosis-related fractures than people who don’t. 

Let’s jump back to heart opening… With back extensions, you also create space in the front of the body by expanding through the ribcage, which encourages more circulation of blood and oxygen - ya know, the heart part. 

However, since yoga is more than just exercise, when it comes to your yoga practice, you may notice an expression of emotions while being in these particular postures. In a study done by Pennebaker on “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions,” Pennbaker’s research dives into the therapeutic effects of expressing one’s vulnerabilities and emotions. In the study, it suggests the intentional expression of emotions during yoga, especially vulnerable feelings, can contribute to emotional healing and enhance your mental health. 

So, better do those “stupid heart-opening poses” in yoga for stupid mental health, ha!

The majority of the time, since the front of the body is much more “exposed” it is said to make a lot of people feel much more vulnerable. 

Vulnerability is the state of being open to emotional, physical, or psychological harm. It involves a willingness to expose oneself to uncertainty, risk, and the possibility of facing difficult situations. Ask yourself if this is what you feel during back extensions… ALERT: THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWER. In my own body and in my own experience of these postures, I do not feel this way. I feel much stronger and a sense of freedom. However, as a teacher of this posture, it can also bring up feelings of fear and vulnerability and I can see that in the room. 

Personally, I believe setting an intention of “Vulnerability” for your yoga practice will be much more impactful than thinking you are “risking it all” while you are in Baby Cobra pose. 

Brené Brown states, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” Using this as your intention can create an essence of vulnerability showing up as an act of courage rather than weakness. 

So, how does one actually practice vulnerability as in intention in a yoga class, besides doing wheel 6x in a row….

  • Show up to your practice, even when it’s hard, and even when you don’t want to. I’m not just saying that as an owner, I’m saying that because practicing this kind of safe vulnerability and challenge can actually foster resilience and improve your mental health. It’s like winning gold in mental gymnastics - oh sh*t wait, I just said it wasn’t about winning or losing….
  • Ready for a polarizing very opinionated topic from me - The Mirrors. Some people f*cking hate them and I get it. But what if you were vulnerable and actually looked at yourself with grace, strength, and compassion instead of judgment, shame, and comparison? The mirrors are in the studio to help with your alignment, and to remember to look at yourself and remind yourself what a badass you really are. 
  • Taking breaks and/or pushing yourself, practicing with an intention of vulnerability can also help you realize and be truthful with yourself about where you need a break and where you can push a little harder, not because of someone else, but because you trust yourself. 

Practicing vulnerability on your mat can bring a sense of personal power off your mat. It can increase feelings of authenticity and resilience. Practicing back extensions can help correct your posture, decrease low back pain, and maintain your range of motion in your spine. 

So, next time you’re in class ask yourself how you feel emotionally while being in a physical pose such as a backbend, and then you can work backward from there on where to set your focus. 

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