Five Pillars Yoga

Posts Tagged ‘heart openers’

A Heart-Opener You Can Eat

If you need convincing that chocolate, or, more specifically, cacao, which is chocolate in its purest state, is good for you, read our post on its physical and emotional benefits. And if you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day appropriate way to enjoy cacao on your own or with someone you love, here’s a recipe proven to warm hearts.

Cacao + Sea Salt Brownies


You need:

  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons coconut oil, firm, not liquid
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons raw cacao powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or flour of choice)
  • good flaky salt to taste (I use Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 325°. Combine the coconut oil, maple syrup, cacao, and salt in a double broiler. Stir until shiny and free of clumps.

Remove from the heat and let cool a little. You should be able to comfortably dip your finger into the mixture. Add the vanilla and gently beat the eggs in one at a time. Stir in the flour.

Pour into an 8 x 8″ baking dish, either with parchment paper lining the bottom and sides, or coconut oil coating the dish.


Bake for 20 – 25 minutes.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photos: Alison Baenen

Sit With It

Chair Pose, Fierce Pose, Lightning Bolt Pose, Awkward Pose—Utkatasana has many names.

And it has a reputation for being kind of awful. It’s challenging, often uncomfortable, and a true test of grit. If the pose could talk it might ask: How do you deal with discomfort?

That said, there is much power in our perception. If you always come into Chair Pose thinking I hate this pose! then you will most likely never learn to love it or soften into it enough to learn from it. So while the gym maxim No Pain No Gain may apply to this posture, consider approaching it from a different angle. When muscles are firing and sweat is dripping, try to find a moment of gratitude for the incredible machine that is your body and the fact that you get to play with it in this way. Really, that’s very cool.


Physical Benefits

  • Strengthens thigh and foot muscles
  • Increases mobility in the ankle joints
  • Tones the core
  • Works the triceps and biceps
  • Opens the heart
  • Increases awareness in the pelvic floor and movement of the tailbone
  • Presents an opportunity to practice Mula Bandha


How to Do It

  1. Stand with your feet together, big toes touching, and find Tadasana through the soles of the feet. Shift your weight until you feel it distributed evenly between the bases of the big and little toe and the center of the heel.

  2. With your hands on your hips, exhale deeply as you bend your knees and lower your seat toward the floor. Use the image of descending into an imaginary chair.

  3. Stop the descent when your base becomes unstable and you shift your weight to the inner or outer edges of the feet instead of balancing on your triangle of support.

  4. Look down at your knees. If you can’t see your big toes peeking out from underneath them draw your hips back until they come into view. You may have to straighten the legs a little to do so.

  5. Squeeze an imaginary (or real*) block between the upper thighs and energetically draw your outer hip points in.

  6. Lenghten your arms out in front of you and raise them overhead, palms facing each other and pinkies rotating toward the midline.

  7. Think Cat Pose in the tailbone and draw it underneath you, as if tucking your tail between your legs. Be mindful of overarching through the low back. Knit your ribs in to stay stable through the torso.

  8. Engage the muscles of the upper arms and soften the shoulder blades down the back, creating a subtle heart opening.

  9. Stay.

  10. Practice gratitude.

  11. To come out, anchor firmly through the soles of your feet to lengthen your legs, and then release your arms down by your sides.

*If you’re working with a block, start the pose with the feet hips-width distance.


Prep pose: Use a block and the wall to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps.

The more comfrortable you get in chair pose the more you can use it as a base for other postures, like Twisted Chair, Figure-Four Pose, Side Crow, or, the pose we’ll explore next, Eka Pada Galavasana. Until then, sit deeply.

Photos: @nikksnow in Chair Pose; exercise class; chair prep against the wall

Yoga For An Open Heart

At the end of a deeply divided election, it’s fair to say that all of could use an injection of happiness, hope and optimism. Before spreading that message to our communities and reaching a hand out to those on the other side of the aisle, we need to first embody those qualities ourselves.

The first step in cultivating an open heart is to literally feel an open heart. Yoga is full of heart openers, postures in which the collarbones widen, the shoulder blades draw together around the spine, the abdomen protects the low back and the heart center lifts and fills.

Heart openers are stress-relieving and uplifting. A balm to the body and mind, they are also vulnerable and exposed. To offer up your heart is to offer yourself up without armor or explanation, a harder task than the most challenging asana. See our earlier post for more benefits and tips on front extensions.

The postures below can be done in sequence or on their own. Explore Yin or Restorative versions, with lots of props and plenty of time, to really open up.

Puppy Dog Pose, Anahatasana


A combination of Child’s Pose and Downward Facing Dog, Puppy Pose is a deep heart opener that offers the support of the floor to sink the chest into. If the floor feels impossibly far away, support your upper arms with blocks and bend at the elbows, meeting your hands in prayer overhead.

Upward Facing Bow Pose, Dhanurasana


In the traditional shape, both knees are bent and the outer edges of both feet are grasped. Try a one-sided variation and go for extra lift through the extended front arm.

Camel Pose, Ustrasana


A strong heart opener needs a clear support system. In Camel, roll the inner thighs toward the midline, keep your hip points stacked over your knees and imagine your legs pressed firmly against a wall (or, better yet, press your legs firmly against a wall!). Start with your toes tucked under, tops of feet lifted, and work your way to feet flat against the floor.

Wheel Pose, Dhanurasana


Probably the biggest and best known heart opener of all, full Wheel Pose is energizing and demanding. Keep the outer edges of your feet parallel and hips-width distance apart. Rest on the crown of your head before pushing into the full posture and be sure to release any tension or straining in the neck. Play with narrowing the distance between your feet and hands as you breath your heart up and out.

Reclined Bound Angle Pose, Supta Baddha Konasana


For a chill solo pose or the integrating shape at the end of a sequence, Supta Baddha Konasana cannot be beat. We explored a Restorative version in our Deep Sleep post, and offer a few more supported heart-melters here. If you can, treat yourself to props and extra support. Here, with the floor or a bolster beneath the spine you can feel into the breath filling the length of the torso, from the belly up into the chamber of the heart. Take the opportunity to breathe deeply and offer something, perhaps yourself, up fully.

Photos: Top image; Taryn Toomy in Puppy Pose; Bow; Camel; Wheel; Supta Baddha Konasana

Yoga Lab: Twists + Binds

One of my favorite teachers calls the process of working up to certain poses “putting deposits in the bank of your practice.” A couple tentative hops here, a few ungraceful falls there, some solo time working with a spotter or the wall and suddenly, without even really trying, you find your hips over your shoulders, hovering for a moment in handstand.

I love this analogy. One because I have found it to be completely true in my own practice, and two because of the reminder that we do not step on the mat and — ta-da! — land in camera-ready yoga asanas (even yogi supe Christy Turlington, below, has a regular practice). Another favorite teacher posits that we should do what we need to on the mat to increase consciousness; in other words, modify poses as needed to stay fully present and engaged. How boring would yoga be if we did every pose perfectly, without effort or concentration, every time?



This brings us to Bird of Paradise, a pose we are slowly working toward. A few weeks ago we broke down Utthita Parsvakonasana, a foundational pose for its upright sister, and today we take on twists and binds in preparation of going full Svarga Dvijasana.

Spinal Mobility

Healthy spine = healthy body. The spine moves in six directions and needs to explore all six of them to stay strong and supple. Twists are key for decompressing the vertebrae and keeping the discs between them hydrated. The more space and cushion between the vertebrae the less likely they are to harden or fuse.

Binds take twists to the next level. Think of Bound Seated Spinal Twist: The linking of the arms creates an organic container for the torso to move within; as the shoulders open the yogi can use herself like a pulley system, guiding her top arm down with the fingers of the opposite hand to deepen the twist even more.


Binds are major shoulder openers. To prepare for Bird of Paradise or other bound poses, try a forward fold with your hands behind you and interlaced. Draw your wrists together for a deeper opening along the shoulder girdle and draw your hands over your head toward the floor in front of you.

Another great prep for binds? Gomukhasana arms. The shoulders are rotating in opposite directions, with the bottom shoulder in an inward rotation and the upper arm moving outward. Try it first with a strap then work toward joining the fingers together without sacrificing the heart opener.


Energy Boost

It’s basically impossible to take a twist or a bind when slumping or slouching. In order to fully rotate, the spine needs to be super long; this lengthening action creates space between the vertebrae, creating a clear channel through which energy can flow and unblocking anything that might be stuck. As the spine elongates, the Central Nervous System perks up and the mind clears.

In a twisted bind, the shoulders rotate, the wrists revolve and the collarbones widen, creating a sky-facing heart opener. It just feels nice.


Good Digestion

Twists and binds are widely touted as improving digestion and massaging our internal organs. While the internal organ massage piece is a bit controversial, the action of a twist — when properly executed from the base of the abdomen and spine and not from the shoulders and the neck — absolutely fires up and brings heat to the belly, a boon for toxin elimination and regularity.

New Perspective

In a twist you are facing in one direction but looking in another. There are many ways to unpack this, but the key lesson for me here is about polarity: To move forward you must know what it is to move backward. To reach up you must be able to ground down.

And if you can put your leg behind your back and grab on to it from behind while folding forward, then that’s great, too.

Photos: One-armed balance bind; Christy Turlington; bound seated spinal twist; Gomukhasnabound eagle; bound forward fold

Yoga Lab: Camel Pose

Full wheel, Urdhva Dhanurasana, with only your feet and hands on the floor and lots of space between your back and the ground, can be a little intimidating. Camel, or Ustrasana, is a great way to ease into back-bending. Grounded and dynamic, it offers many stopping points along the way for practitioners at any level, and, when you’re ready, the option to drop back into full wheel like a piece of spaghetti.

Why do it?

Backbends are powerful medicine. They can function like a yogic cup of coffee, drawing your energy in and up and making everything a little bit clearer and more vibrant. They’re also heart-openers in disguise: as your spine curves and back muscles fire, your heart gets (energetically) cracked wide open and intentionally exposed. Knowing what a physically exposed heart feels like on the mat makes finding an emotionally open one off the mat an easier and more familiar practice.

tumblr_lqnpkfFRei1qg46ogo1_500Here are more of the benefits: 

  • Shoulder, chest, and quadricep opener
  • Energy booster
  • Mood improver
  • Throat opener
  • Psoas stretch (the psoas is a major muscle group in the hip flexors that gets a lot of work but not a lot of love)
  • Back strengthener
  • Abdomen and chest opener
  • Entire front body stretch, from the ankles up through the throat


Here’s how to do it: 

1. Come to your knees with your legs hip-width apart. Tuck your toes under and flex your feet. Place your hands on your hips and put your thumbs on your sacrum, the broad triangular bone at the base of your spine. Stack your hips over your knees and internally rotate your thighs toward the midline. Use a prop: To find inward thigh rotation, place a block skinny-ways midway between your knees and pelvic floor, short end sticking out. Squeeze! Think of shooting the block back behind you, like a piece of Pez in a Pez dispenser.

Go Deeper: For more bend, enter the pose with your toes untucked and the tops of your feet on the floor.

2. Energetically draw your tailbone toward your knees and reach the crown of your head toward the sky, creating space between your vertebrae.

3. Imagine a golden thread anchored to your heart center and, on an inhale, allow it to pull you up toward the sky. Draw your shoulders down your back and your elbows toward each other. Feel your rib cage expand.

4. Keep your chest raised, your core engaged, and your spine long. Gently tuck your chin toward your chest. Think about opening your heart instead of bending your back.

5. Stay here. You’re doing it! Or, to go deeper, lower one hand onto your raised heel and then the other, fingers pointing toward the floor. Keep lifting through your sternum and taking long, deep breaths.

6. If it feels safe for your neck, gently lower your head behind you and gaze at the tip of your nose.

7. Come out of the posture the same way you came into it. Bring your chin toward your chest and your hands to your hips one at a time. Engage through your lower belly and use your hands to support your low back. Rise up slowly.


Use more blocks! Place two at the tallest height in between your heels and lower your hands on to them instead of dropping them to your heels. Adjust the height of the blocks as needed.

Use the wall: To keep your hips stacked over your knees, face a wall and press your legs against it. Come into the pose from here.

Use a chair: Take a cue from Iyengar and use a chair as a prop. Drape your hands back onto chair legs and lower your neck onto the back of the chair (with a folded up towel for maximum comfort vibes). For total security scoot the chair against a wall.


Yoga 101: Relaxing Heart Openers

Our modern posture has gone from homo-erectus to “homo-hunchy-textus” with most of us spending time hunched over a computer or slouching over our cell phones. The result is a caving inward of the chest, and a sinking of the heart – which can manifest in both the physical and energetic realms.

As Valentines Day approaches, what better time to cultivate an open, loving heart?


HeartCentered 2

And what more delicious way than with an indulgent Restorative or Yin heart opening asana? Restorative and Yin yoga styles ask us to find a shape and to stay… and breath…. and give in to gravity… and let the shapes do their work. We hold these postures for a few minutes each, rather than just a few breaths, and with that decadent time the nervous system resets, fascia and connective tissue releases and patterns of constriction, tension or resistance slowly begin to melt.


Heart opening shapes support the health and vibrance of the heart chakra,  Anahata Chakra in Sanskrit.

Anahata is the wellspring of love, warmth, compassion, and joy… it is the center of your deep bonds with other beings, your sense of caring and compassion, your feelings of self-love, altruism, generosity, kindness, and respect…. The “way of the heart” or the “path of the heart” is living your life from this energy center of love.
-Read more at Chakra Anatomy



So – make a playlist of a few of your favorite relaxing, romantic songs, light a candle or two, and relax into any or all of these supported heart openers.


  • Use a couch pillow or a blanket for this soft supportive version. Legs can be in butterfly shape or stretched out long.
  • Create this Supported Fish Pose by placing a yoga block, small pillow or even a stack of books right under your shoulder girdle. If your head doesn't rest on the floor, place a blanket below so you're fully supported.
  • Mountain Brook is an indulgent and relaxing posture. Place a low rolled-up blanket under the shoulder girdle and a pillow under your knees. Relax and feel the energy gently flow....
  • When relaxing in mountain brook, try to have the shoulders resting on the floor - maybe this means taking only a very small blanket or even just a towel rolled up under the shoulder girdle.


Finish with some reclining twists and a forward bend, and then let your heart lead the way…

Yoga Lab: Heart Openers

The transition from summer to fall calls to mind incredible harvests, warm evenings and lovely weekends under the sun enjoying our favorite outdoor activities. This time of year also marks the return back to school, work and commitments, which can lead to an influx of stress as life speeds up and new routines take shape. A thoughtful high school teacher who came to yoga class recently put it so well: “Summer was a time where I was learning to be with myself in a healthy way… now my challenge is to be with other people again and this is when my yoga practice is really important.”


One way to create a graceful transition as life speeds up is to practice heart opening postures. During practice, we can allow the mantra love and be loved to be our guide. The way we relate to other people reflects our relationship with ourselves… so the practice of opening our hearts and cultivating nonjudgmental self-awareness during yoga practice can support healthy relationships off the mat.


Heart openers, also known as front extensions and more commonly referred to as backbends, support both psychological and physical health. Iyengar recommended heart opening postures to alleviate depression and anxiety, because these postures relieve the tension that builds up around the heart and they stimulate the thyroid and pituitary glands, energizing and balancing the entire body. Heart openers stretch across the shoulders and the chest, while opening the hip flexors. They also strengthen and tone the muscles in the back, arms and legs.


As you move into heart opening postures, imagine lifting and opening your heart, expanding across the chest, rather than bending over backwards. Like many postures in yoga, this offers a wonderful metaphor to support life. On a very practical level, this prevents over-stretching (and crunching) the flexible part of the lower back.


Three Tips For Heart Opening Postures:


  1. Warm up before moving into heart opening postures.
  2. Lift through the chest to avoid crunching the lower back: think “front extension” rather than “backbend.”
  3. If you have back or neck injuries, some heart openers can be helpful, but other postures should be avoided. Research individual postures with yoga journal’s step by step instructions to learn more and prevent injury. And check out this additional article by yoga journal to protect yourself in backbends.


The art and science of yoga invites you to learn from your direct experience and observe the effects in your body. To maintain inner peace and allow your loving heart to guide the way in life, check out this heart opening sequence by yoga journal.


Go deeper with this video: