Chest openers are some of the most rewarding stretches in a yoga practice. They range from the shoulders-back relaxation of Easy pose to the fluid arch of Mermaid pose. Not only do chest openers feel terrific, they increase fitness and vibrant good health, ease anxiety and depression and can even help you to avoid a cold. Explore some poses that focus on the heart chakra, straighten your rounded, aching back and make you happy.
Heart of Yoga
The yoga chakra of the heart, Anahata, is in the center of the chakra system and the body and defines connection, relationship, compassion, balance -- emotional and physical -- love and healing. Illness centered on this chakra takes the form of hypertension, circulatory problems, heart disease, breathing difficulties, upper backaches and a weak immune system. Anodea Judith, therapist and author of numerous books about the chakras, suggests Fish pose as an antidote to rounded shoulders, sunken chest, shallow breathing, backache, fatigue and anxiety. Beginners should recline on the mat with legs extended or knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Placing your hands under your hips, palms down, push your chest up, arch your neck back and touch your head to the floor. Fish pose stimulates immunities, relieves menstrual pain, stretches your belly, throat and the front of your neck, separates the muscles between your ribs to enhance breathing and opens your heart.
Cobra -- from Sphinx to Full Stretch
Cobra pose is a refreshing chest opener that can be modified for any level of practice. Start with Sphinx for a gentle stretch that prepares you for more demanding classic Cobra. Lie on your belly, legs extended behind you and toes pointed. Bend your elbows so the joints are just under your shoulders and place your forearms and palms flat on your mat, fingers spread. Lift your upper torso, neck and head, keeping your shoulders down and glutes and thighs tight. Hold, breathe and release. Go full-out with a classic Cobra pose by bending your elbows to position your hands under your shoulders. Pull your thighs, knees and heels together, squeeze the glutes, press your pubic bone into the mat and straighten your elbows. Keep your chin forward, head and shoulders back into an arch as you push away from the floor strongly. Sphinx and Cobra will strengthen your arms, abs and back muscles, improve your posture and open your chest.
Cure the Cough
Chest openers can help you to breeze through cold season with fewer sniffles and coughs. In addition to eating well and getting enough sleep, add a few chest openers to your daily yoga practice to encourage clear, healthy breathing and boost your immune system. Try supported Reclining Bound Angle pose and Bridge pose for common-cold protection. By placing a blanket under your hips and a bolster under each upper leg and knee, you can relax into Reclining Bound Angle with your arms spread wide to completely open your chest. The support releases muscle tension for a deep, stress-busting stretch so you can focus on your breathing. Supported Bridge pose, with a folded blanket under your shoulders to take all pressure off your neck, will calm your mind and ease mild depression as it stretches the chest, neck and spine. "Yoga Journal" notes that if you have managed to pick up a cold, chanting or humming "ah" while relaxing in chest-opener poses will resonate in your chest and could help to loosen congestion.
Dancing with Shiva
Shiva Nataraj, the divine dance with grace, is an expression of pure joy and playful spontaneity in yoga. Advanced practitioners can incorporate heart-opener poses into a Natarajasana yoga routine to expand feelings of well-being, deepen compassion and embrace life more fully. A chest-stretching, heart-opening sequence suggested by the Himalayan Institute includes Cow Face pose to stretch arms, shoulders and hips and encourage deep breathing. Reclining Hero pose loosens hip flexors and opens shoulder blades. One-Legged King Pigeon pose opens your heart to the sky with a stretch along your spine. One-Legged Bow pose is a complete front-body stretch from toes to the crown of your head. The aim of all this opening, Natarajasana pose, expands the chest, stretches the arms back, and touches the toe of a back-curving leg to the fingertips behind your head as you stand firm on your supporting leg. Practice the pose on both sides.
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .