Heart-opening poses are yoga asanas that expand your chest and stretch your upper back. According to "Yoga Journal", they also may release stored emotions. If you've noticed that you walk with your shoulders hunched when you're sad or draw into yourself after traumatic events, a sequence of heart-opening poses can help you release the physical tension created by that posture.
Backbend poses are the quintessential heart-openers. Wheel pose, a backbend in which you push up off the floor, is known in Sanskrit as Urdhva Dhanurasana, which may be the name your teacher uses. In a vinyasa or ashtanga class, you'll do a number of less intense backbend poses as well. These include bridge pose, a half-backbend with your shoulders on the floor, and bow pose, in which you lie on your stomach, put your arms behind you and grab your ankles. While bow may come earlier in the class sequence, bridge and wheel usually come at the end, with the bridge pose flowing into the wheel pose.
The sun salutation series starts a vinyasa yoga class. This sequence contains features a heart-opening pose known as upward-facing dog, which is also known as Urdhva Mukha Svanasana in Sanskrit. The sun salutation series flows through the poses, so each one moves seamlessly into the next. The order of asanas is as follows: mountain pose, hands-over-head (a gentle heart opener), forward bend, lunge, plank, chaturanga, upward-facing dog, and downward-facing dog. In upward-facing dog, you lie on the mat with your stomach down while lifting your legs slightly off the floor by balancing on the tops of your feet; press your hands to the floor; and bend your head and chest backward.
The sequence of asanas your teacher uses depends on the style of yoga you practice. For example, in ashtanga yoga, you learn the poses in a specific order, mastering each pose before you move on to the next one. This means your class may only be 10 to 20 minutes long until you reach the point where you can perform the entire sequence. However, in a regular vinyasa flow class, the sequencing will be as varied as the teachers. In general, the sun salutation series comes at the beginning of class while inversions come at the end.
If you're recovering from an injury, particularly to your upper back or shoulders, work your way up to heart-opening poses in a restorative yoga class. Restorative classes use props to support your body, allowing you to hold the poses longer. Open your shoulders with blocks and blankets first, and your body will thank you. Never force yourself to do a pose for which you don't feel ready, otherwise you could hurt yourself.
Neville Smithson did his undergraduate work at Hampshire College and earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati. Having had a change of heart about his passions, Smithson is now back in Massachusetts, where he enrolled in a combined MA/PhD physical therapy program.