I’ve started teaching with Yoga For Life in January 9, 2013 and I found it fitting to open the class with a chest-opening practice to celebrate the arrival of the New Year.
Chest openers and backbends are extroverting poses that allow us to open ourselves up to the world. Many people experience fear, anxiety, or discomfort whenever they practice backbends, even the gentle ones, because we are often afraid of exposing ourselves as vulnerable individuals.
The sequence that I have chosen gradually opens up the chest area, stimulating the anahata chakra or the heart center. The anahata is the fourth chakra, counting from the mooladhara chakra or root chakra at the base of the spine, and is located along the spine, across the base of the heart. The anahata chakra is the source of love, compassion, and empathy, and is also where enlightened thinking begins. We often tell people to follow their hearts – follow their instincts and inner selves – when they are confronted with a difficult situation that requires a decision.
Anahata Chakra. Anahata Chakra is located at the heart centre. It is a green-coloured, twelve-petalled lotus flower that symbolises compassion, love, and empathy
When we place our hands together in prayer position or anjali mudra at the base of the heart as we chant “AUM”, we reconnect with the source of that eternal sound, which is said to originate from the base of the heart. The anahata chakra is a green jewel, a twelve-petalled lotus, and it helps to visualize this at your heart centre during your practice.
I begin the practice with some abdominal breathing exercise. I think the best way to stimulate the chest is to allow the lungs to be used to its fullest capacity by encouraging abdominal breathing. This actively expands the space of the lungs to take in air by drawing the diaphragm down towards the stomach, and actively drawing the navel towards the spine to expel as much stale air as possible. This will then encourage the lungs to take in more fresh air, energizing the chest area.
Next, I did some chest opening arm seated stretches to warm up, followed by a modified Hatha surya namaskar A sequence. In this sequence, I emphasised on opening the chest in the low lunge or equestrian pose. I encouraged students to bring their gaze forward and actively draw the shoulders toward the back, to open the chest. As we progressed, we lifted the arms to the sides, hovering the torso over the leg.
Hatha Surya Namaskar A. The Hatha Surya Namaskar A or Sun Salutation A is different from other traditions, such as Ashtanga Yoga, but the goal of this moving meditation remains the same – energise the body and quiet the mind.
If it is available to them, I also gave them the option of interlacing their fingers behind their backs and then bringing the torso to an upright position, and then bringing the gaze up to the ceiling, opening the chest. Students have the option of staying in baby cobra, or doing a full cobra, or going to an upward dog, encouraging them to acknowledge the opening of their bodies and progress to a deeper pose. We held our cobras/upward dogs for five breaths.
In the next sequence, we modified surya namaskar B to use warrior I as a base pose for standing asanas. Triangles, warrior II, and modified side-angle poses can be used to emphasise on opening the chest. A really helpful trick is to place the lifted hand on the small of the back, rolling the top shoulder backwards to open the chest, and then raising the arm up laterally back to the full pose. If students are flexible, revolved triangle and revolved side angle poses can further increase the awareness of the opening of the chest.
Balancing asanas are not usually considered as chest openers but I modified some of the poses to suit the purpose of the class. For the tree pose, coming from hands in anjali mudra at the heart centre, I asked them to open the arms as wide as the bent knee and use the back of the hand to push the bend knee toward the back, squaring the hip with the shoulders, and creating awareness of the open chest. From here, we proceeded to the full tree pose by raising our hands out and up.
Full Tree Pose. Before getting here, rest the back of the hand in front of the bent knee and give it a nudge toward the back, squaring the hip with the shoulders.
I also used warrior III as a base pose for ardha chandrasana and parivritta ardha chandrasana (half moon and revolved half moon pose). I first moved them to a variation of warrior III with the arms spread out to the sides (also known as airplane pose or dekasana in some schools) and then encouraged them to open themselves to one side in ardha chandrasana, and from there, revolve to the other side.
Warrior III Variation. Dekasana or airplane pose is a variation of Warrior III that can be used as a starting point for Ardha Chandrasana and Parivritta Ardha Chandrasana
We held many of the standing and balancing poses for a longer period and I decided to start cooling the practice down with counterposes using forward bends and twists. I really like going into a deep and long paschimottanasana (standing forward bend) after such an active sequence. As they laid themselves down, we also did some reclining twists to release the tension in the lower back. And for here, the students proceeded to a relaxing savasana.
I used a visualization exercise called “Blades of Grass”, which I composed myself. The relaxation asked the students to focus on the anahata chakra and imagine blades of grass growing from their heart, symbolising an openness to new experiences and new challenges in the coming year.
On January 26, I lead a more dynamic backbends and twists workshop, given that I expect students to have gone back into the rhythm of their yoga practice for 2013.