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7 Amazing Heart Opening Yoga Poses to Open Your Chest

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Any asana that requires extension of the thoracic region of the spine can be considered a heart opening yoga pose. In other words, a heart opener is a posture that calls for an arching motion in the upper back.

The reason these yoga poses are called “heart opening” is due to the effect of arching on the chest and shoulders. The motion stretches the front of the chest, broadens the collarbones, and pulls the shoulders back.

As a result, the breastbone, which in yoga is often referred to as the “heart center” is open forward.

Anatomy of Heart Opening Yoga Poses

julesyogi in heart opener
Anatomy of Heart Opening Yoga Poses

Before we dive in, let’s examine the anatomical processes involved in heart opening asanas.

Thoracic Spine

The main component of a heart opening pose is the backbend in the upper spine.

It consists of 12 vertebrae, making it the longest section of the spinal column.

The thoracic section of your spine is located in the upper part of your back, from the small bump at the base of your neck to the space just below your shoulder blades.

The spine has natural curves, which results in the upper back appearing slightly rounded in its relaxed state. This curve is known as thoracic kyphosis.

An average range of thoracic extension ranges between 25° to 45°. However, due to the natural spinal curvature, the thoracic section may appear straight even while actively back bending.

Additionally, thoracic extension can be difficult to assess visually because it distributes across 12 vertebrae.

In addition to flexion (rounded back) and extention (arching), thoracic spine is responsible for about 80% of torso rotation. It is a common misconception that the twisting motion originates in the lower back.

In reality, our lumbar spine remains centered while the thoracic vertebrae “swivel” to the side. Each of the 12 thoracic vertebrae has the ability to rotate approximately 3 degrees, resulting in a 30-35° rotation overall.

Shoulder Blades

The scientific name for a shoulder blade is a scapula (plural scapulae). It’s a flat, triangular bone on your back that connects the top of the arm (humerus) with the collarbone.

Located symmetrically on either side of upper spine, shoulder blades play an important part in various arm and shoulder movement.

Collarbones

The collarbone, also known as the clavicle, is a long, thin bone that serves as a structural component between the shoulder blade and the breastbone (sternum).

Collarbones are easily palpable. The small dimple at the bottom of your throat is a space between the right and left clavicles.

Shoulder Girdle

Together, the scapula and clavicle form the shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle is the mechanism that enables movement in the upper arm and shoulder, vital in many everyday activities.

In heart opening yoga poses, the shoulder girdle is responsible for pulling the shoulders back and downwards.

Benefits of Heart Opening Yoga Poses

young woman in camel pose
Benefits of Heart Opening Yoga Poses

At this point, you may be wondering why it is so important to include heart opening asanas in your yoga routine.

The main reason to practice more heart opening poses is to increase mobility in your upper spine. Let’s break it down.

Why is Thoracic Mobility Important?

When people complain about back pain or discomfort, they often attribute it to their lower back (lumber spine) or neck (cervical spine). The truth is, these issues are often caused by a lack of movement in the thoracic region.

  • 90% of back pain is caused by mechanical issues, which can be resolved by working on spinal mobility.

  • An exaggerated thoracic curve can result in severe kyphosis. In addition to poor posture, this can cause serious issues such as acute and chronic pain, digestive unrest, and limited physical functions.

  • Anatomically, thoracic mobility is closely connected the arms and shoulders. Thoracic mobility is essential to be able to move the shoulders in their full range of motion. In turn, it can help to reduce the pain in neck and shoulders.

  • Our rib cage is attached to the thoracic vertebrae. It contains vital organs that perform cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive functions. When the rib cage is compressed, it may inhibit those processes, especially if this is a perpetual issue.

  • Adequate movement within the thoracic region is key for anyone with active lifestyle. Whether you are a professional athlete or a gardening enthusiast, thoracic moblity will help you remain pain-free.

Yoga for Thoracic Mobility

group of people doing yoga twists
Yoga for Thoracic Mobility

The vast catalogue of yoga poses includes backbends, twists, and posture-affirming asanas.

An extensive study was published in 2021 detailing the effects of yoga on spinal curvatures. Between 667 subjects and 578 people in the control group, the study involved a large pool of participants of varying age and gender.

Researchers were able to conclude that there is a positive correlation between heart opening yoga practice and the angle of thoracic kyphosis in adults.

Another recent study focused on the effects of yoga on thoracic alignment and respiratory function in children aged 8-14. The goal of this research was to determine whether yoga can be used as a supplemental treatment for children with asthma.

Over the course of 8 weeks, the study revealed that children who practiced yoga showed significant improvement in respiratory volumes and capacities, as well as thoracic curvature. The children that belonged to the control group showed no such improvement.

Heart Opening Yoga Poses For Chest and Shoulders

Incorporating the following asanas will help you improve your thoracic mobility and range of movement in your shoulders.

Cow Pose (Bitilasana)

young asian woman in cow pose
Cow Pose (Bitilasana)

It’s safe to say that Cow Pose is one of the most accessible heart openers. In fact, it is often used in connection with Cat Pose as a spine warm-up.

  • Pose type: kneeling, backbend

  • Difficulty: beginner

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, wrists, and back

Step-by-step Instructions for Cow Pose

  1. Start in a four-point-kneeling position. Align your wrists directly under your shoulders.

  2. As you inhale, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull your chest forward.

  3. Arch your lower back, reaching down through your belly button.

  4. Lift the gaze forward and pull your shoulders away from the ears. Keep your neck long and your throat open.

  5. For best effect, alternate between extension (Cow) and Flexion (Cat) within a comfortable range of movement. Synchronize transitions with your breath, inhaling as you arch and exhaling when you rround the spine.

Tips and Variations: Be sure to warm up your wrists before entering a kneeling position.

It’s important to facilitate an even backbend through the entire spine. Avoid creating a “hinge” in your back and neck.

Follow-up Poses

  • Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

  • Child’s Pose (Balasana)

Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

man dressed in blue in bridge pose
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Bridge Pose is a great heart opener for an active or restorative practice. In addition to stretching the front of the body, this pose strengthens legs and glutes like no other.

  • Pose type: supine, backbend, inversion

  • Difficulty: beginner-intermediate

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, neck, thighs, and glutes

Step-by-step Instructions for Bridge Pose

  1. Lie back on your yoga mat. Plant your arms either side of the torso. Gently press your palms into the floor.

  2. Bend the knees and step your feet as close as you can to the sit bones. Keep the feet hip-width apart and facing forward.

  3. Take a moment to tuck your tailbone and engage your core.

  4. Carefully lift your hips, aiming to bring them level with your knees. Keep your glutes active and push your feet into the floor.

  5. Bring your hands together and interlace the fingers. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and shuffle each shoulder underneath your torso.

  6. Stay in Bridge Pose for up to a minute. Breathe deeply.

  7. To exit, disconnect your hands and broaden the shoulder blades. Round your spine and gradually bring each vertebrae back to the ground. Relax your muscles.

Tips and Variations: If you’re experiencing a lot of pressure on your neck, add a folded blanket under the shoulder blades.

To stop the knees from riding apart, keep your inner thigh muscles engaged. Alternatively, wrap a yoga strap just above your knees to keep them at hip width.

Follow-up Poses

  • Knees to Chest (Apanasana)

  • Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)

  • Wheel Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)

Wheel Pose (Udhva Dhanurasana)

woman in wheel pose black and white
Wheel Pose (Udhva Dhanurasana)

A step-up from the Bridge Pose is Wheel Pose, also known as Upward Bow Pose. It’s an intermediate backbend asana which doubles as an inversion.

  • Pose type: backbend, inversion

  • Difficulty: intermediate

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, arms, legs, and glutes

Step-by-step Instructions for Wheel Pose

  1. Lie back on your yoga mat with your knees bent.

  2. Plant your palms either side of your head, with your fingertips pointed towards the shoulders.

  3. Inhale as you tuck the tailbone under and compose yourself.

  4. Exhale and rise into a deep backbend, using your hands and feet to push yourself up.

  5. Focus on lifting your chest, belly and hips towards the sky. Keep your heels firmly on the ground.

  6. Stay in the Upward Bow Pose for 3-5 breaths.

  7. To exit, tilt your chin towards your chest and carefully land on the ground.

Tips and Variations: Make sure to open your chest and shoulders to stretch through the upper spine. Keep your feet flat on the floor and facing forward.

Follow-up Poses

  • Knees to Chest (Apanasana)

  • Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)

Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

man in lotus pose on the beach
Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

This yoga pose is traditionally cued after inversions that require thoracic flexion, such as Shoulder Stand (Salamba Sarvangasana), Plow Pose (Halasana), or Ear-Pressing Pose (Karnapidasana).

  • Pose type: supine, backbend, inversion

  • Difficulty: intermediate-advanced

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, and neck

Step-by-step Instructions for Fish Pose

  1. From the supine position, pull your elbows near the rib cage.

  2. Press your forearms into the ground, rising up through the heart center.

  3. Keep your back suspended, as you tilt your head back and rest the crown of the head on the mat.

  4. Keep your legs active and fully extended forward.

  5. To exit this pose, lift your head off the ground and gradually bring your spine back down.

Tips and Variations: Avoid applying too much weight through your head and neck. Your center of gravity should rest predominantly in your forearms and hips.

For a supported variation of Fish Pose, place a yoga block (or blocks) underneath your scapulae. In advanced yoga practice, you may choose to bind your legs in Lotus (Padmasana).

Follow-up Poses

  • Happy Baby Pose (Ananda Balasana)

  • Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)

man doing triangle pose in yoga studio
Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana)

One of the most popular poses, Trikonasana is present is various types of practice. Triangle Pose involves a twisting motion, stretching the entire upper body.

  • Pose type: standing, twist, side bend, asymmetrical

  • Difficulty: beginner

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, hips, and hamstrings

Step-by-step Instructions for Triangle Pose

  1. Stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) facing the long edge of your yoga mat.

  2. Step your feet into a wide stance. Turn your right foot out to the side.

  3. Take a deep breath in and open your arms. As you exhale, fold sideways, bringing your right hand to your right foot.

  4. At the same time, turn your chest to your left and reach your left arm to the sky.

  5. After 5 breaths, rise back up. Turn towards your left leg and repeat the pose on the other side.

Tips and Variations: If the pose is too intense on your hamstrings, you can rest the bottom hand on a yoga block for support. Alternatively, step your feet a little closer together.

Follow-up Poses

  • Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana)

  • Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)

indian man in low lunge on the grass
Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)

A yogic variation of the classic runner’s lunge, Anjaneyasana is the perfect pose for heart opening. It can be adapted to accommodate yogis of different experience levels.

  • Pose type: standing, backbend, hip opener, asymmetrical

  • Difficulty: beginner

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, neck, hips, and ankles

Step-by-step Instructions for Crescent Lunge

  1. Start in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Plant your palms shoulder-width apart.

  2. Step your right foot back and lower your right knee. Untuck the toes.

  3. Keep your left knee bent at 90 degrees, directly above the ankle.

  4. Breathe in and lift your torso. Sweep your arms overhead and lengthen through the spine.

  5. Reach your sternum forward and up. Take your gaze up to your thumbs.

  6. Stay in this heart opening backbend for 3-5 breaths before repeating it with your left foot extended back.

Tips and Variations: Don’t sink your hips forward. Instead, keep your core and glutes engaged to protect your lumbar spine.

Follow-up Poses

  • Lizard Pose (Utahan Pristhasana)

  • Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)

Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishonasana)

woman in puppy pose by window sill

Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishonasana)

Sometimes referred to as “melting heart“, Puppy Pose is a great way to leverage gravity to your advantage. It’s an intense stretch for the chest, shoulders, and armpits.

  • Pose type: kneeling, prone, inversion

  • Difficulty: beginner-intermediate

  • Targets: chest, shoulders, and neck

Step-by-step Instructions for Puppy Pose

  1. Start in a four-point kneeling position.

  2. Keeping your hips above your knees, walk your hands foward until your arms are fully extended.

  3. Soften your chest and rest your chin on the ground.

Tips and Variations: To avoid compressing your cervical spine, you may opt to rest your forehead on the mat instead.

Follow-up Poses

  • Thread-the-Needle (Urdhva Mukha Pasasana)

  • Child’s Pose (Balasana)

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