As a yogi who has been practicing for over ten years, I can confidently say that over time our practice evolves. Our practice is said to be like a knife, if it goes without use it dulls and sometimes rusts, but with regular sharpening you can use it forever.
Without continued practice, challenging poses like backbends can prove difficult and inversions are sometimes scary. But there are a few tips and tricks I learned in my experience and specifically throughout my training, that I embrace to ease the opening of my chest and back to enhance my favorite inversions.
Whether I'm attempting an inversion or backbend, or I simply just need a pose to unwind and decompress after a long day, this chest-opening exercise leaves me feeling ready for just about anything.
If you have a knee or back injury, please exercise the following with caution.
Easy Chest Opener With Strap
This specific pose was observed in my yoga teacher training and although it was something we barely touched upon it, I instantly fell in love with the creativity behind it and the results that I received in my poses. I highly recommend this technique if you're preparing for any chest opening poses throughout your practice.
From a cross-legged position (Sukasana), take your yoga strap around the low center of your back right around where perhaps a bra strap would appear.
Bring the strap from around your back and up under your armpits, over the shoulders, and make them overlap making almost an X at the top of your back. (for newbies you may need assistance getting it right the first time).
Once the straps are in place, grab the ends and gently pull them down. For those experiencing extreme tightness in the chest and back, gradually apply more pressure.
As you gently pull the ends of the strap down you will instantly feel a spreading of the collarbones and find length in your spine. Once you have experienced the added space, release the straps and maintain the same posture. As you go through your practice remember to come back to this pose to achieve better alignment with your poses.
This exercise adds length in the torso, spreads the collarbones, prepares you for deeper chest-opening poses and helps improve posture.
Heart Chakra Pose (Anahatasana ) Variation
Anahata means, "heart", and this pose is named for the heart chakra, which resides along the spine in the space between the sternum and upper back. This pose is a deep heart and shoulder opener.
Begin in Downward Dog with a block under each hand, then come onto your knees. Pick up the third block and hold it between your hands horizontally, palms facing each other.
While keeping your thighs vertical, place your elbow on the two blocks on the floor. Your forearms will be vertical.
Before lowering your chest into a deeper stretch, pause and focus on some key actions to ensure that you're opening the shoulders, not collapsing into them.
Slide the shoulder blades down the back and in toward each other without pinching the spine. Imagine doing a pull up, it's the same action in the upper back. Maintain that action and draw in the front ribs.
Keep this integrity in the upper body and begin to lower your chest closer to the floor. Once your in your deepest stretch, take a moment to repeat those actions. Move the shoulder blades down and in and draw the front ribs back.
Hold for five to eight breaths.
For a more advanced variation, come into Child's Pose with the elbows still firmly planted on the blocks.
This pose should intensify the sensation of the opening in the shoulders and triceps and reduce the back bending action. It takes discipline to resist a big backbend here, but staying focused on opening your shoulders will greatly benefit your backbend later.
Modified Heart Chakra Pose With Chair
If you don't have blocks or are experiencing discomfort in the knees, try this pose with a chair. Use a folded blanket under the knees and place a folded mat on top of your chair and proceed in the same way as the previous exercise.
Continue practicing these poses until you feel strong in the spine and open enough in the chest to begin backbends and inversions.
Upward Bow/Full Wheel (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
If you feel ready to practice backbends, you can give Upward Bow/Full Wheel a try. Otherwise, continue to practice Bridge Pose until you feel fully prepared.
Come to lay on your back and bend the knees to draw the heels toward the hips. Place your palms on your meet on either side of your head with your fingers facing toward your shoulders. Keeping your knees hips-width apart, press into your palms and soles of the feet as you lift your pelvis skyward.
To exit, lower slowly beginning at the base of the neck, one vertebrae at a time until your tailbone comes to the mat. Hug your knees into your chest and gently rock from side-to-side to massage out the lower back.
Forearm Stand (Pincha Mayurasana)
And now it's time to go upside down! Begin on your hands and knees and lower to your forearms, with your elbows aligned under your shoulders. You'll want to try to keep your arms parallel as you press your forearms firmly into the mat.
Lift your hips to Dolphin Pose and start to walk in your feet as close as you can. Gaze between your hands and lift one leg straight up. Next try lifting the other. You may discover that you have a preference.
You can begin to hop with one leg as you begin to lift the standing foot off the ground as well. Be sure to engage the core as you lift to help you stabilize.
Once both feet are lifted, you can hold the legs in a split position and alternating the legs try bending one knee and then the other.
Adapted from the e-book Eat Drink Shrink Yoga Volume I by Gabrielle St.Claire.
Photos courtesy of the author