When you open up the back of the heart and across the chest, you create space for the heart, which is both valuable and liberating!
When you are practicing backbends, you must try to distribute the space as evenly as you can throughout the spine, and focus on the right part of the back. The lumbar area of the spine, the lower back, is usually very flexible, and we generally need more strength here than space. The same goes for the neck.
Try to focus your backbends around the part of the spine that needs the most opening: the very back of the heart, the thoracic spine. That's why it's called a heart opener — we actually open up right at the center of the heart.
Editor's note: Warm up your spine with a few rounds of Cat/Cow postures before you begin.
Wild Thing (Camatkarasana)
Make your way to Downward-Facing Dog.
Inhale and extend the right leg up and back behind you. Bend the knee and open up through the hip. Let the right foot become heavy and gently flip your dog over, landing with the ball of the foot right behind the left knee on the mat.
Feel the feet grounded to the earth, lift up through the hips, open the heart, and let your head hang back. Breathe deeply and enjoy this beautiful heart opener!
Engage your core to come back to Three-Legged Downward-Facing Dog, lower the foot, and then do the other side.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Lie down with your feet grounded on the earth, hip distance apart. Find a neutral place for the lower back, press the two big toes down, and inhale to lift the hips up.
Bring the hips as high as you can without having to squeeze or over-activate the glutes. Interlace the fingers beneath you; wiggle the forearms and the elbows together and create more space for the back of the heart by grounding the arms. Let the head stay still, keeping the gaze up the entire time.
Engage the inner thighs and make sure the knees stay in line with the ankles without tilting out to the sides.
Stay for 5 slow breaths and then release the hands and gently come down.
Wheel/Upward Bow Pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana)
Begin in Bridge Pose with the arms resting down by your sides. Reach your arms straight up toward the sky, plugging the arms into the sockets of the shoulders.
Ground the shoulders to the mat and reverse the palms of the hands on either side of the ears, shoulder distance apart. Press your hands down and lift up.
Pause lightly on the crown of your head and squeeze your elbows inwards toward one another; press your chest toward your elbows, then lift all the way up into Wheel.
Keep a very slight tuck of the chin, relax the neck, and fully engage the legs! Stay for 5 breaths.
To release the pose, tuck your chin to your chest and slowly bend the elbows, letting the shoulders be the first to touch the floor. Come all the way down to your back.
Remember to exit the pose the same way you entered it — mindfully and with the breath. Come to your knees, double folding your mat or placing a blanket beneath the knees if your joints are sensitive.
Keep the knees hip distance apart and line the hips up with the knees. Firm the inner thighs and keep pressing the hips forward as you lean back, reaching for your heels. You might have.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana)
Come to your knees, double folding your mat or placing a blanket beneath the knees if your joints are sensitive. Keep the knees hip distance apart and line the hips up with the knees.
Firm the inner thighs and keep pressing the hips forward as you lean back, reaching for your heels. You might have to bring the hips back just slightly to get there before you bring the hipbones forward again, lining them up with the knees.
Let your head fall back and focus on creating space for the neck while softening the glutes. Stay for 5 slow breaths, or as long as you're comfortable.
Supported Heart Opener (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Come to a seated position with two blocks next to you. Place one of the blocks behind you on the mat on a medium level with the long end of the block lining up with the top of the mat. Place the other about the length of a block away, beginning on a high level.
Lie down so that the edges of your shoulder blades drape over the first block and so that the second block ends up comfortably at the very back of your head. You can play around with the height of the block beneath your head until it's at a comfortable place (high, medium, or low).
You can let your legs stay extended, or if you wish, connect the soles of the feet, allowing the knees to come out to the sides whatever feels best to you. Let the arms rest down by your sides, palms facing up. Breathe deeply.
Stay for a full minute or as long as you feel comfortable, rolling over to one side to come out of the pose when you're ready.
Gallery courtesy of Ben Kane Photography
Copyright © 2014 by Rachel Brathen. Originally published in 2014 in Sweden by Bonnier Fakta. From the forthcoming book YOGA GIRL by Rachel Brathen to be published by Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
Swedish native Rachel Brathen is a world-renowned yoga instructor who teaches workshops, leads yoga retreats, and gives lectures around the globe. Find her on Instagram @Yoga_Girl and online at www.YogaGirlBook.com.