When I first started to teach and practice yoga the idea of heart openers meant a nice backbendy stretch. I didn't understand the physiological benefits nor the emotional connection when incorporating breath into this practice my body now craves. Looking back I realize now that it was a directive from my ego, that desire to be gumbiesque and push through a pose.
Over time, with the combination of a breast cancer battle and an immersion into yoga training, I began to feel how the heart openers left my entire heart expanded with so much more room to breathe. When the radiation doctors told me I would lose lung capacity with radiation, I would go home and lengthen my spine in heart openers hoping to re-capture some space lost. When the plastic surgeon suggested I use my latissumus muscles to re-create breast tissue; I declined, wondering how that would impact my ability to crack open my heart with Urdhva Dhanurasana (wheel) pose.
Lately, through the practice of just focusing singularly on the breath as I move into backbend, I've noticed a bit more expansion. Without admitting that this initially fed my ego (OK, I admit it), I had to mentally retreat and focus on the idea of not pushing....just breathing; knowing that this gentle method of opening was the right way to both practice and teach.
Ustrasana or Camel pose
Pictured are the full version of camel and a modified version which is where everyone should begin. If you are a beginner to yoga or you have a tendency towards lower back problems, I strongly recommend the modified version of camel. The full backbend version is an advanced posture meant for the individual who has developed his/her practice.
You can leave the tops of the feet flat, or tuck the toes under to move into half camel. Take the hands behind you, palms flat and fingers reaching towards your feet. Push off the hands to lift the hips (knees stay on the floor). Hold for 5-10 breaths. Come back to hero pose and repeat 2-3 times.
Advanced: take your hands to your ankles and push down to lift your chest. Pelvis comes forward slightly as each breath works to continue lifting your heart upward. Emphasize the breath. Lengthen your side body. As you exhale imagine your breath exits through your side body. You can allow your chin to drop slowly but be mindful of your neck and do not take it back if this bothers your neck. Hold for 5-7 breaths. Move slowly to exit this pose beginning with the life of your head. Take one hand at a time to your low back to support yourself as you come out of the pose.
Don't expect an emotional response or release the first few times you practice. But do take moments to breathe following a backbend and quietly observe how you feel and what you notice. Each practice, notice any differences. It took years for me to fully recognize the value of these poses; making them all that more valuable to me now.