There are a few cues floating around in yoga classrooms everywhere that, due to their complete lack of clarity, cause a great deal of confusion. Chief among them is: “free your heart.” Its cousins are “lift your heart” and “open your heart.” Hmmm, well I don’t know about you, but my heart is pretty happy tucked away exactly where it belongs inside of my chest wall. I don’t want that sucker going anywhere! “Sure, sure Brooke. But you know what they mean! They mean…” and here’s where it gets confusing.

I think this cue is intended as an “open the chest” cue. But what for? Are our actual sternums sinking into our back body and giving us all a freakish hunchback Quasimodo style? Because in my many years as a Rolfing® practitioner I’ve only really seen that condition a couple of times in people who have the form of scoliosis that creates kyphosis, or a bending forward of the spine, rather than a true scoliosis which is a side to side deformity of spinal curvature. In other words, it’s pretty rare. And it’s not that this rare condition is simply the extreme version, and the rest of us are walking around with a more minor version of the same thing. In fact, after 12 years in practice and the thousands of Rolfing® sessions I’ve given in that time, I can say unequivocally that if there’ s a trend about what we’re up to with our mid-thoracic spines, it’s that we’re flattening rather than rounding them.

So why do we all feel like we need to “open our hearts”? Because if there’s another trend I can call out, it’s that we want those oh so compelling open and lifted “hearts”! We want them like crazy!  I think what we’re really yearning for when we strive for more “open hearts” is actually appropriate shoulder position.

Since we live in a culture where we are constantly in internal rotation of the shoulders (but only 98% of the time…) due to typing at keyboards and grabbing onto steering wheels, we wind up with short pec minor muscles which pull our scapula, and therefore our whole shoulder girdle, out of alignment and drag it towards our front body. In order to combat this feeling that our shoulders are encroaching on the heart’s turf, and giving us slumped posture, people usually effort to retract their scapula, pulling them back and pinning them close to the spine. This often has the side effect of dragging the mid thoracic spine forward. The trouble with this, besides the obvious distortion to normal spinal curvature and therefore support, is that it’s a heck of a lot of work!

If you look at a skeleton, you will see that the shoulder is designed to hang. It is the glorious bony architecture of the clavicle into the scapula that allows for this “hang” to happen. And when it hangs in place, as one would find on the conveniently muscle-free plastic skeleton, you’ll notice, hmmm, what a nice open chest they have there!  Without shoving the chest forward as if performing the musical number “We Must Increase Our Bust” from Grease, the sternum just sits there happily with the clavicle above it and the scapula behind it, doing their shoulder girdle thing.

What I am proposing is that what’s needed is just a little excavation of chronically shortened pectoralis minor, and a whole lot less efforting in the direction of “pinning” our shoulders on our backs. Try this pose to lengthen that persnickety pec minor, and to, ahem, “open your hearts”!

Brooke Thomas

Brooke Thomas is a Certified Rolfer®, Yoga Tune Up® teacher, and founder of the website Soma Happy, the resource for making your body less cranky and more happy.

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Jon Connelly

REALLY liked this pose. I warmed up with propeller arms and a quick roll of the pec major/minor, and I was able to get a much deeper static stretch than I expected. Open Sesame!!

Stephanie

I never really paid too much attention to my pecs when I first began rolling with YTU balls. I could not believe the amount of tension I found there – I no longer neglect my pecs! Thanks for the video.

Tiffany

I prefer my cues literal. My other favorite is widen your collar bones to counter act the internal rotation caused by too much time at desks, driving, etc. as opposed to externally rotate your shoulders to neutral. In my experience that usually works well to create the space across the front chest…. and I love this Open Sesame stretch 🙂

M. Summer Zaffino

Yoga Tune Up has basically made me think all cliché Yoga queues like “Lead with your heart” to be completely ridiculous and comical. As teachers I believe that we should have a firm understanding of how our bodies move and what a neutral body position feels like in the body so the we can understand the desired affect. Open sesame is a great example of how we can open up the chest region by stretching the Pec muscles with out puffing out the ribs which is what the queue “open your heart” leads people to do. Excellent post.

Anastasia Polito

I love your point about unclear and esoteric yoga lingo! As teachers I agree that we will have far more success getting our students alignment set up properly in a pose using clear, specific language. Thank you for this great explanation on what most of us really need to active and release through the shoulders!

Barbara

I completely agree that the tendency is to flatten the thoracic curve and true sternum collapse is rare. I do cue around the sternum quite often, though, as so many people habitually stand looking less than confident. I like your “open sesame.” I do a similar release but I tend to roll on the side and grab the top foot with my bottom – opposite – hand. I put a block under my head for support, and then work the whole shoulder in circumduction for greater range or movement. As the next step, I will get rid of the block… Read more »

Barbara

I very much agree with your comment about flattening the thoracic curve as a result of the effort to open the chest. I tend to say “lift the sternum” or “stand proud” when see people hunching their shoulders – many are so used to it that it’s a real effort to actually stand with confidence, a reflexion on their psychological state just as nuch as their physical. I liked your “open sesame” – my version of this is getting hold of the top foot with the bottom hand to get a quad and psoas stretch, too, and adding arm circles… Read more »

Jocelyn

Brooke, thanks for this great video – I just heard a new cue this week “shine your collarbones” Really? No they don’t shine, (at least I don’t think so) they are inside my body so I can’t see them.

Sometimes in the interest of waxing poetic, some instructors lose their ability to communicate effectively. You are spot on, thank you.

Stefanie Eris

Open sesame is one of my all time favorite poses for all of the reasons your mention here! I agree 100% with your premise. Thank you for myth busting the common and utterly vague cue “open your heart.”

Tam Nguyen

“Open sesame” is a nice way to target the pec minor. The clarification and explanation about cuing this pose/movement is helpful because “open your heart” can cause folks to thrust their ribs and some folks have no idea what that means, how to do it or if they even want to.

Katy Loomis

Great video! I’ll be using this pose shortly to open up my pec minor muscles. I’ve also questioned the “open your heart” cue as I doubt the desired affect is for my heart to end up out of my rib cage (lovely visual!). Thanks again!

Lisa Federico

AWESOME! Many thanks Brooke for directing this blog to me
I am exactly the person who tries to ‘open her heart’ with scapular retraction. I never linked my flattened thoracic spine with this accommodation. I am adding open sesame to my daily routine and client work…as I am not alone!

Heidi Schaul-Yoder

Thank you Brooke! Many students have the tendency to thrust the ribs forward and retract the shoulders, and I feel strongly that we need to address this with more precision in classes. This pose is a great way for people to gain proprioception and length in their over-shortened pec minor.

Carol Anderson

Thank for the post. I just did this stretch today and the cue of mirroring your top arm with bottom as it extends was great. I felt gravity do it’s job during this static stretch as I “opened my heart”.

Katy Haldiman, MS, RN

Great post! As I’m completing the YTU Level 1 training, I’m discovering that many of the traditional yoga cues do not necessarily follow proper biomechanics and natural alignment of the body. The cue “open your heart” can lead students to tuck their pelvis and extend their lumbar spine beyond what is biomechanically sound. Instead, it’s important to remind students to drop their ribs to maintain alignment of the xiphoid process with the pubic bone.

Liz Tyburczy

Yoga is full of classes named heart openers hip openers. A good portion of the people that attend probably might not even know what a heart opening class is all about. A teacher needs to remember to mention that the heart opening portion of the class is more about compassion, maybe the Fourth Chakra a spiritual theme of sorts. A teacher can begin with some of the eight limbs to talk about an open heart (Niyamas , contentment spiritual Austerities, Svadhayaya, Isvara Pranidhana, even limbs 5 through 8. I find no problem separating No. 3 Asana in my yoga classes… Read more »

Sharon

I am in the middle of a YTU level 1 training and my eyes and ears are opening to a much more honest and clear way of communicating with the people that come to class. We did the open sesame yesterday and the benefits are felt tingling right away!

Sylvia del Valle Garcia

Nice blog post Brooke. When I’ve cued ‘open your heart’ the energy in the room shifts…students smile and there’s a lightness of energy in the room. As long as I provide an anatomical cue as well, for the most part the students sternum, clavicle and scapula are “doing their shoulder girdle thing”….with just a little more of an open heart.

Tracey Arnold

Thanks Brooke for offering more exercises for developing my pec minors. I’m going work on new verbiage for opening the heart too!

Amie Alapeteri

Nice blog! How right you are about the common cues to “open the heart,” which I think yes, is meant to bring the shoulders into correct position, yet it sounds “yoga pretty!” I always get a smile and a laugh out of students when I call this out in class. I do like the use of several different references in class, as you never know which will “speak” to someone. Depending on the pose, the use of the heart opening cue is sometimes more appropriate than other cues, and heart opening is especialy appropriate In reference to living your yoga… Read more »

Annaliese Godderz

I like what Georgia has to say about this post and I do agree with you that this opening of the heart can be potentially confusing, but I would argue that, to me, the bigger issue is how overused the phrase is. Just like in any form of speech we become comfortable with certain patterns of language and end up repeating and repeating. I am just as guilty as the next teacher. When I was trying to stop using common active verbs like “reach” the only word I could think of was “reach.” I think the more that we become… Read more »

Georgia Lowe

Thank you for helping refine my concept of heart-opening. I’ve been letting the shoulders get lost lately in favor of straight-up thoracic extension. I do love this type of extension as a way of creating space for more, easier breath in the body, but I think it will be much healthier and a practice after some smart pec stretching like open sesame. Do we have to lose the concept of an open heart entirely, though, as long as it’s not substituted for good anatomical info? I think it’s such a mentally and emotionally important concept to have be part of… Read more »

alison

The overuse of certain cues actually inhibit movement in students and ourselves rather than empower them. Thank you for noting that here.
I also love your articulation of how the majority of the population are flattening their thoracic spine. That part of the back body can often be a “dead zone” for me and accessing it’s natural curve can be challenging.

Cat Murcek

Thank you for this important and critical conversation starter. I completely agree that the image of “opening the heart” generally causes most people to puff of the chest and squeeze the back body closed, closing off the back door to the heart! I like to use imagery I learned from Alexander technique of deepening the chest in all directions–front, back, and sides–kind of like the preparation to the Tubular Core exercise, and also appreciate the pec stretch you shared here as well as the pec minor therapy ball release you shared in a different video. I’m also curious if you’ve… Read more »

Sharon

Thanks Brooke. I have certainly been guilty of this action in my own body for years, and I am now working to unravel the habit – which is keeping the arms internally rotated at the shoulder and squeezing the shoulder blades and/or pushing the ribs forward to compenaste and achieve lift and presence of posture. While this sometimes can achieve the desired aesthetic from the front view, it feels pretty awful and looks pretty awful from the side and back view as well. Remembering that we are 3D beings, ESPECIALLY, when we are teaching in front of a class I… Read more »

Line Bernier

Très intéressant comme étirement profond des épaules! Parfait pour mes élèves en pilates! Merci

Lisa Ricci

I love the floor stretch you demo and, though I’d recognized it as a shoulder stretch hadn’t previously thought of it as key to achieving the ‘heart opening’ instructors often speak of. Will definitely be more mindful of using this cue, and certain to tie the forward hunch to pec minor rather than a lack of heart openness. Thanks for adding some context to this posture!

Ali Bell

Great post – have never liked the ‘open your heart’ cue. Much prefer the nuts and bolts explanation of what is actually needed.

Tracey Silverman

After just completing the YTU training, we all had a good laugh over some of the esoteric and hard to define yoga cues we’ve heard (and that many of us have spoken!). “Open your heart” is probably the most pervasive of them all. I’m always amazed at how much tension I carry in the pec minor, discovered through simple rolling with the Yoga Tune Up balls. It doesn’t take much and I immediately feel so much relief in my shoulders, as if they are positioned exactly where they should be.