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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Kerstin

As a yoga student and yoga teacher, the “open your heart” cue is one that I hear a lot, and have probably used one time too many when teaching myself. Brooke makes a really valid point that it’s a pretty vague cue from an anatomical perspective, and probably not really a very practical one, either! Getting students out of the internally rotated, slump-shouldered position brought on by all the texting and keyboarding we do in today’s day and age is probably better accomplished with direction of motion cues. In a pose like Warrior I, where the “open your heart” cue… Read more »

Miriam Rigney

Love your sense of humour Brooke. Love Open Sesame too, though the depth of that love varies depending on my pec minor!

Lynn

This looks like it would be inaccessible, but it is not! After adding “the crazy stretch” to my routine, I feel much more fluid.

sara

This is a wonderful clarification of what we are attempting to do with the cue “open the heart.” I so often see this “overcorrecting” from one extreme to the other, and the rib thrusting/shoulder blade pinching in order to avoid thoracic flexion is no exception. I love the combination of anatomical education and subtle adjustment.

Sara

This is a great article, very informative and a flattened thoracic is something I see often in my massage practice and also something I have myself so will definitely be trying out the variation in the video often.

Colleen Alber

I laughed out loud at this and at myself…as I probably say “open your heart” at some point in every class. #forshame
I’ll start giving more attention to external shoulder rotation instead…although the heart stuff my still slip out. I love “open sesame”. Where does the name come from? PS Brooke, love you on Liberated Body.

Kim T

This is a great way to roll the shoulders back and open the chest. I can see the immediate change when I’m moving into upward facing dog position. I will incorporate the technique into my practice.

Ashlyn Medina

Thank you for the video and for clarifying what we are really trying to do when we are “opening our hearts”. I’ve used this as a cue in my class and I agree that it can be vague and even confusing. Although it sounds nice to say “open your heart,” I think it is more valuable to be able to be more specific. I see many students whose shortened pecs are tugging their scapula forward and out of place. And I do see them trying to squeeze and retract their scapula to create openess in asanas like cobra or updog.… Read more »

Glenda Garcia

Hurray for stretching the Pec Minor!! I love how you clarify that we do not need to open our chests but rather allow the scapula and arms to hang in correct alignment. I love the Open Sesame stretch! This Yoga Tune Up® Pose can also be done against a wall for those who cannot do it on the floor.

Mary

Great idea for trying to return proper alignment to the shoulders and taking away the forward rounding. Refreshing idea to open our hearts, and take a break from the poor posture driven by our computers and other devices.

Sandy Gross

Loved the anatomical detail in this blog and the video, Brooke. In digging my anatomy books over the years and throughout the YTU training, I am reminded that the heart is attached by ligaments to the sternum in the front and to the spine bones in the back, and it kind of dangles there in between the front and back of the body. Seems like any “opening” or rather space making that could occur would be to expand the rib cage, pulling these two insertion points apart from one another, and not very far. Push the heart too far to… Read more »

Sandy Ahlensdorf

Thanks for the article and video Brooke! I’ve found that most stiff guys get quite frustrated in Open Sesame on the floor, and find greater success on the wall or partners. I’ll definitely be more aware of my language the next time “Open your heart” wants to pop out of my mouth in class, and actually note what direction of movement I am looking for without compromising the thoracic curve.
PS – Thanks a ton for recommending YTU Level 1 Training, I’m in it now and it’s Ahhhh-mazing 🙂

Nikola

I had always found the “open your heart” cue quite confusing and vague so it was nice to read your account on this.
As for open sesame, I feel the stretch is much more specific to the pec minor if I flex my elbow (on the floor) to 90 degrees.
So many people (including myself) work in front of a computer all day, internally rotate and depress the shoulders all day and that becomes our new normal, which makes this pose so important to teach.

Good on you for spending time with this.

Nikola

Bev Hotchkiss

I love shoulder openers “heart openers” and I I had to just dash away from this blog and go get on my yoga mat to give this a try. I think this will be a great opener for my students. I think it would be a good stretch to counter Reversed Crucifix. Just shoulder work in general always feels so rewarding afterwards! Thanks for the great article/video!

mimi martel

i love this stretch and will offer it to the floor or the wall for some tight body. I also like to cue to “keep the back of the heart open” keeping the shoulder blades apart , the rhomboids not completely contracted and therefore avoiding full winging of the scapula so that the back of the torso keep it,s integrity but the front still get a full stretch!

Julie Brown

I have done this pose without really realizing that it is amied at shoulder/collar bone position through working and lengthening the pec minor muscle. This pose opens the front body and the verbage is much more clear than opening the heart.

Dana

Thanks for pointing out how important language can be, along with intention.
Over a period of time in my practice, being instructed to open the chest, I have created tightness in my rhomboids & teres minor/major, with the idea of moving the thoracic spine in or forward toward the chest. All the while my pec minor has not changed.
Perhaps we should take the phrase “open your heart” not as an immediate cue but rather to go home and do the ‘open sesame’ work.

Johanna

I use open your heart a lot as well. I can definitely see how that is not a very sound direction, as the action that needs to happen is really more subtle.

Ben L

I would always think to keep my shoulders back when I noticed my posture was slouching, and I agree it is taxing to keep the traps and rhomboids consciously engaged to such a degree. Initiating the movement from the sternum is definitely easier and less tiring.

Rachel

I am definitely guilty of saying “open your heart” and even “open your chest” while teaching yoga classes but I never really thought about why I am cueing it and it’s purpose. I guess I heard it in a class once and decided that I liked it; however, as I cue “open your heart towards the sky” lets say in Trikonasana (triangle pose) it normally opens up and aligns the students shoulders which then makes the chest appear more open. Now when I think “open your heart” I will remember the pose Open Sesame, thanks!

Nicolette

Hi Brooke!

Love this, thank you for the detailed description of how we can help our students lengthen their pec minors. I am not familiar with the ‘open your heart’ cue but now it makes perfect sense what we’re trying to accomplish. Thank you for posting the link to your fantastic demo on You Tube.

This exercise will be yummy after a vinyasa flow full of chatarangas 🙂

Cheers,
Nicolette

Marion

For my students where this pose is a challenge on the floor, I would ask them to do it on the wall. They can control the amount of stretch without having to fight too much with gravity. Now to find people terms for , “keep a natural kyphosis by protracting and depressing the scapula and externally rotate the shoulders.”

Tomoko

I bet lots of people have difficulty to get into this pose. As Brooke mentioned, many people use staring at computer as their occupation. On top of that if their posture has been slouching your pectolaris muscles are shortening all day long!!
Open Sesame is a great stretch for the anterior upper shoulder and chest! Not to mention of proprioception!

Amalea

Love the demo of this pose. After doing Open Sesame, I also noticed stretch through the Teres major and minor as well. It was pretty big opening that had very little to do with opening a heart and more with freeing the position of the shoulder.

Stephanie Fish

Similar to your video demoing how to roll out your pec minor – this video is super clear and your demo is great. I was taught in a yoga style that featured “open your heart” and there were a lot of folks over extending in their thoracic spine and lower ribs. Like you I see many clients in my structural integration practice who have been “pulling their shoulders down and back” to the detriment of their upper spine. It’s an art and relief to see people let their arms hang, restore the volume of their upper ribs and allow movement… Read more »

Lori Gunnell

I also like “open your heart” as a metaphor and do not consider it a literal term. We use many metaphors in yoga and in life to attach an idea or feeling to a physical reality–fly, spin, soar, root, grow, burrow, wheel, helicopter and so on. Having poetic license to use metaphorical terms brings beauty to the practice. That said, I love this article about shoulder placement and the need for many of us to lengthen our contracted pecs due to too much desk sitting and laptop use. The demo is so useful–as are the YTU therapy balls for getting… Read more »

rebecca miller

As always with YT very mindful & respective of limitations

Allison Shapiro

Hi Brooke – Guilty! I do refer to the heart often but more from the chakra perspective or sometimes I say pull the heart through the gateway of the shoulders. I use the term more for imagery and visualization. I often do reference the muscles as well but I have glad to have your clear, crisp anatomical cues and language.

Lori Wieder

I think this is a terrific movement to include in any yoga warm up. So often in you we are thrown right into cobras and updogs without any prior attention to the front of the chest and shoulders. And since, as you mention, many of us are in a constant state of internal rotation, that puts us at an increased risk of injury. I will definitely be using Open Sesame to help my shoulders hang better, and be ready for all those traditional “heart opening” poses! 🙂

Kristen B.

Yes! Let’s get anatomically clear about the actions in the chest that we are trying to solicit! I see so many yoga peeps walking around in a permanent backbend from years of being cued to “open the heart” without any anatomical context for what it might be doing for their spine.

Gary Carlisle

Andrey Lappas teaches this pose as a part of a shoulder opening series called Ukraineian shoulder openers.

There are 3 other variations that work different shoulder muscles.

Very nice demo. Thank you for posting this.

Michelle Dalbec

Brooke – Thanks again for an enlightening article. I think that referring to the “heart” brings someone who many not have a great deal of body awareness to that area of the body and begins a physical conversation. But for people who are have a tendency to literally, physically lead forward with there heart it begins to create the incorrect action in the body than intended. This article is rich with addressing the root of where that “open your heart” cue is coming from. Your description of the natural alignment and what is more likely the culprit of the hunch… Read more »

lorimerburns

we are just taking about this in our YTU class! I have never resonated with this common instruction either as physical or emotional
directive.. My ribs tend to stick out, but my pecs are very tight…plus on an emotional level I need to be more protective. I have found anatomy and kinneseology WAY more helpful in balancing postural shifts and meditation the way IN to feeling centered and real emotionally.

MaryBeth Frosco

Hey Brooke. It’s interesting that one might use “open your heart” as a chest opener. Seems to be a real bias there that the heart is actually located much closer to the front of the body than the back of the body. So, if the heart is more centrally located, you could use the same phrase to get students to protract their shoulders….move those pesky scapula out of the way so your “heart can open” from the back body. I am guilty of using the phrase “lead from the heart” on occasion rather than “lead from the sternum” or something… Read more »

Giancarla

I am such a culprit of this! Thank you for the awareness! I know for a fact this postural situation comes from my grandmother pinning my shoulders back my whole life and also from being told to open my heart more and then repeating the same thing to my own students. I am just now learning more clearly how to externally rotate the shoulders without engaging the Rhomboids. And I do feel automatically the sensation of a more open heart without letting my ribcage take over. It is a very foreign feeling and feels like a lot of work in… Read more »

Carly

I have always been a little bit mystified by the instruction to open your chest / bring your heart forward. I like the clarity that this post provided about opening your chest and why it is important vs. dramatically pinning the shoulders back. It’s interesting that the video showed the open sesame pose which is on the floor whereas as I feel like the ‘open your heart’ instruction always comes when you are upright

Nick Muscara

Taking YTU this past weekend taught me that rather than pushing the shoulders back and down, you truly need to lift and rotate the shoulders black to get the real sensation. It’s such an amazing and addictive feeling and I make sure to incorporate it into my practice every day!

Cheryl

I look forward to reaching the point where i can try this on the floor — you made it look so easy and graceful. Since the YTU training, I’ve been doing a modification of this while standing and using the wall due to very tight shoulders. I still feel a great opening and still getting the benefits.

will cristobal

thank you for posting, i have always taught this pose as a shoulder stretch and never a heart opener. now that i too am hooked on YTU, i am revisiting this pose with a new attitude.

Lauren C

I was certified in Vinyasa Yoga 2 years ago and one of the few cues that I can’t shake when teaching is “Open your heart” or “Shine your heart.” I know the issue is not being able to express it in my own body as I have very tight shoulders. I like how you said its all about appropriate shoulder positioning. I have chronically tight shoulders and have tried everything to drop them and release tension from them. My shoulders are my enemy, but after watching your video I will definitely be doing your “Open Sesame” stretch!

Samantha

I always thought the “open your heart” phrase was a saying to be open mentally and physically to the practice. However, after reading this it makes total sense that this verbal cue makes us rotate our shoulders back thus opening the heart and lifting the chest. Through out the day I carry so much weight on my shoulders that they feel permanently attached to my ears and neck. By “opening the heart” and rotating the shoulders away from the ears and into alignment, I am able to feel where my shoulders SHOULD be at all times and not just during… Read more »

SherriS

I just learned “open sesame” last week in a restorative yoga class and loved it. I showed it a fellow yoga teacher-trainee, and she also was hooked. I agree that last thing you want to do is over-compensate for bad posture. Practicing yoga, makes you much more aware and mindful of your daily stance and the importance of having good posture. Years, hunched over the computer have caused my shoulders to naturally round. But as you mentioned, with all the “heart openers” (actually, I think of them as shoulder openers) the goal is to have your shoulders to fall in… Read more »

Sandy Byrne

Such a wonderful perspective on the upper cross syndrome. We spend so much time and effort in the rhomboid area trying to pull the shoulder blades together. I love the thought of the shoulder girdle being freed by pec minor to come back to its home and giving the upperback a break. Thank you for shirting my view of the upperbody and the heart/chest.

Noreen Bluemling

As an older adult, I have years of “un-rounding” to do and daily issues with painful shoulders. Your article was a great start to help me understand not only what I need to work on, but also how to better explain to my students why doing the “open sesame” exercise is important to spinal health. After following your video, I see that I can only do the first part, and even that creates a lot of sensation. However, my days and my yoga practice are often impeded by intense shoulder sensation, so I am happy to start with part one.… Read more »

Kelsea

“Open your heart” is a common phrase that you hear in a yoga class. I never really thought of it anatomically. I just always thought of it as being open to emotions and allowing yourself to love. This blog points out how there is a fine balance between being too forward in your posture with rounded shoulders and being too back and pinching your shoulders back. It’s a good thing to pay attention to.

silvia marisol

The Deltoid, Pectoralis fibers, Biceps, Coracobrachialis, Latissimus Dorsi,Teres major & minor, and Infraspinatus, all get a wonderful stretch abd release with this sequence.

swagata saha

I do appreciate you saying that our laptop dependant life has so much to do with the misalignment of our shoulders. We can not reach to our hearts ignoring the shoulders and the fact is we do need to open our hearts to take our yoga practice to the highest level of spiritualism because the Anahata Chakra is right inside our heart. We should feel the Anahata Chakra radiating energy in every direction unobstructed to attain some sort of spiritual refinement in our day to day yoga practice. As we know yoga is one of the many paths for spiritualism… Read more »

Chris

One of my major issues has been my tendency to round forward. I have worked on shoulders back for awhile now and while it helps, it does not seem natural to my stance. The article was enlightening to open my vision to another and perhaps more
achievable way to consistently keep in better alignment.

Prem

I like “open your heart” better than “open your chest” BUT both are certainly better than “pin your shoulder to your back” Great demo!

Helen McAvoy

Thank you for this great article and the demonstration of stretching the pec minor, not an easy place to get to. The pinning the shoulders back comment is so true and really can reek havoc with the upper back. I like the “open your hearts” !