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”!