Self love and opening the heart is kind of a difficult concept. Often I think we link it to our bodies and the way we look, but since that is something conditional, for me, it does not hold the true meaning of self love. Instead I prefer to look at self love as self compassion: the knowledge that we are respected and valuable to others as we ALREADY are. It is not twisting and changing as we try to ‘fit’ or feel enough, but instead our sense of worthiness as a person right now. As researcher Brené Brown says, it is ‘letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and being who we are’.
And this links perfectly to yoga (this is a yoga article after all) where backbends are often referred to as heart openers and associated with self love. However, if you don’t get the above, then I’m not sure backbends=self love makes sense because they just tend to feel a bit odd and scary. But if you understand that self love and compassion come from letting yourself be seen AS YOU ARE, it all adds up. Backbends are exposing your chest when usually we protect it (think foetal position, hunching up when you are cold or anxious or low – this is the opposite). Backbends are vulnerability, which is self compassion at its finest.
But how do we begin?
First, we have to acknowledge this feeling and then simply, we try. Knowing that it might feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but also that that is the only way to move through. And maybe if we can find this on our mats – explore vulnerability in something like backbends – we can then expand that into wider areas of life too.
The way I approach this in my practice is three-fold – strength, flow and play – like all of my yoga practice. We strengthen the movement so we can prove to ourselves we can do this; we flow and move because just like when you are reading the best part, that’s when you’re lost in it, and then we play, have fun and try new things.
The healing comes from the doing – not the pose nor the perfection – you just have to start.
Bolster opening – A super great place to start.
Come to a seated position. Grab your bolster and place the bottom just behind your tail bone. If you’ve got a sensitive lower spine, you can move the bottom up to the centre of your back, just between your shoulder blades. Drape your body around the bolster and completely relax down. Your arms can be wherever feels good. Explore: out to the sides, bent elbows, maybe even overhead. Allow your chest and shoulders to open gently keeping the palms facing upwards. Breathe 10 slow breaths here.
Teaching points: really slow down. Pay attention to how deep your breathing is. Settle in.
Cobra rolls – The idea of this is movement
To begin to warm a little more into the upper spine and feel more spacious and at ease moving in this way.
Come to lying on your stomach. Bring you hands wide and in line with your shoulders, resting only on finger tips. As you inhale tuck your chin, dome between the shoulder blades as you lift, elbows wide. As you exhale, draw the elbows in, lift your chin, puff your chest forward as you ripple back down.
Teaching points: think ripples
Salabasana – strength work.
Lying on your stomach, bring your hands by your side, palms towards your legs. On the inhale, pull your belly button towards your spine and roll your shoulders back, peeling your upper body and legs off the ground. Hold for a steady inhale, exhale, inhale, slowly lowering back down on the exhale.
Teaching points: draw everything towards the midline: squeeze your upper arms and inner thighs inward.
Wild thing – move, play and strengthen.
Starting in a downward dog, raise your right leg. Bend your knee and twist your hips, stacking right hip on top of your left. Slowly begin to bring your right foot down behind your left leg as you lift your right hand off the ground. Your left leg stays straight and rooted, your right knee bent supporting your bend. Your left hand is down and strong and your right arm curves overhead. Reverse the movement, stepping back to downward dog and repeat on the left.
Teaching points: puff up through the chest and imagine you are tucking your tailbone between the knees.
Dancer – play
Bring both sides of the strap into your right hand to create a loop. Bending your right leg put your foot into the loop. Bring your elbow in and spin your arm so your hand faces upwards, as if you were a waiter holding a tray. Begin to bring your elbow forward and overhead, lifting your leg. Circle your left arm round to hold the strap with this hand too. As you reach your arms higher press your foot into the strap and lift higher here too. Hold for 5 breaths. Gently reverse the motion to come out, and repeat on your left side.
Teaching points: puff your chest as if between your arms, keep your gaze steady and body upright.