We all have a kyphosis, or at least we ought to – it’s the natural outward curve of the upper back, which balances the inward curves of the neck and the low back.
Hyper-kyphosis is different. The outward curve becomes exaggerated, and we lose our ability to move in the opposite direction, into a concave spine.
Sadly for us, we live in a society that encourages hyper-kyphosis. Most of what we do, including typing, cooking, driving, reading, and gardening, encourages us to lift our shoulder blades, round our backs, and jut our heads forward. Nothing we do in our daily lives encourages us to bend over backwards – at least not physically. Over time, the rounded posture settles in, and becomes the shape of our bodies.
When I found Wende, my first Iyengar teacher, and the poses she called “chest-ompenings,” with a slight but perceptible ‘m’ in the word, I fell in love with them.
At 39, my upper back was a dead zone, already stiffening into the curve I could see in my mother and big sister. It was liberating to learn that I could lie down over a rolled blanket, a bolster or a wood block, and ease the stiffness out of my back.
But it wasn’t just physical tightness that released. From the beginning, I’d get up with a sense of lightness and – there’s no other word for it – openness, in my emotions, and in my mind, as well as my body.
This makes perfect sense. By reversing the curve, we create space in the ribcage. More space means easier breath, easier breath means less tension, less tension means a better ability to deal with whatever emotional states arise. No wonder I could release so much more than muscle.
Can chest openings change your upper back even if you’ve already settled into a curve?
Perhaps not all by themselves, but in a full yoga practice, yes, they can. By stretching some muscles and strengthening others you can make a permanent change in your posture.
On Thursday I’ll write more about a rigorous scientific study that found improvements in people with hyper-kyphosis after six months of an Iyengar yoga program – and the median age of the participants was 75.
This week’s Five-Minute Yoga challenge invites you to see what five minutes a day of chest opening might change in your life. If you already have a favorite setup, by all means use it. If you’re new to yoga, or don’t have many props, this chest opening with a rolled blanket (a rolled beach towel will do in a pinch) is a great place to start.
Roll a firm blanket into a tight roll, wide enough to support your back. Put a yoga block or other support for your head on the floor behind the blanket.
Sit down, knees bent, and roll back so your shoulder blades come to rest on the blanket. Your arms should rest on the floor, on the head side of the blanket, upper arms rolling from the inside to the outside, palms facing the ceiling.
With your shoulders firm on the blanket, slide back until your head reaches the support behind the blanket. You should feel that the blanket is gently tugging your shoulder blades away from your ears.
With your knees still bent, press your feet down and lift your pelvis an inch or so from the floor. Lengthen your tailbone toward your ankles without changing the position of your shoulders on the blanket. Bring your pelvis back to the floor and straighten your legs, one at a time.
Now bring your awareness to the centre of your chest.
As you inhale, expand your heart centre evenly in all directions. As you exhale, allow the weight of your body to release into the blanket and the floor.
If your head begins to feel pressed into the block, try removing the block. If it’s more comfortable, leave the block out. If it’s less comfortable, put it back in. Stay in the pose for five minutes, then bend your knees and roll to the right-hand side. Stay there for a breath or two, then press your left hand into the floor and look down as you sit up.
Move the blanket off your mat, lie back down with your knees bent. Allow your back to settle into the floor and return to neutral. Stay for a few breaths, then roll to the right and sit up.
Benefits: Most of what we do in a day – drive, use a computer, cook dinner – involves lifting our shoulders, rounding our upper backs and stretching our heads forward. Chest-opening poses give us a welcome chance to reverse the curve. They make more space for our lungs, bring our shoulders back into place, relieve upper back tension and softly stretch the front chest muscles.
Sequence: As a five-minute practice, a chest opening can easily stand on its own. You might round it out by moving into child’s pose, downward facing dog and back to child’s pose. In a longer practice, do your chest opening near the beginning, and enjoy your expanded chest in the rest of your practice.
Ouch: If your lower back pinches, bend your knees, bring your feet to the outer edges of the mat and let your knees drop together. If you feel hung up on the blanket, or uncomfortable, try moving an inch or two in the direction of your head.
Do chest openers play a large part in your practice? How would you describe what they’ve done for you? I’d love to hear the story of your practice.
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