Yoga to Still the Head and Open the Heart

03/14/2013 09:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

by guest blogger Holly Walck, devoted Iyengar yoga student and teacher

I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and never traveled anywhere alone until I was 27 years old. My suitcase for that first trip was so enormous that it made an impression on my hosts. I remember clearly my friend's husband remarking, "Where do you think you've traveled to...India?" as he pulled the proverbial albatross up their staircase in Massachusetts.

Over the years, my travel horizon has widened considerably and my baggage has thinned down proportionally. Why did I pack so many unnecessary items in that bag? Because the "things" in that bag defined me, and I felt lost without them.

From years of daily yoga practice I have learned to be at home within myself, no matter where in the world I may be located. Specifically, yoga has taught me how, as my teacher Patricia Walden often says, to "bring the mind of the brain into its home at the seat of the heart" a place of perfect peace, brilliant clarity, and absolute joy.

What follows is a sequence designed to cultivate a profound stillness in the body and the mind and open the doorway to the heart. Go on, walk inside; it's a very nice place to visit and you can stay as long as you desire.

As my husband says regularly, "Every day with yoga is like a vacation."

1. Downward-facing Hero's Pose (Adho Mukha Virasana)

Kneel on the floor with the inside edges of your big toes touching, knees apart, buttocks down on your heels (if there is space between the buttocks and the heels, put a blanket between your calves and your thighs so your buttock bones are supported).

Exhale and extend forward and downward, taking your head onto the block or a blanket (or a chair, if needed). As you stretch your arms from your armpits to your fingertips, release your shoulder blades away from the back of your neck.

Self-study: What is the feeling in your abdomen? If it feels hard and contracted, work on the exhalations to lengthen the sternum forward and draw the back ribs away down towards the floor.

2. Mountain Pose (Tadasana, Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana)

Stand with your feet a few inches apart, spreading them broadly and lengthening the toes forward. Press down evenly on the toes, the balls of the feet, and the front and the backs of the heels.

Keeping the top of the buttocks moving away from your lower back, lift the sides of the waist, the chest, and the sternum up toward the ceiling.

Turn the upper part of the arms away from the sides of the chest, roll the shoulder blades onto the back and lengthen your neck and head away from the tops of the shoulders. This is Tadasana.

From Tadasana, keeping your shoulders pressing down, raise your arms out in front of you, keeping them fully extended and in line with your shoulders. Interlace the fingers, turn the palms away from your chest and re-straighten your arms. Now raise your arms the rest of the way overhead so that your palms now face the ceiling.

Exhale and lower the arms back to the halfway mark, change the interlacing of the fingers, and repeat. This is Urdhva Baddhanguliyasana.

Self-study: When you clasp your hands together and stretch your arms overhead it has an effect on your spine and your spinal muscles. Feel the difference between simple standing Mountain Pose and this variation.

3. Legs Spread Wide Apart Forward Extension (Prasarita Padottanasana)

From Tadasana, step your feet 4 to 4ᅡᄑ feet apart, keeping your feet facing forward, hands on your waist. On an exhalation, maintaining the length on the sides of your torso, extend forward from the waist and bring the spine parallel to the floor. Place your hands on the floor, keeping your arms straight and in line with your shoulders.

With an inhalation, press your feet down into the floor, and as you exhale, extend your trunk forwards and downwards toward the floor, bringing your head onto the floor (or a block or a chair, if needed).

Walk your hands back in line with your feet and bend your elbows so they point straight back toward the wall behind you. Keep your shoulders well lifted here.

Self-study: Taking your head down this way can bring up feelings of discomfort. Find the stability of your legs this way: Use your inhalations to press your feet firmly down into the floor and lift your knees and thighs up toward your hips. Use your exhalations to release your head farther down, letting the blood pool in the top of your skull.

4. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor. Press your feet and the tops of your shoulders down and raise the backs of your thighs, your buttocks, and your back ribs up and away from the floor. Place the block underneath your sacrum, vertically in line with your spine. (If placing the block this way causes pain in your lower back or sacrum, try turning the block sideways on the high side. If this doesn't help, switch the block onto the wide side.)

Now, one by one, extend your legs and take your heels onto the second block so that they are in line with your buttock bones. Turn your upper arms from the inside out, as you would in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) and press the backs of your upper arms down as you bring the bottom of your sternum closer to your face.

Self-study: The throat is the channel between the head and the heart. What does the center of your throat feel like in this pose? Is it tense? Are you clenching your jaw and pushing your tongue up onto the roof of your mouth? With your next exhalation, release your tongue from deep within the back of your throat, bringing it down onto the floor of your mouth. Keeping your lips together, unhinge your jaw ever so slightly and release the tops of your shoulders away from the sides of your neck. Make your throat channel open wider and wider.

5. Legs-Up-the-Wall (Viparita Karani)

Place a bolster or several folded blankets a few inches away from the wall. Sit sideways on the bolster, place your shoulder and the side of your head down on the floor, and roll over onto your back keeping your pelvis on the bolster and stretching your legs up the wall.

The supports beneath you should move your back ribs in toward your chest and move the bottom of your sternum closer to your face.

Self-study: Your heart is up higher than your head in this pose, just as it was in Bridge Pose. This places your thinking mind below your emotional center, the heart chakra (anahata chakra). How often in your daily life do you check in with your Self? Do you allow your heart to lead the way? After all...

You are what your deep, driving desire is.

As your desire is, so is your will.

As your will is, so is your deed.

As your deed is, so is your destiny.

--Briharadanyaka Upanishad, (IV 4-5); translation by Eknath Easwaran


Holly Walck is a devoted student of Iyengar Yoga and a Junior Intermediate Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Learn more at

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