Some years ago, in a yoga class taught by B.K.S. Iyengar, he was quoted as saying, “If you open your armpits, you’ll never get depressed.”
In an era where the World Health Organization estimates depression will be the #1 global health issue by 2030, we need to lift up our arms and welcome this wisdom. What Iyengar’s comment alludes to is this — by merely lifting our arms, thereby opening our armpits, we open our chest cavity and heart space. The subsequent release of tension and tightness in this area lifts our spirits proving that what we do with our body impacts our mind (and vice versa). In this week’s poses, we use side bends to create this experience of freeing the rib cage and enhancing our mental state.
Restriction in our ribcage often comes about from slouching and sitting, both of which shorten the very small intercostal muscles that connect one rib to another. When these muscles shorten, our ability to breathe into and fully expand our lungs is hampered leaving the upper one-third of our lungs without oxygen. If this pattern extends over time, our breath shortens becoming shallower and faster, which is the breath pattern typical of those suffering from anxiety. Again, we are reminded body, mood and breath are all connected.
Side bending, as illustrated in the poses below, opens and strengthens the intercostal muscles creating space for the breath to feed the lungs and heart. When our breath is allowed to flow freely throughout our chest cavity, it ultimately improves our posture as well as our mood. With regular side-bending, the opening in the chest, hip and armpit regions not only strengthens and lengthens muscles but detoxes our organic system.
To experience the sweet sighs of relief side-bending can bring and to ready yourself for back-bending, complete the yoga action in the three poses below.
Action: Stretch open the side rib cage and breathe fully into the lung on that side. For more advanced practitioners, move your awareness of the side-bending stretch to that side of the spine and feel the vertebrae opening.
TADASANA with side bend (Mountain Pose)
Stand tall with your feet pointing forward. Place your left hand on your hip, inhale and lift your right arm toward the ceiling. Pressing equally into both feet, exhale and bend to the right side. Breathe into your right lung for three to five breaths, then inhale and return to standing upright. Repeat on the other side.
UTTHITA HASTA PADANGUSTHASANA II side bend (Standing Hamstring Stretch II)
Stand with your right side facing the chair. Place your right foot on the chair seat or back. Ensure your leg is comfortably straight with your toes and knee pointing toward the ceiling. Inhale and lift your left arm up. Exhale and bend to the right side. Breathe into your left lung for three to five breaths, then inhale and come back to upright. Step your foot down and repeat on the other side.
PARIVRTTA JANU SIRSASANA (Revolved Head-to-Knee pose)
Sit with your left leg extended under the chair. Bend your right knee and place your foot along the inside of your left thigh. Move your right knee and hip away from the chair as much as possible without changing your left leg. Inhale and lift your right arm up, exhale and bend to the left. Rest your head on the chair seat (add more height if required). Bring your right arm over your head to reach the chair back. Breathe into your right lung for five to 10 breaths, then inhale and come upright. Repeat on the other side.
Winnipeggers Helen Maupin (www.righttojoy.com) and Candace Propp (www.natureofcontentment.com) are authors of the Creating Space: Yoga Actions book series. To discover more actions for healthy lungs and spine, see Creating Space: Yoga Actions for Torso & Spine available in print or e-book. Candace and Helen are certified teachers through Yoga Centre Winnipeg. To sign up for their yoga actions teacher training program go to www.sereneyogastudio.com.