by: Kat Bower, DPT
Have you ever been in a Pilates class, working on the most beautiful back extension and you hear your teacher give the cue to “lift and open your heart space” or “to shine your heart forward.” I have, and for a while I would think about squeezing my shoulder blades a little tighter together, because I thought “well this will open the front of my chest a little more.” But over the years as I have worked with more bodies this cue has taken on a new meaning, one that brings a little more length to my spine, relaxes my neck and shoulders and allows my upper spine to fully lengthen into that beautiful upper back extension that we are all working to achieve.
The spine is composed of 26 vertebrae that are all designed to glide on one another, the 14 thoracic vertebrae have the ribs which attach onto each side giving protection to our heart and lungs. We also have the two scapula (also called the shoulder blades) that sit on our back, and connect into the rib cage at the sternum. While squeezing your shoulder blades together on your back will make it look like you are opening your heart it really draws the collar bones back against the upper ribs, over activates the muscles in between the shoulder blades, and can lead to a jamming feeling in the shoulders. More often than not when someone tightly squeezes their shoulder blades together during an extension exercise like swan it causes the neck to shift forward creating tension and actually limits the amount of spinal extension someone can find. Lots of things that we are trying to avoid!
So let’s break down this cue of “opening our hearts” using the exercise prone back extension into swan. Begin by lying on your stomach with the palms of the hands on the floor by your low ribs. Next give a gentle lift to the head so that your ears come in line with the side of your shoulder while maintaining your gaze towards the floor. Feel that the shoulder blades give a gentle glide down your back towards your back pockets. As you find your next exhale, begin to lengthen through your spine and extend through the upper back allowing the front of the rib cage to rise away from the floor. I want you to feel that the low ribs are keeping you anchored into the floor and the upper ribs and sternum are able to open in the front as though you were opening a fan. At this point you should feel that the arms and neck are still relaxed, and are following the motion of the rib cage. You have now achieved that radiating feeling of “lifting and opening your heart space.” If you want to take this one step further, maintain the length in the upper back and begin to press through the arms, allow the pelvis to lift off the mat with you until you have achieved the full swan position. While in the full swan position you should feel that the hands are stacked close to the shoulder, allowing for the head, neck and shoulders to stay relatively relaxed and the front of the body should be providing you support so that you are not dropping or pinching into your low back. To end this exercise, reverse the steps until you have returned to your starting position.
Now that you have mastered the art of “lifting and opening your heart space” in swan see if you can apply it to other exercises like chest expansion, and breaststroke or even during a non extension based exercises like teaser, long stretch and hug a tree. We look forward to seeing you in a class this month and watching you master this new skill.