This month, like many other people, I have been connecting to and focusing on the experience of the heart, in both its physical and metaphysical sense. In yoga, it is common to practice backbends because they “open the heart” but I wonder about this in many ways. Firstly, why do we want to “open the heart” (I even hate that language, heart openers like can openers! My experience doesn’t work that way)? Do we “open our hearts” freely, and should we? Or are there other qualities that need to be present before “heart opening” can happen?
In real life, for many of us allow our hearts to open, soften or give and receive with others requires a connection, safety and trust. Our natural defenses usually prevent us from opening up to experiences that might hurt us, each of us in varying degrees. And of course each of us has a different underlying feeling of safety in the world. So the idea that we might do some movements and just open our hearts is strange to me.
the heart as the physical metaphor
The purpose of “heart opening’ is to create a posture that is supported and lifted. Many people observe that postural traits seem to connect to our attitudes and presence in the world. It is difficult to say “I feel depressed” with your arms raised above your head. So the intention is to create a posture where the chest is lifted and open, (as opposed to curled into the back) which might create a more open way of being.
It is my feeling that the healthiest way to exist in the world is in a responsive state. This state is neither excessively open, nor blocked from experiences, connections, love energy, compassion and other heart associated energies. We may stray from that responsiveness for any number of reasons. Perhaps that could be a place to direct our attention and inquiry. Am I able to meet this situation with the appropriate level of openness and connection? When the answer is no, we might start to develop interventions through movement, healing work, connection and meditation that allows us to be more responsive. Some of those exercises might be movements that physically open the chest. But in order for them to work, they have to be done incrementally. For some people, strong exercises that open the heart can be aggressive and therefore create resistance.
So what does allow us to open up? For many it is the feeling of safety and support from a situation that allows us to relax, and open to it. And, if the body is a metaphor, then similar characteristics would allow us to move the heart forward. Similarly, if “openness” ceases to be our goal, and instead “responsiveness” is, then how does that change the line of inquiry and the movement imagery?
Some embodiments that create stability and support in the body which cultivate space to explore the expressions of the heart?
- Mobilization of the thoracic spine in flexion, extension and twisting
- Embodiment, feeling and strengthening the musculature of the back body
- Lengthening and releasing the abdominal muscle wall
- Stretching the diaphragm to facilitate deep breathing
- Tuning into the feelings of heart expansion, and heart retraction into the body, and enjoy both phases.
These ideas framed my classes this month and informed the language of the classes, the internal inquiry in the class, as well as the choreography, imagery and “how” of the movement sequences. Some of the qualities that we focused on cultivating were: safety, support, mobility, backing.
Moving from the back
There are many ways to explore these themes, and many come from a perspective of trying to “fix” how we practice – to stretch something, tighten something else to be in a “better” alignment. But to be honest, this is not the way I feel I get the most mobility, and pleasure, moving the upper spine. In a few classes, I worked with the imagery that the back was leading movement. An example of that is in a twist. The spinous processes and surface of the back was move in the opposite direction of the (front of) the twist. In back bends, the spinous processes move towards each other; during spinal flexion, space opens between these bones.
In this instance, awareness in the back body helps hone the attention to places where there is less mobility. At the same time it helps create a balancing effect. I notice in students, when we work with this kind of imagery, there is less pulling with arms, less forcing the body, and more flow into and through expression in poses.
Deepening awareness of the hearts many phases
The connection of the heart with breath is huge. There is literal movement of the heart, with each movement of the lungs and diaphragm, as well as changes in the heart rate (heart rate variability) that is related to phases of the breath. Again, for me, the heart is a physical metaphor for our emotional fluctuations. The heart moves forward and into the world, and retracts, or nestles back within each breath cycle.
When I learned about this heart movement, I felt like I was given permission for every texture of feeling in my own heart. We are not meant to walk around with our hearts forward all the time. Nor are we meant to shield our hearts, or keep them caved in. We are meant to be in active dialog with each moment of our existence, reading situations and allowing our systems to self-regulate accordingly. Perhaps when we are out of balance, or the system has become overwhelmed, we do need to teach our bodies different ways of being than what has become our default. I know this to be the value of yoga practice – to give the body postures that teach the body different ways of being.
At the same time, forcing the body, in any way, can create resistance. The body’s job is to maintain homeostasis. Interventions that take us too far from the ways that we habitually operate can actually be more detrimental than helpful. So we move slowly, and create softness, create acceptance, and allow the body to open or not, based on what feels safe, what feels possible and what feels good.
the heart movement in practice
Lately, I have been leading a meditation to connect to the movement of the heart. A number of students have shared that the idea that the heart phases in and out of projection and retraction has been a great relief. We can then follow different lines of inquiry in yoga and meditation. Which relationship to the world is more habitual for you? Is one more comfortable? Which are you inhabiting now? How dynamic is your interchange between the 2? Do you value one more than the other?
And then following from that, what is the medicine that your heart is calling for? Would you love to support your body to be more open and forward? Would you feel more comfortable and safe to allow deep retraction? Do you feel strong enough to support either phase? Both phases? And are their other phases to your own interaction with the world? Are there times when neither of these articulations rings true to your experience? How might you describe that experience?
Being true to your heart can be one of the keys to living life fully, honestly and beautifully. The deep acknowledgement of the phases of your own heart movement, as well as a witnessing and acceptance of your own experience in the moment can be a powerful way to remember how to listen, feel and be true to your heart through yoga practice.
I’d love to hear some of your experiences in the comments.