Yoga for an Open HeartJan 31, 2020 09:30AM ● By Sheila Ewers
“There is a place in the heart where everything meets. Go there if you want to find me. Mind, senses, soul, eternity, all are there. Are you there?”
— Radiance Sutras, Lorin Roche, Ph.D.
Has your yoga teacher ever asked you to “open your heart”? If you take yoga classes long enough, the phrase will find its way to you. But what does it mean?
Yoga teachings view the body as a vehicle for deepening awareness and spiritual energy with the heart at the center. Located in the middle of the seven chakras, the heart chakra, anahata, bridges all that is physical with all that is spiritual. When we open the terrain of the heart through yoga, we open spiritually and energetically, inviting compassion, empathy and love to grow ever more expansive. We increase our capacity to give and receive love without condition.
The word “anahata” means “unstruck,” and, like many Sanskrit words, its definition relates to sound. Anahata nad refers to the sound of the celestial realm, the unstruck sound, or the beat of a drum that needs no drummer. The ancients taught that a healthy heart chakra carries its own beat and conveys the pure vibration of consciousness itself to those who attune the body and mind. Like the unstruck sound, the heart has no need for an external impulse.
While sages and saints have understood the powerful energy of the heart for thousands of years, modern science has only recently begun to understand its impact on overall wellness. The Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Colorado has studied the influence of the heart on the brain and body since 1991. According to their findings, the human heart is thousands of times more powerful and influential than the brain in sending signals to the rest of the body. It communicates using hormones, the nervous system, and an electromagnetic field that can radiate up to 15 feet beyond the body. Coherence in the heart, indicated by measurable factors such as heart rate variability, is correlated with increases in satisfaction, appreciation, gratitude and empathy.
As modern medicine learns to measure a healthy physical and emotional heart, Buddhism has long identified four spiritual aspects of a loving heart. The Brahma Viharas include lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity. When these qualities are strong, it is easier to keep love at the forefront of one’s experience, no matter how challenging it is. With lovingkindness in the heart, we learn how to maintain goodwill for those who are hostile, to have compassion for those who are suffering, to experience unselfish joy when celebrating others and to feel an equanimous love for those we cannot help.
Tools to Cultivate an Open Heart
The Brahma Viharas become more stable when one commits to opening the heart through the yoga tools of pranayama, asana, chanting and meditation.
Pranayama: Pranayama, or conscious breathwork, can improve mobility in the rib cage, stretch the soft tissues and muscles that mobilize the thoracic cavity and open the heart space from the inside out. When one is stressed or frightened, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system and creates shallow, erratic breathing patterns in the body that constrict the muscles of the ribs and abdomen and limit the mobility of the diaphragm. The deep, diaphragmatic breath of Dirgha Pranayama can reverse these holding patterns and create a more open and receptive landscape in the heart center.
Practicing Dirgha Pranayama
Sit with your spine erect or lie down on your back. Begin taking long, slow, deep breaths through your nose.
As you inhale, breathe deeply into your lower lungs expanding the belly, broaden through the rib cage as you encourage the breath into the mid-chest, then draw the breath into the upper chest and collar bones. As you exhale, feel a descending energy, and allow your belly to deflate, drawing the naval gently toward the spine. Repeat several times, keeping your breath smooth and relaxed, without strain.
Asana: Any pose in yoga that creates greater space and mobility in the chest and ribs can
fortify the terrain for an open heart and balance anahata. Our modern lifestyles keep us hunching over computers, steering wheels and desks most of the day, collapsing the chest and hardening the space between the shoulder blades behind the heart. This keeps the heart barricaded and physically withdrawn from the world around us. Add to that the inevitable heartbreak, betrayal and grief that most of us experience, and the heart can become habitually guarded. Heart-opening poses can teach us how to balance vulnerability with equanimity, soften physical tension in the muscles around the heart and release blocked emotions.
Practicing Camel Pose
Begin on your knees with your legs hips-width apart. Place your palms on your sacrum. Without compressing your lower back, lean into the support of your hands. If you have the mobility, move into the full pose by reaching your hands to your heels. Reach the center of your chest toward the sky. Bring the hips forward to line up over the knees and reach the tailbone down. Keep length through the front and back of the neck to avoid compression in the cervical spine.Remain in the pose for a few deep breaths. Release by engaging through your abdominals to bring your body gently back to a kneeling position, then sit back on the heels for a few breaths until the sensation dissolves.
Chanting: The vocal cords are connected to the vagus nerve and the muscles at the back of the throat. Singing, humming, and chanting can activate these muscles and stimulate one’s vagus nerve, which in turn activates the relaxation response in the body and increases optimal heart-rate variability. Ancient yoga texts teach that each chakra has a “seed sound” that encapsulates the entire essence of the chakra. The sound for anahata is “yam.” Chanting “yam” works like a tuning fork resonating the heart to its optimal vibration.
To practice, sit tall with a long, straight spine and broad collar bones. Bring awareness to the heart center and close or soften the eyes. Chant the sound “yam” to vibrate awareness through the chest and throat. Traditionally, practitioners repeat the chant for 108 rounds, but even a few moments can create a powerful shift in sensation and awareness.
Meditation: Imbalances in the emotional energy of the heart often stem from attachment to past grievances, old stories and fractured relationships. Meditation can strengthen the witnessing faculty of the mind to see beneath the surface and into the inner realm that remains intact and “unstruck” no matter our experience. Metta Meditation is a lovingkindness meditation that can create a boundless feeling of infinite lovingkindness directed towards oneself and others.
Practicing Metta Meditation: Sit comfortably and bring awareness to the breath, allowing it to find a natural, easy rhythm. Call to mind all that you know and understand about yourself, physically, emotionally and spiritually and say the following words to yourself, taking time to feel an outpouring of warmth and goodwill:
May you be happy and free from suffering.
May you be healthy in mind and body.
May your path unfold with ease and grace.
Next, imagine someone you care about and call to mind all that you know and understand about them. Repeat the words above. Continue to broaden your awareness, offering Metta to each person or group of people as they come to mind. Challenge yourself to extend that awareness even to those with whom you have conflict or difficulty. Notice any feelings that arise through the practice without rejecting or judging any of them. Over time, feelings of warmth and compassion will begin to overcome any resistance that appears.
Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads yoga and yoga teacher training classes and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published online in Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach her at [email protected].