Today is Valentine’s Day and while Hallmark is busy making beaucoup bucks on cards that point to some of the “mushier” (more transient) sentiments that are known to come along with romantic love a large portion of humanity is trying to find the courage to stay loving. As a practicing yogi I’m aware that the philosophy of yoga points to the starting and ending point of awareness (mine and all other sentient beings) as being one of love and yet, in practice I bump into a bunch of other emotions along the way that are less fuzzy and fun.
And yet, when I can do the consistent, sweet work of keeping an open heart I am often rewarded with less agitation and more connection AND I find that making the connection is easier and has more depth and meaning. But how? How do you do this “sweet” work? Yoga is one of the richest tools for this as the physical practice provides an immediate point of access to feeling our way into and through the impediments to living in love. No surprise when I say bring on the backbends!
Long ago – at the start of my journey into bodywork and yoga – my interest was piqued by this concept of the internal storage of emotion. I learned our body stores memories through feelings and lines of tension just as our mind stores thoughts and imagery about those events and their associated feelings. Our body remembers the events of our past – no doubt about it!
Dr. Candace Pert, a neuropharmacologist from NIH and Georgetown University Medical Center, explained her research on how our physical bodies are changed by the emotions we experience:
“A feeling sparked in our mind-or body-will translate as a peptide being released somewhere. [Organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands], they all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means the emotional memory is stored in many places in the body, not just or even primarily, in the brain. You can access emotional memory anywhere in the peptide/receptor network, in any number of ways. I think unexpressed emotions are literally lodged in the body. The real true emotions that need to be expressed are in the body, trying to move up and be expressed and thereby integrated, made whole, and healed.”
Dr. Monica Gauci, a certified Yoga Therapist; Doctor of Chiropractic; and Certified Applied Kinesiologis talso stated in her publication “Opening the Heart” in 2013, that both Traditional Chinese Medicine and modern healing arts such as Applied Kinesiology work with the notion that various emotions tend to be stored in specific organs and their corresponding muscles.
And if you have ever held a Camel pose in class and wondered why it was so difficult to breathe through it or lifted up into Wheel and could only think of how broken you feel at this moment then you are stepping into the physical and emotional realm of a heart opener. And while it’s not a ton of fun to feel these emotions, feeling them is the beginning to changing them and then to top it off there are also significant health benefits.
- Spine Health
These yoga postures help to expand your thoracic cavity, open up your diaphragm, and expand the floor of this cavity which separates your lungs and heart from the organs below. A lack of movement and expansion in this physical space will, overtime result in lower back and neck pain from the cervical and lumbar regions overcompensating for the lack of movement in your mid back.
2. Flexible Rib Cage
Expanding your heart space essentially allows your ribs to stretch out as well. Another method would be Pranayama breathing techniques that work to fully expand your lungs but that’s for another time…A flexible rib cage allows increased blood flow to the heart and the ability to breath deeper, taking in more air at a time. Who wouldn’t benefit for a deeper, richer breath? In fact, pause now and take a big breath…it does your body good!
3. Experience Better Breathing
Expanding your rib cage and improving the flexibility of your lungs ensures more air with each inhale and exhale. Longer, deeper breaths help your practice but it also aids with decreased anxiety, improved sleep quality, energy levels, and digestion. Your breath is everything it is, literally, your life force.
4. Improve Heart Chakra Health
The Heart Chakra, or Anahata chakra, symbolizes the source for compassion and love for yourself and others. “The ancient scripture the Mahanirvana Tantra allocates specific negative emotions to individual petals of the heart chakra. Opening the heart chakra unblocks stuck energy helping to heal our emotional and psychological wounds. – Dr. Monica Gauci’s “Opening The Heart” published April 8, 2013.
5. Clean Out Old Emotions
“Emotionally, it is the nutrients of acceptance, trust, and forgiveness that enable us to digest, assimilate and detoxify the hurts we harbor in our hearts.” – Dr. Monica Gauci Wisdom traditions point to us as having three distinct hearts. There is our physical heart, our emotional heart, and our spiritual heart. We remove pain and suffering from being stored in our hearts when our innermost heart is unveiled to ourselves. Opening the heart is more than a deep thoracic cavity stretch, the pressure we feel in our heart’s space also draws attention to all three hearts, revealing a clear picture of what’s really beneath the surface. Our mind connects with the thoughts that surface from this release, and our exhale sends old emotions away.
Shoulder tightness, hunching forward, and extending our neck out of line with our spine are all resulting issues from bad posture. Human beings tend to round their shoulders and body forward or inward in order to protect their heart when carrying internal wounds. Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” points to how this bad posture, even without internal wounds sends the signal to the body to feel depressed, less confident, and less happy. Backbends, or heart openers, counteract the effects of bad posture and can improve one’s mood.
7. Create Anatomical Balance
We forward fold more than any other body movement. If you think about creating that balance, our own yin and yang to the body, backbends present our body with the alternative movement to counteract the effects of one-sided mobility. By keeping a harmonized practice, you’ll ensure balance on and off the mat.
8. Can Be Done Anywhere, Anytime
You totally have the option to break out a low lunge in the office or in Publix while grocery shopping – be our guest, and send us some photos while you are at it – but heart openers are one of the easier postures to break out without catching a ton of weird looks.Whether you use a doorway to open your shoulders, or take Puppy Dog pose up against a wall, you can find a good deep, heart-opening stretch anywhere and anytime.
9. Give & Feel More Love
When the heart, and the heart’s space, is open, we can literally feel more love. In response to being more open to receiving love, naturally we are also more able to share this feeling with others.
10. Because It Feels Good
That euphoric feeling you have after leaving an intense yoga class, where nothing negative really matters as much as it used to and you almost feel dizzy with easiness. I personally blame heart openers and backbends. Exercise generally releases endorphins within the body, but yoga specifically has another more powerful effect on the mind and spirit.
In most every yoga class, there are backbends. These heart openers are one of the many good reasons why we should keep our practice!! Join us on the mat and make way for a huge heart.