Did you know that yoga is good for both of your hearts? I bet you never thought of yourself as having two, (I say it a little tongue-in-cheek) but I’m talking about not only the hardworking, blood-pumping organ in your chest, but also the emotional heart we refer to when we talk of love, compassion, heartache and heartbreak.
The capable hands of a surgeon can fix the heart organ, but the metaphysical heart can be a little trickier to mend. Yoga helps us to heal and strengthen the heart, in both the physical and the metaphysical sense.
The Science Behind Yoga
From a physiological standpoint, yoga helps decrease cardiovascular risk factors such as high cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood sugar levels. It supports regular heart rhythms, and improves the circulatory and respiratory systems.
Yoga strengthens and tones the muscles, and generally helps you maintain a healthy body weight. A regular practitioner will usually come into healthier eating habits as well, as they incorporate what they’ve learned about balance and body awareness on the mat into their everyday lives.
Yoga also helps relieve stress and anxiety, and we know that chronic stress wreaks havoc on the body. Making matters worse, in our attempt to de-stress we often engage in unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating junk food. These activities lead to high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and only numb the stress temporarily.
The Heart Chakra
On the emotional side, yoga supports a healthy, open heart. In life we go through many things: loss, heartbreak, betrayal- a wide array of emotional hurts. Over time, these experiences cause us to put up little walls around our hearts. We believe that if we can just protect our hearts behind these walls, that we will avoid getting hurt, so we slowly begin to close off, adding layer upon layer over our vulnerable hearts.
The heart chakra (one of the major energy centers in the body located at the center of the chest) then becomes closed.
The heart chakra is related to our ability to give and receive love. When it is closed or imbalanced, we find it difficult to feel love, compassion, grace, and peace. We may instead feel anger, grief, and bitterness. Additionally, this imbalance can manifest in a variety of physical ailments such as lung problems, breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and blood diseases.
Healing the Heart Through Yoga
If you have ever read about healing the body by healing the mind, you know that holding onto negative beliefs and thought patterns causes disease within the physical body. If we can address the emotional blockages, we can heal the body more effectively.
"The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart." ~Buddha
Back bending poses (actually referred to as “heart openers”) help you open and balance the heart chakra, and release tension and blocked emotions. Here are a few wonderful heart opening poses to incorporate into your practice:
Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
Begin on your knees with your legs hip-width apart. Place your palms on your sacrum. Without compressing your lower back, lean back into the support of your hands. If you have the mobility, move into the full pose by reaching your hands to your heels. Think about reaching the center of your chest toward the sky. Bring the hips forward to line up over the knees and reach the tailbone down. Keep the chin drawn toward the chest, or let the head hang back if it feels okay for your neck.
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 in Balasana (Child’s Pose).
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Lie face down with your legs straight out behind you. Un-tuck your toes. Place your hands on the floor, just under your shoulders, spreading your fingers, and hug your elbows to your ribs. Inhale and begin to straighten your arms (the elbows can stay bent). Stretch your heart forward and bring your torso up. Concentrate on firming your shoulder blades against your back and lifting your sternum so that there’s no compression in lower back.
Matsyasana (Fish Pose)
Begin on your back, legs extended, with your hands palms down, under your hips. Inhale and press into your elbows and forearms to arch your upper back and gently place the crown of your head on the floor (it’s okay if it doesn’t make contact). Be careful not to rest too much weight on the head. Remain in the pose for a few breaths. Release and hug your knees into your chest.
Camatkarasana (Wild Thing)
Begin in Downward Facing Dog. Inhale the right leg up, bend the knee and open the hip. As you transfer your weight into your left hand, and the pinky toe side of the left foot, continue to reach the right foot behind you until the ball of the foot comes to the earth. Lift your hips up and open the center of your chest toward the sky. Reach the right arm up and open the chest a little more, coming into a deep back bend. Stay here for a few breaths.
To transition out of the pose, engage the abdominals and gently make your way back into a Downward Facing Dog. Repeat on the other side.
*This is a more intermediate pose, and being a deep back bend, it is a good idea to warm the body with a few Sun Salutations and some mild backbends before attempting it.
Give these yoga poses a try, and feel the difference in both your heart and your heart chakra!