Originally published in Lion’s Roar on September 29, 2017
Yoga teacher Cyndi Lee offers a set of movements that open the heart, helping to foster a connection to yourself and the world around you.
The summer before my marriage broke up, I cried a lot in yoga class. It didn’t happen until we lay down for final relaxation. Then tears would pour out of the sides of my eyes. It was almost as though I wasn’t crying, but leaking, and it happened every day for the whole summer.
Somehow the release of toxins in my muscles and organs during the class also released emotions in my heart and mind. Motion led to emotion. Before the class I had been stuck and yoga unstuck me. It took me on a journey back to myself, and as I embodied my sadness more and more, it began to travel through me and by the end of the summer, I felt clean, balanced and brave enough to make the necessary changes in my life.
Even though it was painful, my summer of being heartbroken was better than having no heart at all. To experience the movement of our heart, even if it involves sadness or fear or anger, is how we know we are alive. It is when we don’t experience the circulation of emotions that we get depressed and then get stuck there.
“Your shoulders, arms, neck and ribs can either be a restrictive cage for your heart or an undulating, comforting protector.”
The first way to work with this is on the physical level. People know this intuitively, which is why, of all the workshops I conduct around the world, the Heart Opener workshops tend to fill up quickest. I find that so moving, because I feel sure that the people who sign up for those workshops are already open-hearted. However, their supporting anatomy may be tight or weak, making it difficult to feel the physical movement that enables the emotional journey to deepen.
Try this: Sit up tall and take a deep breath in and out. Then slouch—tuck your tailbone under and curve your shoulders forward. Now try to breathe deeply. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible, and the effort is soon disheartening. As your spine droops, your head drops, and your spirit sinks. You can’t see the sky or meet the world head-on.
Moreover, the anatomical function of the heart is compromised. It cannot easily receive deoxygenated blood from the veins nor easily pump blood into the lungs, where it gets oxygenated. Why not? Because the functions of the heart and lungs are intimately related and we simply cannot inhale enough air when the cardiovascular department is compressed. This inability to take in oxygen is a subtle form of suffocation and leads to weak “life prana,” or life force, which, according to Ayurvedic medicine, resides in our heart.
The Sanskrit word for heart is hridayam, meaning “that which receives, gives and circulates.” We can increase this process of giving, receiving and circulating by strengthening the supportive and protective anatomy around our heart and extending the range of motion in those areas. That includes our arms, ribcage, shoulders, neck, upper back and chest.
Let’s try the following vinyasa, or flowing sequence of movements. It will deepen your awareness of these areas and allow your life prana to flow without obstruction. Work gently, mindfully, and rhythmically. I have included breathing guidelines, but it’s fine if you wish to stay in each position for longer than one breath.