“All healing is first a healing of the heart.”– Carl Townsend
In the spring of 2016, I participated in my first Goenka Vipassana course. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular style of retreat, it involves 10 days of silent, seated meditation. We average 10 hours per day of sitting in silence, with breaks in between for rest, meals, and discourse. For all intents and purposes, it’s just sitting with your own mind for the almost two weeks. As you can imagine, a lot comes up.
The first three days, I sat with a lot of physical pain. This was a result of sitting for such extended periods of time. When the body finally gave up fighting the physical pain, emotional and mental tensions arose. I sat with heat, anger, frustration, irritability. I also experienced waves of deep internal peace, and joy. With this process also came purification.
The process of working through blocked energy, stored trauma, and long-held, health-compromising belief systems is called purification.
It can manifest in a number of ways. In this particular instance, it was both physical and mystical.
Halfway through the retreat while sitting with 80 other meditators in the main hall, I suddenly had to leave the room. I could feel a wave of grief surfacing in my chest, and what started as weeping gave way to choking sobs. I walked to my room, turned on the water at the sink, curled onto the bathroom floor, and bawled. There was no “why.” There were traces of reasons, but nothing with piercing clarity.
And it didn’t matter.
What’s so fascinating about this particular purification – this release of long-held grief in the emotional body – is that it showed up on my physical body. The next morning, I noticed a cluster of freckles on the center of my chest. They hadn’t been there before. They haven’t disappeared since then.
I like these freckles. Once in a while I look at them and reflect on what it felt like to allow my heart to crack open. I wear the evidence of that sweet surrender on my skin.
We have so many sayings about the heart. Follow your heart. Listen to your heart. The heart wants what it wants. What does your heart say? My heart just wasn’t in it. I love you with all of my heart. As a yogic healing and spiritual wellness specialist, much of my job involves sinking into the truth of these sayings and investigating how can we use the power of the heart to help you heal.
Physiologically, the heart is a brilliant organ that not only commands the circulatory system, but also plays a role in the nervous system, endocrine system, and virtually every physiological process. We’ve learned from recent studies that not only is the heart’s electromagnetic field larger than that of the brain, but the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain does to the heart.
To this degree, the heart has a significant impact when it comes to bodily processes. But it also has a say in processes that run much deeper than the physical body. As Deepak Chopra states in his latest book, The Healing Self, “Nothing fuses the whole-system effects of love and non-love like the human heart, which needs to be understood as more than a physical organ.” This understanding is the path of yogic healing.
So: if the heart is more than just a physical organ, then what is it?
What is the Heart?
In Tibetan Buddhism, going into the heart is known as a coming home. Ram Dass speaks extensively on the heart cave, hridayam, in his revolutionary texts about living presence. There is a reason why Sri Ramana Maharshi asked students to focus on “the center of the chest, a little bit to the right” in his self-inquiry meditation of asking, Who am I?
And non-dual Śaiva tantra scholar-practitioner Christopher Wallis illuminates the important distinction between the “heart” that is swayed by whims and the “Heart” that reveals itself as a deep pull towards creative expression. In the Tantrāloka, this Heart is referred to as prathibā, the highest faculty of consciousness itself.
The heart is mystical, magical, and can facilitate a healing process far beyond what the intellect can comprehend. It is through working with the heart that we can develop a flexible nervous system, compassionate awareness, ability to receive and give unconditional love, and embodied realization of reality.
When I work with clients, developing the heart is often at the core of the program. It is such a center-point for both physical and spiritual wellness. To not skillfully develop the heart would be missing the point of the yogic path of healing: that at the source, we are love itself. And developing an awareness of that– of who we really are –is the path to freedom from all suffering.
Blockages/Imbalances at the Heart Level
Heart blockages or imbalances can manifest differently for each of us. Some of the common associations are:
- Skin, lung, and breathing issues
- Tightness in the chest
- Rounded shoulders
- Rigidity in thinking
- Apathy, emotional numbness, lack of compassion
- Ability to receive (but not give) affection
- Ability to give (but not receive) affection
- Feeling lack of deep connection with others or oneself
- Feeling anxious or depressed
- Carelessness, the superficiality of feelings
- Challenge with acceptance, surrender, and trust
Please note that these are not in any way meant to diagnose medical or psychological issues. Nor are the following healing tips meant to be interpreted as prescriptions or treatment. The purpose of this article is to educate on what the yogic path of healing has to say about who we are as embodied beings, and how we can come into a more fulfilling experience of life and spiritual process.
3 Techniques to Healing your Heart
We have plenty of tools in the yoga toolbox to work with the heart: to learn its language, its nuances, and to nourish it with energy and attention. These include physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), meditation, and lifestyle activities. Here are three of the most fundamental techniques that you can incorporate into your life to start to walk the healing path through the heart.
1. Practice Bhujangasana 5 minutes per day, every day
Bhujangasana (the cobra pose) is one of the 12 fundamental poses of hatha yoga. Healing effects include toning of the adrenal glands (stress reduction), stretching and opening the chest, activating Anahata chakra, and a state of deep, internal calmness of the mind.
To practice, start by lying on your belly. Place the hands with palms face-down just in front of the shoulders. Press into the hands as the spine rises upwards, chest open. Optionally, allow the head to tilt back slightly and the corners of the mouth to lift. Focus attention on the center of the chest. Note that this can also be performed on the forearms, with elbows at right angles, if there is any tension in the low back.
2. Breathe rhythmically
Seriously– slow, rhythmic breathing through the nose has been proven to shift the electrical system of the heart into a state of coherence, resulting in nervous system balance, improved heart rate variability, psychological flexibility, and improved health over time.
To practice, sit relaxed with the spine straight, closing the eyes to focus on the area of the heart. Inhale through the nose to a count of 4, then exhale through the nose to a count of 4. Repeat 3-5 minutes daily. Alternately, heart rate coherence can be achieved by recalling a positive emotion– a time when you felt really good inside –and allowing that emotion to grow from the space of the heart.
3. Meditate in compassion
If I were to choose one meditation technique in the entire yogic healing toolbox to offer every single client, it would be compassion. Compassion meditation can change the map of the brain in as little as seven days: it helps in alleviating and preventing symptoms that go along with depression, decreases inflammation in the body, promotes altruistic action, and tunes us into the frequency of unconditional love.
To practice this technique, sit comfortably with the spine straight. Close your eyes, or let your gaze rest softly on a space some distance in front of you. Allowing your awareness to rest in the heart, soften into these 3 sentences, which you can repeat silently 3 times each: May I be free from pain and suffering, may I be free from distress and suffering, may I be happy, healthy, and live in peace.
The same process can be performed for someone else in your life you know to be suffering, or for this planet as a whole. The total time for beginners is about 5-10 minutes per day.
As we come to a close here, I leave you with these questions: what would it be like to let yourself crack open into a place of trust, surrender, flow, and unconditional love? What kind of healing would that bring to your body, and your life?
When we take small steps to facilitate purification and transformation– when we use both the spiritual and physiological intelligence of the body to create space for healing through the heart –that is when we sink into awareness. That’s when we are on the path of healing.