in yoga the heart is of central importance to practice and teaching and the heart cakra is the one most often heard referred to in classes. for me personally the heart as an anatomical structure, as well as its energetics, continue to be fascinating points of learning, exploration and teaching. i have felt drawn to the heart as an area of inquiry for the last 3 years or so beginning with a powerful awakening of sensation that happened initially in a brilliant practice lead by my dear, radiant friend and teacher, Patty Townsend. the feeling was of my heart waking up (specifically in the organ itself and more generally throughout my chest and body) and an immediate releasing of old, held emotions. i was able to be more open, vulnerable and honest than i had been, perhaps EVER... and heal some very old hurts. i immediately felt a sense of vitality begin to wash back into my body and experience. Oh wow. i said to myself, what the heck was that!? Thus began my inquiry..
anahata, अनाहत, is the cakra (energetic center) of the heart, which includes the organ of the heart but is so much more.. it is the place that we feel the swells of joy, the tug of desire, the pangs of longing and loss, the fluttering of excitement and anticipation..
anahata means unstruck, which refers, at least in part, to what the yogis call "the unstruck sound." interpretations abound, many very open to interpretation and play of metaphor. initially for me the name was curious, and some of said interpretations, elusive to say the least. "vedic sound of the celestial realm," "the sound made without any 2 things hitting each other," etc.. ultimately, when the inquiry took root root in me i began to see the poetry in these phrases, and the more i learned about and felt my own heart this coded language began to make so much sense..
the organ of the heart itself is an amazing structure. we are just beginning to confirm through science (which is just beginning to catch up to yoga!) many things we have already sensed in our own bodies at one time or another. the organ of the heart is beginning to be seen as much more than a muscular pump for blood. the electromagnetic activity of the heart not only gives off powerful resonance but also picks up the resonance of others around us. People really do die of broken hearts; overwhelming feelings of sadness alter the electromagnetic output of the heart and create irregularities that eventually, if not healed, lead to disease. empathetic touch and communication and prayer have all been shown to heal heart problems by virtue of healing the underlying emotions. and this is just the beginning of what we already know.
while in utero, the heart forms in a continuous spiral that even spirals around itself, forming caverns and chambers.. an interfolding structure. by nine weeks post-conception the primitive (meaning simple, not fully developed, but fully functional) heart begins to beat, signaling that new life has taken hold. this is before many women have even begun to feel, let alone look, pregnant.
some say the heart is the place that our vitality (our prana, our chi, our bodhicitta) retreats to when we suffer a threat.. in the same way that the vital energy of a plant retreats deep inside to wait out the cold winter months. the way it felt in my own experience was that the heart goes on lockdown! in times of extreme emotional shock or rupture our energy pulls back deep into the spiralic chambers, deep into our innermost core, for safe keeping... i envision a locked chest (think Davie Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean).. thus remaining "unstruck," until the time is right to begin to open again. when we are ready, when it becomes more useful to open than to continue to keep the lid tightly shut, and most importantly when it is safe, we can again expand our liveliness to the far reaches, the periphery of our body and beyond. perhaps this is what gives the open hearted that indescribable quality of radiance that is not only seen but felt...
anahata, unstruck, untouched, completely alive, radiant and full of potential, always.. no matter how seemly or actually shut down on the outside. remember, trees look dead to the eye in deep winter. how interesting that we have this reminder of the heart and all its virtues (february 14th) right at the most desperate part of the cold winter, where we feel we almost give up hope that sun and warmth will ever return. a reminder of what cannot be touched.
the element associated with anahata is air. yogis have talked about "the void at the heart of the heart" and that spaciousness can be experienced in so many ways.. numbness, anxiety, longing, sadness, depression, trust, joy, our greatest intelligence, radiance, lightness and... bliss.
all experiences of the heart are valid and encompass the range of our life experiences. and until we are ready the potential, our own potential, lies safely snuggled deep inside the heart, ready to be uncovered, rediscovered. a home coming waiting to happen.
the heart can be experienced not only at the front of the chest, but fully front to back and side to side. this is something to explore in your physical/breath practices. think of "heart opening" not only as back bending (which i prefer to call chest-opening) but also side and forward bending. in fact, my most potent experience of heart-opening was in that asana/meditation practice i referred to at the top of the post, and came in the form of a side bend. more recently, i've come more into the "back of my heart," which i've heard is where we hold onto other's judgements about us. i realized i was barely breathing into the back of my heart and that when i did it felt very stuck and sore! i haven't been able to name it yet myself but definitely some very rich excavations seem to be waiting here for me. in my experience, the area of the back heart feels deep and old and layered, like it's been hard and asleep for a long long time. it feels like a place that needs gentle consistent attention to loosen.. and lots of support.
another consideration in your physical practice could be softening your heart, in any pose, supported or active, letting your heart rest, but especially in your backbending.* it has been suggested, and i have felt, that we can notice, and perhaps decide not to bolster, that "lockdown." we can become mindful of hardening the heart by virtue of forcing or pushing the heart aggressively forward and "open," and like any other habit choose differently. of course, the idea of an open heart is very attractive, something we all long for. but what i've learned and felt in my own body is that aggressive "opening," especially in only one direction when dealing with a three dimensional body-space, can be counterproductive. ignoring the inclination and not giving the proper respect to the actual state of the heart may cause it to lock down even more tightly.
we must also be prescient that we might not know what's held, in our students,' or even in our own hearts. and we must have proper support to heal what needs healing when it comes up. years of practice tells me balance and gentleness are what's called for. It makes me sad to hear from many people they don't do yoga because it makes them angry. my experience tells me that this is a result of imbalanced practices with a proclivity towards "heart opening" being offered in studio classes and students walking away with a lack of means to process what this stirs up. anger is always a manifestation of our more protective parts stepping up to shield our more vulnerable parts. bringing our awareness to the heart space and "letting it rest" in any asana, as well as breathing into that back heart space can help avoid this. if we can begin to read the signals of our heart space we can start to tailor our practice to suit the needs of our own hearts.
a very simple and gentle way to explore anahata:
turn off your phone!
in a calm, darkened, quiet space lie in savasana or supta badhakonasana, fully supported in the way you love best. cover the eyes. place the hands on the center of the chest with the right over the left. take 3-5 big breaths in through the nose, expanding the full perifery of the chest (front to back, side to side, from way up under the collarbones down to the full circumference of the breathing diaphragm) and let them ease out of your open mouth, perhaps with a sigh.
do a body scan and notice the places holding tension. just feel each of them for a few moments while you engage a soft, fluid uddjayi breath. be sure to check in with your shoulders, jaw, eyes, hips and belly as these are common places to grip.
then move your attention back to your chest and feel the touch of your own hands onto and into your own skin and chest cavity. soften the hands, skin, fingers, wrists and begin to notice the warmth of your own touch, the weight. feel the chest below your hands and soften into the tissues there, feeling that warmth, weight, touch move deeper, through the skin, ribs and into the space of the organs of heart and lungs. imagine or feel that the heart can rest, allow it to settle back into gravity and see it nestle there between the lungs, gently massaged and rocked by the movement of your soft uddjayi breath. take some time to notice what you notice here. start with the obvious.. the sensations of the heart beating, the rhythm of the breath, any tightness or restriction. then as you settle begin to notice the more subtle physical or emotional sensations (and yes, numbness or lack of feeling IS a sensation in and of itself). as i said before you may find anxiety here. you may find any number of pesky feelings. you may find spacious, luminous bliss. whatever you find and wherever you are in this exploration try to leave judgement by the wayside for a while and just hold steady for whatever comes up. continue to notice, to listen, to breath and to soften. you may find that memories or images come up or a word or phrase. trust whatever comes up to be important and worthy of attention even if it makes no (conscious) sense to you in the moment. explore this for as long as is interesting or useful to you.
when you feel it's time to move on spend a few minutes breathing in through the nose and humming through soft, closed lips on exhale. keep the eyes, inner mouth and chest area soft while you practice this and focus on the sensation of the vibration in and around the energetic heart center (ie chest), especially wherever you noticed sensations in the previous exploration. let the quality of the sound be your only marker.. make the sound warm and sweet like the gentle buzzing of bees. when you feel done with this just rest for a couple more minutes feeling the residue of those reverberations in your body and especially around the heart. consider ending the practice by saying these words to yourself internally:
may i be happy.
may i be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
may i respond to my own suffering with compassion and care.
note any resistance that comes up for you, again, without judgement. take a few long deep breathes in through the nose, exhaling through the mouth, perhaps with a sigh that releases anything that you need to begin to let go of. when you're ready, remove your eye covering and roll to your left side. curl your knees towards your face and your face towards your knees and rest here until you are ready to press your way up to seated. bring your hands to your heart and bow to whatever you have experienced here, delightful or wretched, clear or confused, to seal your practice.
i suggest taking a moment here to write down any words, thoughts, images that came up during the practice or come to you now without thinking about it too much. let the rightbrain lead here, you don't have to understand.
the qualities we cultivate when we work with anahata are trust, compassion, self-acceptance, spacious clarity, lightness, openness and truth.. to name a few!
to explore these ideas more in depth and put them into our practice i will be offering a 2 hr class on embodying the heart in practice.
Om Gate Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.
"gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, awakened mind, so be it."
(Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya, heart sutra)
* credit for the concept of softening/resting the heart goes to Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen of Bodymind Centering, as taught to me through the practice of Embodyoga, by Patty Townsend.
copyright lakota sandoe 2013