Embodying the Heart
In Part One, The Meaning of Anahata, I wrote about the energy of the heart center, the compassion and love that it exemplifies and gave simple breath-focused meditation exercises to help you turn towards the sweetness within. Here in Part Two, I’d like to offer a few body practices to further your journey toward Anahata.
That backbending postures open the heart is a familiar concept to most yogis. Physically a backbend straightens the thoracic spine, it does not move into an opposite arch, but the significance of even a few degrees gives a delicious expansive feeling to the front body. To do this the muscles that run along the spine must engage, so in stretching the front of the heart, the back of the heart is engaged as well.
I like to think of this as being how my emotional past experiences (back body) have strengthened me so that I can be as aware in the present as I can (central spine), and move forward into the future (front body) without forgetting the lessons I have learned. On my refrigerator is a magnet with an Esther Dyson quote to remind me of this:
Always make new mistakes
Most of us must admit that at least a few of our lessons have been paid for with some shade of heartache: loss, grief, pain, fear, or unhealthy attachment. Healing those same occurrences has likely been assisted with positive qualities of friendship, loyalty, trust, kindness, and love offered without expectation.
When you take one of the backbends described below, inhale the shared breath of the world, allow yourself to breathe in the delight and wonder of relationship in all its life-affirming forms. As you exhale, releasing your own loving-kindness and light to the world, and further the healing by allowing Mother Earth to take any residual stress or strain you may still be carrying from old events.
Extending your natural breath will increase the sensitivity and ability to feel the qualities of both the inhale and exhale. It will also expand the pause between the movements of breath in and out, the kumbhaka. The gift in this is that the opportunity to exist in the present moment arises in the space between the activity of breathing. It is when Patanjali’s statement of yoga’s essential action occurs:
yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind
Kumbhaka is the Sanskrit word for the place where most of us will experience the cessation of our wild mental waves. These spaces are where the mind is most naturally still, accessible for even those of us not deeply established in meditation. Usually translated as ‘breath retention’, these pauses are a fabulous natural moment that often go overlooked in our daily breathing.
The ‘full container’ that is antara kumbhaka, the pause in fullness after inhale, is when you are likely to feel prana, the yogic life-force, swirl in glee through your form. The bahya kumbhaka, the gentle quiet after exhale in which absence of nonessentials creates peace, is the ideal time to try on how it feels to live without carrying all your past injuries.
As you play with both your breath and the poses, continue cultivating the heart chakra qualities: be gentle, kind, and friendly with your body; soften and receive what is so in body, breath, mind, and heart. If you feel overwhelmed, come down, move out of the pose, and listen to what you need. Reach out if you need, but certainly, reach in as well.
I find now that I live so far from family and the dear friends who lovingly held the space for the painful growth of my 20s that along with my newer friends and supportive partner, the lotus of my own heart is an always-open refuge. My wish is that you too may discover your own inner sanctum and dwell there in nurturing joy when the need occurs.
Salamba Setu Bandhasana | Supported Bridge Pose
Taking this backbend offers a gentle asana that allows you to feel the loving support of the Earth while increasing breath capacity and connection. A yoga block is the easiest support to use but a bolster, firm narrow pillows, or a folded blanket, are also useful. Please remember that it is not the height of this pose that will bring greatest effect, it is the time spent in it. So don’t worry about having the highest block position, or the biggest stack of pillows – have enough support material nearby that you can subtract or add as needed to find the point of ‘just right’ and enjoy rather than ‘do’ the posture.
Bring your support prop with you to your mat. Lie on your back, knees bent to the ceiling, feet hip distance apart and just in front of your sit bones. Move your shoulder blades down the back to create a sense of spaciousness around the neck. On an inhale, lift your hips to the sky, pressing the feet into the earth and feeling the weight roll up towards the upper back and shoulders. Maintaining the effort of the lift, use your arms to pull your prop underneath your sacrum. Release the leg strength that lifted you and melt your body onto the prop, feeling that the earth has moved up to hold you.
It is important to place your support under the low back and pelvis rather than the lumbar spine – your lumbar spine needs to gentle arch into the backbend, the support assists this by taking the effort out of lifting up and lengthens the low back so that the vertebrae have space to move into a comfortable but full curve. Finding the perfect spot for the support may take a few breaths, but once you’ve found it you’ll remain steady and still for an extended amount of time, 5-15 minutes being absolutely lovely.
To increase the heart opening of the pose you have only to reach the arms up alongside your head, letting the elbows bend so that no part of the limb floats above the earth. As long as the space around the neck is maintained you may do whatever feels best with the arms, altering them whenever the need arises.
This pose will increase breath capacity, mobilize the spine, soothe the nervous system and reduce blood pressure. Contraindications include glaucoma, low blood pressure and neck injury.
Virabhadrasana I | Warrior I with Archer Arms
Whereas Supported Bridge Pose encourages a feeling of connection and expansion from a place of stability, this Warrior variation cultivates the courage and strength to be fully open with love and to love. Though Virabhadrasana I can be practiced with a neutral spine, this is one of many arm adaptations that emphasize the natural affinity for backbending of the posture. In almost all systems backbending is accompanied by an inhale, taking the body further into the inherent movement pattern and adding more depth to both breath and position.
- Practice Cat/Cow a few breaths
- Enjoy several rounds of this mini-vinyasa:
- Tabletop on inhale
- Downward Dog on exhale
- Tabletop on inhale
- Childs Pose on exhale
- After the flow, stay in Downward Dog, feeling the in-breath opening the front of the body, from the hip bones all the way to the wrists
- walk your feet to your hands for a Standing Forward Bend, clasping the hands behind the back if possible and reaching them away from the low back.
- When you feel sufficiently present and aware of your breath, release the hands and come slowly to standing.
A strap or belt may be useful, so ensure that it is near your mat, and if you do need it, placing it around the neck can be helpful.
Standing with feet hip distance apart, bring your hands together in the Namaste Mudra and close your eyes. Let the thumbs press into the center of your chest, moving your awareness towards your heart. Feel the left hand press to the right, and right hand press to the left, drawing to the center of both your physical and energy body. If you are moved to make a dedication or prayer, do so; then open your eyes and bring that bhava, ‘devotional state of mind’, into your body as you work in Virabhadrasana.
Step your left foot back about 3-4 feet. The feet should be hip distance apart; if you feel at all unsteady, widen your stance so that the feet are further apart from an imaginary line drawn lengthwise down the mat, creating a wider base of support. The right foot will face straight ahead but allow the left foot to spin so that the toes angle away from the body slightly, keeping both hips facing the direction of the right foot. With hands on your hips, bend the right knee, the goal is to stack the knee atop the ankle and be able to view the big and second toe while the left foot remains rooted to the earth. If the heel of the left foot lifts up, shorten your feet distance lengthwise; if there is no stretch to the left leg try edging the right foot further forward without sacrificing the contact of left heel to floor. Once you have the feet set, straighten the spine and release the hands by your sides.
First, to introduce the active backbending of Virabhadrasana to the body we will flow in and out, synchronized with the breath. On inhale, bend the right knee and sweep the arms forward, up and in line with your ears, keeping the shoulders moving down the back; exhale as you straighten the leg and release the arms back down. Repeat this flow five times, sensing the breath initiating movement. Inhale to move into the pose again and stay. Breathing in and out easily, notice how the chest responds to inhalation by become buoyant and deepening the arch of the spine.
Moving towards the full pose, bend the left arm behind your head. First place the right hand on the left elbow and gently add some pressure to the stretch. If this is intense and your breath begins to shorten or show any signs of strain, soften the right hand pressure and remain here. If the breath and left arm feel easy, progress into the archer arm variation: leaving the left elbow bent and the hand sliding down the back of the head and spine, move the right arm behind the back and bend the elbow, letting the back of the hand begin moving up the spine towards the left. Not everyone will be able to clasp hands behind the back, if this is so for you, take the strap or belt in your left hand and have the right hand hold that. All variations can work further by slightly tucking the chin and pressing the back of the head into the arm.
However your arms are arranged, breathe deeply, letting the inhale expand the whole left side, from it’s rooted left heel up through the hip flexors, across the ribs and chest, and up and out through the left arm. Slide the shoulders away from the head, finding again a sphere of space around your neck. Release your upper and lower teeth away from one another, feel the tongue become heavy, let go of the brow and forehead, soften the eyes.
Stay up for 5 breaths in the fullness of your open-hearted warrior. Release the pose, step to the front of your mat, bring the hands to the heart in Anajali Mudra, and feel the energy in your heart. Step the right foot back behind you and repeat the sequence, allowing for different capabilities in your shoulder range of motion and hamstring length. Energetically our left side represents our receptive, lunar, feminine nature, and the right side the active, solar, masculine aspects. So, even as you work to bring better balance, length, and mobility to your body physically, turn yourself inside and listen to how your body may be expressing your energetic reality and the balanced love and affection needed there.