February is Heart Month. In the commercial sense, February is centered around Valentine’s Day with various references to love, but in 1964, February became American Heart Month – a federally designated event, as an ideal time to remind Americans to focus on their hearts and encourage them to get their families, friends, and communities involved. For me personally, even though heart disease runs on both sides of mine and my husband’s family, it did not become a focus until after my husband almost died from a heart attack in 2012.
When I pause to think about the heart, expansion and support are the two most common thoughts that come to mind. Without a conscious prompt, I find myself visualizing and feeling ways that I can increase the fullness of my heart and what supports that to happen. In the context of yoga asana, we may think of “heart opening” postures, aka backbends. Just like our lungs, our heart is a muscle that is strengthened through physical exercise. But the long term physical health of our heart is also dependent upon the strength of our mental and emotional health.
Stress, worry, depression, sorrow, anxiety, and fear are all emotions that can weigh heavy on our minds and hearts. We have all heard the term “suffering from a broken heart”. We know that our emotional and mental health can have severe consequences on our physical health.
Over the years of practicing yoga, I have heard the reference from more than one teacher that backbends can be considered to be “Postures of Courage”, and I have often shared this philosophy myself. If you’ve practice backbends, you understand that the mechanics of a back bend is to move the thoracic spine (upper back) from its normal curve of slight flexion into extension. It requires strength from the back side of the body and flexibility from the front. When we move into extension of the thoracic spine, the front of our chest is lifted and expanded. We literally move into an open and upright posture. Coincidence that this movement can be felt from behind the back of the heart?
When we understand that having courage does not mean that we do not carry fear, we can see how the posture of back bends can support us off the mat as equally in our mental and emotional health as our physical health.
Pause for a moment and fully connect with something that you are afraid of or deeply worried about.
Sitting with that discomfort, notice your posture.
Did your spine collapse? Did your shoulders round forward? Did your chest sink inward?
Notice now your breath.
Did it become short, shallow, or uneven?
Now feel your heart. How does it feel sitting with that emotion. How does it feel with a posture that is slumped over.
The fear or worry you chose, you may not be able to change. But once you recognize the physical, mental and emotional pattern that fear or worry created, you have the awareness to be able to change those patterns.
Now pause again (sitting or standing), and ground your feet. Visualize energy moving from your feet and up your legs. Allow that same energy to move up the spine and as it moves, let your spine grow tall. Gently lift your chest, roll your shoulders back, and position your head right on top of your spine. Soften your face, and release your bottom jaw. Now gently deepen your breath – through the nose, take a full deep breath in and a long, slow, breath out. Repeat 3-5 times.
Pause to notice your posture, your breath, and now your heart. What changed?
Your worry or fear may still be there, but notice any differences you feel.
I know at times it is hard to practice. Life is very full and can keep us away from our mat. But remember yoga is a practice that we don’t only do when we are feeling good or full of energy. It is a practice that over time builds strength and resilience in our physical, mental and emotional capacity. It is a practice that serves us in the moments we need it the most – the very, very hard ones.
It is why I am still here writing to you. It is why Seaside Yoga Sanctuary as a business still exists. The studio has been crippled financially and operationally. But when I step back to see what is left and answer the very question of “why am I still here doing this?” – I see my heart.
My heart dear friends, and the desire to support yours, is why I am still here.
For each of us, may we never lose sight of ourselves and the importance of taking good care of hearts. It is in this way, that we can all find our own Posture of Courage. And may our Posture of Courage lead us to our own grace and wellness.
With love and light,