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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Melt a Heart for Valentine's Day

It has been bitterly, miserably, cheek-stingingly cold in New York these past few days, and there came a moment yesterday when I was walking to class with the wind on my raw face, and I wondered if I would ever be warm again. My back was all hunched, and a thick knot was forming right behind my heart, and despair was about to set in. But then I remembered that my sweetie had made gibanica that day (his first-ever attempt) and that we would dine together at home on this gooey and cheesy and crispy Serbian dish, and everything just softened. And the cold was no longer so biting, and in fact, I don't think I was cold anymore at all. The cherished vision was enough to melt my heart, and the knot in my upper back slid away.

That place in the upper back that hardens in the cold, it's the same place that rounds out in a protective hunch when we're scared or feel the need to protect ourselves. It's the thickest part of the upper back (around T7, in line with the top of the diaphragm, the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, and the bottom of the sternum -- the heart focal point), and it tends to be pretty immobile. It makes sense, really, since it's also right in line with the base of the physical heart, a vital organ that needs protecting.

The thing is, we can overprotect (in love as in the body) to the point that there's such a thick shell around the heart that nothing/nobody gets in or out, and we miss a lot of the magic of life (these are my grandmother's words). To open that physical place of the heart center is a powerful practice in asana, as melting the heart involves a release of built up layers of protective mechanisms.

To do it, all you need is a vision, a remembrance, a cherished thought. What is it that makes you go soft on the inside? What do you love? Value? Cherish? Fill yourself with that remembrance, and you will find that the outer layers naturally soften. This is what we call Opening to Grace, the first principle in Anusara Yoga. It moves from a feeling inside, but it has physical applications and effects:

Inner Body Bright: Evoke the things and people that you love and cherish, and fill with the warmth that they provide your soul. There's a full expansion on the inside, from the side waistlines up through the sides of the throat, and the front and back of the torso.

Outer Body Soft: When the inner body is bright your outer form can soften onto that fullness, and the heart melting is part of this softening. It's as if the remembrances you've evoked are so powerful that your body knows it's in a safe place, and so it naturally releases.

The thing is, that thick part of the upper back (the heart center), is pretty stubborn, and doesn't release easily. For most of us, the area above the heart center (between the shoulder blades and up through the neck) is much more mobile, and it will do all of the softening given half the chance, preventing that place of the heart from cracking open. So when you expand on the inside, pay special attention to expanding into the upper back and the back of the neck, and then keeping that fullness, allow the area around T7 (it's pretty low!) to soften. It may only move a tiny bit at first. That's OK. Sometimes it's a good idea to be judicious in opening your heart. Just think about whatever it is in your life that makes you go soft inside. Then you've got it!

Once you've established this first principle, the other actions serve to reinforce and build on the fullness in the back body and the melting of the heart. Specifically, Muscular Energy in the upper body will draw the head of the arm bones back into the shoulder sockets and the shoulder blades flat on the back, which gives a solid support for the opening of the heart. The Shoulder Loop draws the bottom tips of the shoulder blades (in line with the heart center) forward into the body. And Organic Energy moves with joyous expression from the heart (we'll do a lot of poses with the heart center as the focal point).

In a certain way, the first principle is not only the foundation for all of the other actions, but it also holds these actions secreted within it. When you get Inner Body Bright/Outer Body Soft, the armbones will release back into the shoulder sockets, and the shoulder blades will nestle onto the upper back and release downward toward the pelvis.

Here are some practice ideas for playing with this:

Hands and knees: this is a great place to feel the heart melting, as it releases with gravity. Start with a fullness on the inner body, and keep that (especially in the upper back) as you release more specifically at the heart center. You might feel how the area at between the top of the shoulder blades and at the neck, will want to soften faster than at the area around the bottom tips of the shoulder blades. Just take several breaths of expansion and release, with a focus on melting the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into the body.

Try moving from hands and knees through pranam into downward-facing dog, keeping your awareness on that spot in the upper back that you've been melting, as it becomes the focal point for Dog pose.

In downward-facing dog, do as you did on hands and knees, keeping the inner body expansive and the upper arms floating up, while you soften at the base of the heart (rather than higher up, between the upper shoulder blades and neck).

Now try surya namaskar, with special attention on this heart spot when moving through plank to caturanga to cobra/upward-facing dog. Notice where you tend to soften in your upper back. Shift the place of opening and release all the way to the bottom tips of the shoulder blades, and feel how this changes caturanga and cobra (reinforcing the first principle with strong muscular action and shoulder loop).

These actions are key to learning to jump forward from downward-facing dog into the uttanasana, with a little hovering before you land. You have to be willing to go for it (think of jumping into handstand, as your hips will have to get that far back to find the balance), and you'll have to be willing to soften that place in your heart (when your hips go back, they'll be counterbalanced by driving the bottom tips of the shoulder blades into that spot in your upper back).

This is actually really helpful for pinca mayurasana, too. If you have a friend who can help you, have them bring either their inner knee or better yet the ball of their foot into the stiff part of your upper back while you kick up and while you're in the pose. It feels weightless!

Standing poses: try doing them with your top hand (or both hands, when the arms are symmetrical) behind the base of your skull, to give active resistance for the shoulder loop in order to open that part in the upper back.

Backbends: just go for it now.
makarasana, dhanurasana, rajakapotasana
eka pada rajakapotasana 1, 2, 3, 4
scorpion (I finally learned scorpion when I learned to melt in the middle thoracic, not just around my neck)
urdhva dhanurasa, dwi pada viparita dandasana

Seated poses: this is really an interesting side note, but when you do seated forward bends with a focus on keeping the inner body lifted while melting the base of the heart, the whole pose unfolds, because it helps get more even curve in the spine. Try it out in janu sirsasana, upavista konasana, pascimottanasana. Be sure to lift the undersides of the arms in line with your ears with strong muscular energy to go deeper into the upper back.


hillarysyogapractice said...

py to see you here.. cant wait to dive in and read all you have to offer. love the note on the beginning of how the heart can be closed when its cold.

lots of love,

D said...

Z - your blog is fantastic as is your class as are you.

Just had to say it!


B said...


Thank you for putting your words to blog. I love having another way to take in your brilliant light and practiced wisdom. Your classes contain so much depth, it is great to retrace and review your thoughts that have been clearly so well contemplated.

Much love to you,