BREAK IT DOWN: OPEN THE (actual) HEART
You've heard it so many times in an asana class that it probably tends to wash over you as you bend backwards: "open your heart". It sounds figurative, or like a flight of verbal fancy. London-based teacher Leila Sadeghee shows us how we can, at home, continuously work on really opening the physical heart with a bit of time, a lot of breaths, and a pair of patient hands.
Opening the Heart
In conversation with my soul sister, yoga teacher Danika Hendrickson, sometime around 2002, she expressed the desire for her acupuncturist to put a needle straight into her sternum, to pierce the bone, go right into the soft tissue underneath, and open up the achy contraction in her heart.
Over the years I have found myself feeling the same desire many times. Wishing a massage therapist could open up my ribcage, reach right in there and get in and thread her touch between my ribs; to put her fingers on my pulsing heart and work it back into softness.
Maybe it has to do with being sensitive. I can go into a room full of people and walk out with a heartache not my own. Transparent as I am to the wider experience of our shared humanity, I walk around with shades of sensation peeking through my body and mind like walking through dappled light in forest.
Tending my own heart deepens the concern. The seemingly unbreachable inequalities that are knit into the fabric of my (our) lifestyle; my own tender desire to love and be loved, the momentary disappointment of not being met with enthusiasm when I have risked exposure of my vulnerability, the extraordinary cruelty of ordinary life...these are subjects of daily rumination. And my body is the register for all of this.
How do I keep this heart sweetly open, in the midst of this cavalcade of piercing experiences?
I have used my asana to try to pry these locks open. Sometimes it's effective. Sometimes I end up pushing so hard that I ended up hurting. That desire to be free of heart is potent. Muscling it doesn't always free me where I'm really stuck, but the temptation to force it open is great. When I slow down and become more sensitive, I can feel into deeper layers of what's holding, and start to work on unravelling from the inside out.
"Your pericardium," my acupuncturist said one afternoon, some 17 years back. "It's the gateway to your heart. Yours is stuck".
The pericardium. When I taught my very first urdhva dhanurasana, I spoke about it. The gateway of the heart is its glove. The dense connective tissue pocket around your heart is holding it into place. It's also--so to speak--feeling everything. Connective tissue is continually responding to the delicate dance of your hormonal pulsations, movement, and gravity. It is getting tighter and less tight according to how you are holding yourself...and you are holding yourself, consciously or not, according to the tide of your feelings, on a moment-to-moment basis.
If I feel my heart tightening, I'll spend some breaths with my hands on my chest, slightly to the right, just under ribs 4 and 5. I'll reach inside with my awareness and start to breathe into pericardium. I'll get my breath all around it. Then, when I practice urdhva dhanurasana*, I am consciously moving not only my spine into extension, and feeling all the leverage that my arm and leg strength push into my front body from my belly to my breastplate...
I'm also moving through the actual gate of the heart, tenderizing all the tissue around my heart,
feeling the breath inside the pontoons of my lungs massage the sides of my heart,
moving the dense tissue bands of the pericardium into a softer state.
In 15 years of bodywork, I have rarely felt an 'easy' sternum (breastplate). Mostly they feel sort of tight and pulled narrow. We take the hits of life right in the heart. Spend a day noticing how often you slightly pull your shoulders forward and pull your chest in. It may surprise you. Then we go to asana class and learn to stick that chest right out. But does that really move the habitual contraction out of the body?
I use either my fingers (or my Yamuna ball) to activate the bone of the sternum. To widen it. To remind the tissues that hold the ribs in place to be a little more receptive to breath. To bring more breath up under that bone. I take my fingers along the sides of my sternum and move from sternum bone to rib bone.
The bone isn't hard, it's soft, alive.
I lift the sternum slightly up towards my face and firmly out laterally towards the ribs. I work may way up each side of my breastplate, starting from just above the xyphiod process, the little tail of the sternum, tucked between the two sides of the ribcage. I breathe deep into my fingers and also into my spine on the other side of where I am working. I take my time. I wait and rest my fingers into the bone where I can feel it more stuck. I get up under my clavicle (collarbone) and work out along it, using traction to pull it out to the side.
Sometimes, I do this in supta virasana. If I do this, I have to be warmed up and able to hold my shins really steadily in to keep my knees safe. Sometimes I do this over a blanket prop placed right under the tips of my shoulder blades. If I do the more restorative version, I can wait there and breathe after the hands-on work. The more time I spend there, resting, the more I set a new pattern into my body tissues. A pattern of ease.
Sometimes, I use my pearl ball, from the Yamuna Body Rolling work I've been teaching for years... its density is perfect, not too hard, for releasing this tender tension of the chest. I do the same work as with my fingers: leaning my sternum into the ball to wake up the bone, then rolling a little out to the side (careful not to roll into my breast tissue), from just above the xiphoid process, incrementally, to just up under the collarbone, rolling all the way out that bone to my shoulder to open my chest.
Sitting in meditation every day is huge. Before formal practice, I take a few breaths into the space of my heart. I 'take my temperature', so to speak, by feeling the sensations there.
Throughout the day, I check in. I tend to get lost in thought, following wide swaths of creative musing. Or I get hard and transactional; just getting things done. This is the common pulsation of my attention on most days. The remembrance to check in, to stay in touch with my heart sensations, even though I'm so sensitive and it can be overwhelming, is helpful. It keeps me on the path of widening my capacity to feel a lot and stay grounded at the same time. It also keeps me awake to what's truly going on.
If I feel some of those 'not my own' kinds of feelings, or I feel confronted or contracted
as I move through the city and teach and meet with clients and do all the things I do--
I open my heart up wider.
I breathe those sensations/experiences deeper into my heart;
And then breathe them straight out the back of my heart.
Breathe it all deep in through the front of my heart, then breathe it out, straight out the back of my heart.
I let my heart be the space of everything on the move
(which it naturally is)
and keep encouraging that movement on my breath.
I am training myself,
to love everything,
one breath at a time.
a safety note from leila:
*Urdhva dhanurasana is a wonderful pose and one that I recommend to most yogis as a gateway to deepening practice. It can be injurious if you are not properly warmed up or practice in a misaligned way. If you want to practice Urdhva Dhanurasana, please:
-make sure you have warmed up your shoulders with other, more basic back bends and side stretches, connecting your shoulders firmly onto the back plane of your body and your arm bones into your shoulder sockets;
-make sure you have 'hot legs', i.e. you have warmed up your legs right down to the bone. In a pinch I hold Horse Pose (Goddess Pose), sometimes on high heels, for at least one minute to bring the burn up so the leg muscles are fully firing;
-make sure you have stretched your thighs and hip flexors well (any thigh stretch will do);
-use a block between your thighs sometimes to wake up your inner thigh muscles (helps to keep the low back clear)
The main point is: this is not a pose to just do on its own, cold. You can practice any back bend with the awareness of your pericardium; ustrasana, dhanurasana, cobra, salabhasana, or the restorative variation suggested in the 'Bone' section of this piece. If you have less time or have not yet built up your deep back bend practice, you can still deeply open your heart.
ABOUT LEILA SADEGHEE
A healer, yoga teacher, mentor, and therapeutic bodyworker, Leila has 15 years' experience in guiding people to physical, mental, and emotional freedom. Yoga with Leila combines lightness of heart with vibrant intelligence in ways that keep opening doors for her students. Empowered by 17 years of her own yoga practice, 15 years of practicing therapeutic work in the body, and a lifelong freewheeling sense of fun, Leila has developed a straightforward and uplifting style of teaching that supports people in opening to their highest potential, both on and off the mat. She shares very openly about the peaks and troughs of her own journey in a way that brings yoga to life, and reminds her students to stay anchored in their truth, their worth, and their honest-to-goodness needs.
Leila is co-creator of The Practices of Freedom and Wellbeing Immersion, a course that teaches clear and useful pose alignment, eating for optimal health, and how to allow your yoga practice to up-shift every aspect of your life. Learn more about Leila on her website, and check her out on Instagram.