In a yoga practice much emphasis is placed on opening the heart. Opening the heart has physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits.
Rounded shoulders and a hunched spine are typically associated as the posture of someone who is less confident, timid, fearful or possibly depressed. We round our shoulders and stoop forward to protect our heart as we carry our emotional, psychological and/or spiritual wounds. As our nervous system is a feedback system this means that by adopting this very posture our brain receives messages that we are less confident, our minds and hearts are closed and we are less likely to be happy.
Psychologists such as Wilhelm Reich and Alexander Lowen researched the connection between physical posture and expression and feelings. They found, for example, that a forward collapsed chest relates to depression, while a hardened ribcage was associated with a rigid character. This approach later developed into the science of Bioenergetics. Just as what we think and how we feel expresses itself in our physical posture, so our physical posture has an effect on our thoughts, our feelings, the image we portray, and the subsequent responses we receive from others.
Unfortunately, the work of many professionals and students means long hours adopting a monotonous, static sitting posture. It is not physically possible to maintain the ‘perfect’ posture for the duration of our work day because our postural muscles eventually fatigue. The latest on spinal care advises that the best approach is to constantly change a prolonged sitting posture to avoid muscle fatigue and the resultant problems of back and neck strain that this brings. Many yoga postures, especially back bending postures, perfectly counteract the forward compressive forces that long hours of sitting have on the spine. Correspondingly, these postures open the heart area and allow energy to flow freely through the energy channels (nadis) and energy centres or chakras. The ancient scripture the Mahanirvana Tantra allocates specific negative emotions to individual petals of the heart chakra. Opening the heart chakra unblocks stuck energy helping to heal our emotional and psychological wounds.
Posture, Emotions & Our Health
Kyphosis is the name of the natural forward curve of the chest or thoracic spine. An excess of that curve is called a hyperkyphosis. This natural curve is the primary curve we have as a foetus in our mother’s womb. It is formed by the wedge-shaped vertebrae of the thoracic spine. This wedge-shape of the vertebral bodies, along with the long overlapping spinous processes at these levels, the particular angle of the small facet joints that join one vertebra to the next, plus the attachment of the ribs to each thoracic vertebra, all combine to naturally restrict backward movement or extension in the entire thoracic cage. What it does provide is a solid, safe cavity for the vital organs of our heart, lungs and major vessels.
Anatomically, when our heart area is closed our pectoralis major and minor muscles are chronically shortened whilst their functional antagonist muscles (those that perform the opposite actions) will be lengthened and potentially weakened. Pectoralis major raises your arms above your head and performs horizontal adduction (drawing the arm across the chest). In regards to posture, the main antagonist action is performed by the latissimus dorsi muscle. Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and modern healing arts such as Applied Kinesiology work with the notion that various emotions tend to be stored in specific organs and their corresponding muscles.
Pectoralis major is associated with the organs of the stomach and the liver. Both of these organs are vital to our digestion and the assimilation of nutrients, while the liver also plays a vital role in detoxification. The stomach relates to the emotions involved in being over-sympathetic. The emotion for the liver is anger. The latissimus dorsi muscle is associated with the pancreas another important organ of digestion and the regulation of blood sugar metabolism. Emotionally the pancreas relates to low self-esteem, hopelessness and distrust. Physically, the optimal function of these organs is important to our overall health. Emotionally, it is the nutrients of acceptance, trust and forgiveness that enable us to digest, assimilate and detoxify the hurts we harbour in our hearts.
Pectoralis minor is a much smaller muscle which lies deep to pectoralis major. It tilts the shoulder blades (scapulae) forward and helps move them away from each other in an action called protraction. The antagonist muscles to these actions are the middle and lower trapezius and the rhomboid muscles. The lower trapezius draws the shoulder blades down away from the ears whilst the middle trapezius and rhomboid muscles draw the shoulder blades toward each other in retraction. These are all important stabiliser muscles of the scapulae. The rhomboids are associated with the liver and the middle and lower trapezius muscles are associated with the spleen. Along with the pancreas, the spleen also relates to the emotions involved in low self-esteem and self-doubt. Additionally, the pectoralis minor muscle lies over the thoracic ducts, which are our major drainage vessels for the entire lymphatic system. Tight pectoralis minor muscles can inhibit lymphatic drainage and contribute to fluid retention.
Our nervous system is hardwired in such a way that when we contract one muscle its antagonist must relax and is lengthened or stretched. This neural phenomenon is termed reciprocal inhibition. This is what happens in an active stretch and what makes active stretching so effective. In a hunched, rounded-shoulder posture the pectoral muscles are generally tight and short and need to be stretched and lengthened. Correspondingly, the antagonist shoulder muscles on the back will be lengthened and possibly weak. Actively engaging the latissimus dorsi, middle and lower trapezius and rhomboids not only strengthens these muscles but the pectoralis muscles are automatically switched off and must relax and stretch.
We have millions of receptors in our muscles, tendons and joints. These receptors send a constant stream of messages to our brain and nervous system detailing the way we carry and move our bodies. Physically we can retrain our muscles to hold and move us with greater ease, support and comfort, while regulating the breath has a purifying and calming effect on our mental state. Adapting our posture, retraining our movement and breathing patterns, the use of visualisation and sound or mantra, as well as spiritual intention can transform us physiologically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. These are the synergistic tools which express the therapeutic power of yoga. These postures especially mobilise the thoracic spine, soften the rib cage, stretch the pectoralis muscles on the chest and strengthen the posterior shoulder stabilising muscles (middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids and latissimus dorsi muscles).
The Heart of Hearts
There are three different hearts. We are all familiar with the physical heart which pumps blood to the whole of our body, organs and brain. This heart maintains our physical life. At the same time we unanimously refer to our heart as the residence of our emotions, both negative and positive. When we love, hate, are fearful or excited, feel shame or pride we feel this in our emotional heart. Yet our heart of hearts, our innermost heart (hrdaya) is our spiritual heart. The English term heart is derived from the Sanskrit root hrt which means the innermost. The Indian sage Ramana Maharishi used the term heart to refer to our true Self, pure consciousness. This concept is supported in the ancient scriptures including the Yoga Sutra and the Katha Upanishad. This heart never changes. It never has a good day or a bad day. And unlike our emotions it is not conditioned by our previous experiences. Our body is our temple and our innermost heart is the shrine within that temple where the light of our consciousness dwells. This light is the manifestation of love that is our divine nature.
Opening our hearts means to dis-armour ourselves, to uncover our heart. Any suffering we experience is actually the separation from the love that exists in our heart of hearts. Unveiling our innermost heart to ourselves is what removes this pain. It is important to keep our heart open not just to receive love and light but to let the light and love that dwells in our hearts shine forth. As human beings it is imperative to open to the spiritual experience of our true Self. It is not just our dharma or duty but it is the very purpose of our existence. When the heart is open we feel love, not for anyone or anything or any other reason than the simple fact that we are alive, that we exist. For in essence we are both love and light.