The Heart is Just a Muscle

Self Portrait, 2017 by Daniel Genova (used with permission)

I remember, in high school I was at a friend’s house and her father (I’ll call him Bruce) was watching some news show. They were reporting about a doctor who was doing research on heart disease, meditation and the body/mind connection. The doctor called the heart an organ of acceptance… or maybe something similar.

The conversation that ensued focused on the fact that the heart is a muscle and the belief that it is nothing more. My friend’s father was convinced that the story was a bunch of hooey, railed that the whole thing was beyond silly, called the doctor a quack and lit a joint.

This was around the time that I took my first yoga class in the auditorium at my school. I wasn’t much for competitive sports and I needed to earn my PE credits somehow. I didn’t know at the time that it would be the beginning of a journey. It took a long time, but I now know that when we take the time to notice deeply, what you can discover about these bodies that we inhabit will inspire awe. Nothing of which we are made is just an anything.

Our hearts, guts, brains, nerves and everything else are subject not only to their own intelligent functions but to the symphony of our bodies and minds. If you have ever placed your hand to your heart as a gesture of gratitude, had a sudden need to evacuate your bowels (or vomit) when presented with sudden anxiety or reacted to an event with a response more dramatic than the situation called for, you have been intimate with that symphony. 

While these reactions are responses to stimuli, the real noticing comes when we consciously focus our awareness inside. Many long haul COVID patients are finding relief from pranayama. This is not only because it inspires focus on the breath, it also engages that focusing to inspire insight into the workings of the entire body and the relationships: physical, emotional, energetic and spiritual, that reside there. 

So, do I believe the heart is more than just a muscle? Absolutely. The fullness of mine when I’m with my loved ones and emptiness I’ve felt when betrayed confirm it. Also, I continue to be bolstered by sensations within my structure and what they tell me about my overall well being. Those sensations are gifts.

A lot can happen in 40 years and I don’t know what Bruce thinks now. I like to think of him at 90 something attending mindfulness conferences in Palo Alto or the Berkshires. I imagine though that he has not embraced the heart as an organ of acceptance even if I hope he has.

How I Fell in Love With Sun Breath

As the next stage of my yoga education comes to a close and I reflect back on the last six months there is so much to take in. 

We began in a studio then all hell broke loose. We left the studio and stayed home and miraculously our learning continued as the studio beautifully transitioned all its learning to the Zoom platform. There were workshops and asana classes and lectures and posture labs and practice teaching and pranayama and meditation and, and, and…. Then all hell broke loose a second time as the collective wound of systemic racism was opened again, this time with a force to be reckoned with like we haven’t seen for decades. I looked on with anger and sadness as more lives were torn apart with looting in the face of protests. I became more and more afraid of the aftermath of us experiencing 1918 and 1968 at the same time, welcome 2020. I put my head in my hands as I listened to company after company vow to support Black Lives Matter and pledge to be more inclusive as they have done countless times before. I did Sun Breath, a lot.

I have always loved the revelatory nature of my yoga practice. When I think about the number of downward facing dogs I’ve done, that we’ve all done, the mind reels. If each one were the same the practice would have lost its appeal long ago. But they are never the same. Each one is proof of our malleable nature, changing day to day, moment to moment. Like much of what we do, it’s something that deserves attention and not something to be rushed nor taken for granted.

Enter Sun Breath. That thing that I have been rushing and taking for granted.

As expressed in my previous posts in March and April I injured both my ankles. Those injuries are still impacting my mobility. I want to think that I would have tuned in to my breath even if that had not happened but I’ll never know and I have to be OK with that. As I continued my practice I found that at moments when I might have strived for greater length, depth, balance, I found my breath, reliable, steady, calming.

Sun breath has saved me as it has become my “go to” for staying balanced, focused. It has allowed me to explore my inner landscape in new ways. It is now given the respect it deserves and I will no longer take it for granted.