Almost half of my life, breath has been experienced through the act of smoking. This is what I knew of the feeling to deeply inhale. Not having the wisdom of age, I wasn’t exactly sure what an unforced, deep inhale (and exhale) could do for my mental state, be it positive or negative. And as I grow, gaining knowledge, I am beginning to understand the true depth of lung capacity and their ability to heal the mind as well the body.
I have had a great many teachers along my journey, some sharing the same stepping stones, some more knowledgeable than me, yet none holding greater value than the other, including nature's own. However, most of the pranayama I use in my daily practices (either in treatment room or on my mat) have been remembered through the teachings of yogis, whom I hold in great reverence. And with most of my study being through Oriental Principles in the context of energy (as breath gives us this), the word Prana seems to hold a deeper connection to what it is that I wish to share and what I feel is experienced in the body.
We are taught for the most part of how to open up the heart in yoga classes, but why and how does this work exactly?
One perspective is that, when we lay over an object (ie: a bolster) at the height of approximately rib 7 along the back (about the same level of the bra strap), we extend the thoracic spine at a not-so-flexible spot (our primary, kyphotic curve); nevertheless this is a great place to start as this teaches us to drop our shoulders, stretch our strong core and still be at a place where we are able to 'tune-in', while feeling the support under us, thus beginning our exploration to the heart center. Here we acknowledge that the body has the capability to contort and where the rest of our body lies in the space surrounding. Leading me to what I feel is worth sharing, self exploration and practice.
Imagine the solar plexus: the spot some of us tend to block with our arms folded across the chest lying at about rib 7 on our front body and around rib 10 on our back body, a little lower than the place mentioned above. By placing the object at this level we start to call on our secondary curve (lordotic), the Lumbar spine, naturally lifting up the sternum and pinning the posterior attachments of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the main muscle that helps to create the space (contraction) so our lungs can take in air and the release (eccentric contraction) so the body can expel carbon dioxide.
So, if we have the capability (in terms of the sternum) to increase the amount of lift we can create on the front body, then we may have a greater ability to access the distal or underneath aspect of our heart, opening the heart from a different direction. This allows the diaphragm to expand horizontally rather than vertically. This may feel like a difficult place to explore, often bringing about discomfort, yet not unwilling.
When we expand on an inhale, we ride a horizontal wave and on the exhale we carry the vertical math. As we take air in and contract the diaphragm, our natural primary curve of child's pose takes place, pushing our sternum and spine away from one another, creating the lift on the front body. On the exhale, our secondary curve, the adult nature to stand up tall and proud, opens up the the front of our vertebra allowing space and air to reach the joints. So in order to progress through the mind's concept of 'pain' we use prana to open and relax, to shift the vertebrae from a position of solid structure to individual joints that are bendy. How does this feel? Like we are resisting the supporting structure, broadening our muscular contraction and then liberating ourselves from feeling inflexible.
Why then call this a heart opener?
How many of us think opening the heart is by reaching and broadening our chest to the sky? Yet by conventional teaching methods, we cannot tap into the heart without really lifting the sternum. So how can we only expand by opening the heart from one direction? There, where lies a large plate that protects our heart and connects by way of bone to bone, ribs to spine. This ties into why placing an object at the level of rib 7 posteriorly decreases the amount we can lift the sternum. I’m not saying that this doesn't work, as I would not be able to offer another option if I had not first experienced this restriction, this inflexibility where prana cannot be truly free to navigate. But consider the alternative, by using the breath, it’s mechanics and our ability to expand in a multi-directional way, we can create a phenomenon in our bodies, embracing our hearts from all four corners.
When we allow our mind to focus on the breath, letting the brain release it's autonomic function, we can feel something like a hand reaching up under the rib cage and touching the heart. When we get to this place, we can then chose whether or not to observe the feelings that arise or just acknowledge the space that has been discovered. Therefore, opening the mind to the heart, imagining your breath as an extension of the hand, having the ability to map the whole inner dynamics of the body with a ‘steady eye’. From here wrap your breath around and in between the ribs, covering the circumference of the heart. East to West and North to South. Then when you get to the center do not shy away from the sound that travels to your ears but embrace the existence of your creation and stay rooted in your harmony until the moment comes when it is time to let go. This I believe is heart opening, embracing the discomfort, feeling the freedom and creating joy.