In our monthly Health Defense classes, Grandmaster Joe Manley is sharing with us his “Internal Journey”, which includes a fusion of Daoist and Ayurvedic practices that are said to enhance internal health. This is the second essay in a series that looks at the five major organs: lung, kidney, liver, heart, and spleen. (Click here to read about the liver).
About the Heart and Heart Health
Most of us know where our hearts reside in the body and that it is instrumental in circulating oxygenated blood to the rest of the body (including the brain) and in ensuring that blood is returned back to the lungs to re-oxygenate. The mechanical model of the heart is well-known, including the structure with four basic chambers.
You probably know someone who has benefitted from modern medicine to address heart and circulatory problems, either through advanced drugs or surgical techniques. And you also probably know of some of the simple things that can be done to maintain a healthy heart, including exercise, a healthy diet, and management of your response to stress and other life events. And yet, the CDC reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death, accounting for 25% of all deaths in the US.
The Internal Journey – An Eastern Perspective
In Summer, we experience the full heat of the sun’s energy. In Daoist tradition, the heart’s season is Summer, it’s element is fire, its color is red. In the Health Defense class, we’re going over a number of Eastern practices that are said to strengthen and protect the heart. They include:
- Using the “inner smile”, visualizing the heart and bringing positive intentions to this important organ
- Visualizing the heart bathed in healing light
- Using vocal and sub-vocal sounds that stimulate the organ and its energy centers
Any of the visualization or sound practices can be combined with the use of hasta mudras (hand and finger gestures) for the heart. The three mudras we’ve been focusing on are:
- Hrdaya Mudra: strengthens the heart and releases pent-up emotions
- Ganesha Mudra: opens the chest, benefits the heart, promotes confidence and courage
- Mushtika Mudra: benefits the heart and vascular system, awakens compassion, weakens ego-grasping
The beauty of having multiple mudras is that there may be one that appeals more at one time to use, depending on your overall spirit, while another may feel like the right one to use in a later practice or moment.
Our idioms, metaphors, and spiritual practices are full of references to the heart. Follow your heart, taking something to heart, heart-sick, heart-broken, take heart, in a heart-beat, from the bottom of the heart. In Christian tradition, you can focus on the all-encompassing love of God via the Sacred Heart devotional practice. In Hindu traditions, the heart is associated with the soul and the connection to the boundless, essential spirit of the cosmos. And in Buddhist tradition, a revered teaching that has been informing much of my meditation practice is known as the “Heart Sutra”.
In Daoist traditions, the heart is known as the emperor of the body and the ruler of the organ networks. The heart is not solely an organ that mechanically circulates blood – it’s also seen as the center of cognition. The Chinese term “xin” is generally translated as “heart-mind”. While we have a brain that is centered in the head, the essence of consciousness, or “mind” includes the heart. (Note that some people also consider there to be some kind of cognition in the intestinal system — the source of your “gut” feelings.)
Similarly, other Eastern traditions identify an energy “heart”, different from the physical organ. In Vedic and Hindu tradition it’s one of the seven major chakras in the body. The name for this chakra is Anahata, or un-struck sound. Tibetan Buddhism also identifies a chakra at the heart that connects the energetic links through the body. Sufi practices identify three energetic centers side-by-side in the chest: the Qalb (the heart), the Sirr (the innermost heart), and the Ruh (on the right side of the chest). (For more information on the Anahata chakra, check out this Wikipedia article.)
There’s science that is beginning to expand our understanding of the heart along this perspective. The heart is known now to generate hormones and contains thousands of neurons. The neurotransmitter hormones it generates includes dopamine, epinephrin, and norepinephrin; a relatively new medical field is referred to as neurocardiology. The heart’s electrical field is an order of magnitude stronger than the electrical field generated by the brain, and it’s been speculated that this electrical field (including what’s conveyed through the blood) has a role in regulating body functions. There are a lot of postulations about these capabilities, and so while there’s not yet a scientific consensus on this broader role, what’s known so far is truly intriguing. The heart is clearly much more than a simple pump that circulates a bodily fluid.
This summer, I’ve been integrating some of these energy concepts into the my yoga classes. Even small movements involving extension of the back, including the simple act of “lifting the heart space”, can open the chest and allow the energy of the heart chakra to shine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the heart meridian is a major Yin meridian supporting the overall health of the body. Deep twists stimulate several meridians in the chest, including the heart meridian. And in poses that are held, such as in Yin Yoga, using visualization and holding one or both hands in the Hrdaya mudra can complement any Yin posture.
Available anytime, anywhere
The wonderful thing about many of these practices is that they are accessible pretty much anywhere you are. Perhaps, during the day, just offer your own heart the “inner smile”. One friend of mine, while at the dentist, practiced the heart sound while her teeth were being worked on. And if I’m waiting for something, the hrdaya mudra is easy to practice without calling attention to what I’m doing.
I hope you also find ways to be kind to your heart and to let your heart shine. And if there’s a practice you incorporate in your life, I’d love to hear about it!