In yoga practice we often refer to “heart opening” poses. This is a kind of catch-all term that points to poses that loosen muscles of the chest, sides of the ribs and upper back to encourage better mobility in the upper body. We all spend too much time sitting (often in poorly designed seats) hunched over a steering wheel, computer or phone. As a result we suffer from tight shoulders and upper back muscles that are close to atrophy from under use. This can create pain that further pulls us inward. Tension creates additional stress in this area. Many of us hold tension in our shoulders further tightening these muscles. Meanwhile, as these crucial muscles weaken, others are forced to take over to assist with movement. These other muscles then become overly stressed taking on roles inefficiently and creating more problems, more pain, more imbalances. Many of us are familiar with the cycle – pain begins, movements may be altered to avoid the pain, other muscles take over for the ones that hurt and over time conditions deteriorate.
So when we talk about promoting “balance” by practicing Pilates and yoga, it is not just about being able to stand on one foot. Although that’s important, the term also refers to restoring the balance in our bodies to promote optimal movement with minimal discomfort. This standard is different in each individual, but the practices provide the tools so that adjustments can be made suit individual needs. Not everything works for every person all the time. But the goal is to present sufficient ideas, suggestions and modifications that everyone can find something that works for them. It is also worth reiterating the benefits of practice. Sometimes something that doesn’t work for you today may become accessible later on after some initial efforts have managed to render the muscles more receptive to additional movement. In Pilates we often say that the most important objective is to improve posture. Learning to let your spine support you and re-training your core (abdominal) muscles to assist with that support is the first step to getting the rest of your muscles to relax and return to their optimal role.
Regardless of your current condition, all of this requires patience, persistence, gentleness and self-compassion. After all, none of us got where we are now overnight. The process can’t be reversed overnight either. In fact, complete reversal may not ever be possible. Through the years other conditions may have appeared to complicate the problems. But this doesn’t mean that improvement can’t take place. That improvement may mean less pain and more ease of mobility, but it can also take the more non-specific form of “quality of life”. This general term can refer to improved physical, mental and emotional health including reduced stress. Since mental and physical states are so closely related, improvements in mental health can result in reduction of physical symptoms. And all without the side effects often associated with traditional medications.
Medical trials are ongoing to determine if mind/body practices improve common chronic health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Findings continue to be encouraging. Since we started with a look at “heart opening” it’s worth mentioning a recent study published in the 2016 edition of the European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing involving a group of patients diagnosed with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (PAF). This condition causes an irregularity in heart rythyms that can result in dizziness, shortness of breath and chest pain. All participants in the study also had elevated blood pressure rates at the start. Half of the group had yoga related therapies added to their treatment plans. Perhaps not surprisingly the yoga poses consisted mainly of the “heart opening” upper body muscle relaxers and strengtheners referred to at the beginning of this article. At the end of the study, the findings revealed overwhelmingly that the yoga group improved on all counts including decreased heart rates, blood pressure and improved quality of life. You can also find additional information about this study on the Yoga Basics blog.
All of this serves to reiterate that progress, not perfection, through ongoing consistent practice will yield results. I say that with confidence. The results may not be what you expect but if you pay attention you will note improvement. In the book “Still Here” by Ram Dass, the author discusses his recovery from a stroke and the process of accepting the reality of physical change. He says, “Cures aim at returning the body to what it was before; healing uses what is present to bring us more deeply to ‘soul awareness’ and perhaps physical ‘improvements’ ” Life continues to bring changes in many forms to each of us. If we let go of expectations of “cure” and “use what is present” to bring about healing we may find some degree of comfort. Emerson said, “[the] roses under my window make no reference to former roses or better ones; they are what they are; perfect in every moment of existence.” Just like you – perfect in every moment of existence. Let that thought guide your practice.