Opening the Heart


Your Heart is in Your Hands

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.

The Group Experience

Group Joy

Mile High Pilates and Yoga

By Peg Ryan

It is often difficult to initiate a new regimen into our lives.  We all know we should move more for improvements in health, energy levels and the ability to handle life’s daily ups and downs.  But it can be hard to do these things by ourselves.  Think back to those New Year’s resolutions, for example.  Hopeful plans and good intentions were laid out and maybe even followed for a while only to succumb to other seemingly more pressing demands on our time.  The first time you allow your resolution to sink below some other priority is the moment the best intentions begin to fall apart.  One of the keys to stopping the slide down this slippery slope is to commit enough time to allow your plan to become a habit.  Many experts agree that as few as 6 weeks can be sufficient to establish the pattern for habit.  Then if life intervenes, as it so often does, it becomes much easier to get back into the groove. defines habit as “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary”.  Wouldn’t it be great to have exercise become such a consistent part of your life that you don’t even need to think about it!  Your body almost does it without you. 

This is where group classes can help.  As a firm believer in the power of a group, I’m convinced it is often the best way to kick-start your self-improvement campaign.  Even if you only commit to that 6-weeks period, it can be sufficient to put that habit in place. At the end of that time period, if you’re not hooked on the group experience, you will still find it easier to pursue your plan on your own.  Here are just a few of the many ways in which a group can help keep you motivated:

  • A specific time and place are allocated to the effort.  Think of all the impediments that interfere when you are trying to exercise at home. The kids and pets suddenly demand your undivided attention.  You can try closing a door if you have one, but you already know that won’t work.  Then there’s the lure of the phone and the computer.  And that pile of laundry or dishes you failed to finish last night.  Etc. Etc.  A group class is a scheduled event.  You can put it in your calendar and designate yourself as “busy” during that time.  If a conflict arises you can simply say you are not available at that time.  You don’t have to say why.  You’re just busy.  Other events can be scheduled around this committment.  And, remember, all you need is 6 weeks to develop the habit so you can always tell yourself you’ll allow other possibilities when the 6 weeks have passed.
  • Your instructor takes the lead.  You can turn off your head and just go with the flow.  No need to decide what to do.  Think about the amount of time you can waste deciding if you should run, walk, bike, watch a video, go to the gym.  Etc. Etc.  Everything is thought out for you.  And if you choose the right instructor, you will get expert advice and guidance usually at a bargain price.  If you don’t like the instructor, find another one.  There are so many types and styles of classes to choose from.  Don’t let one bad experience derail your best laid plans.  Sadly I saw yet another comment from a woman this week who said she tried a yoga class once, was instructed to do something (one thing!) she couldn’t do and decided to simply back off completely.  My suggestion: if there is something you can’t do, don’t do it.  Simple as that.  Guaranteed the yoga police will not show up and drag you out of class.  And chances are there are many things that you CAN do.  So focus on those and just substitute something else for the thing you can’t or don’t want to do.  You will still have the support of the group to carry you through the class.
  • The group is a form of community providing that all important element of social support.  Most of us have probably seen the studies that emphasize the importance of social connections to maintaining good health, especially as we age.  People in the group will notice when you’re not there.  We share concern for each other. Group members can sometimes even offer suggestions for modifications to help new participants find a way to learn unfamiliar moves. Established practitioners can encourage new ones with examples of their own improvement.  We celebrate each other’s milestones and lament each others misfortunes.  There are no judgments or expectations and all are welcome, regardless of age, ability or background.
  • A group class is a great way to try something new, or to get back into something you tried before but set aside for one reason or another. Heard about Pilates but have no idea where to start?  Come to a class.  It’s better than a video because there is an actual person who can answer your questions.  Do you have a particular physical limitation?  Let your instructor know.  The instructor can help you understand how to move in a way that will keep you from injury and maximize the benefits of the practice.  Don’t forget also that as previously stated, you always have the option to abstain from something that doesn’t work for you.  The support of the group can help you overcome fears and challenge yourself, but you never have to push beyond your limitations.
  • Finally, it’s always more fun to share the experience. A common comment I often here is classes is “I would never make this much effort if I wasn’t in this class.”  When you try to do these things on your own the tendency is to only choose those easy moves that you like. Also you will most likely do the same things over and over without trying anything new. This means that certain muscles may never get worked, leading to imbalances that can create complications over time.  For example, many runners have really tight hamstrings.  This can create knee, hip and ultimately back problems.  We all need variety in our movements.  Doing the same thing over and over will eventually lead to stagnation and possibly even injury.  Group classes often involve total body movements that allow all of the muscles to work together bringing the body back into the rythym for which it was designed.

The human body is an amazing system.  Although we are each individuals with our own specific quirks and oddities, our bodies are still made to move in concert with all elements working together like an orchestra.  A group class can help bring that balance back and let your symphony sing again!  The group class can help bring enjoyment to your movement practice.  All fitness experts agree, the exercise you enjoy is the one you will stick with.  So give it a try!  You just might find out that you like it.  And no matter what you feel like before you come, you will undoubtedly feel better when you leave.