Diet and exercise are important aspects of heart health, but they are only part of the complete picture. Common language reminds us of this when we speak of what warms our heart or makes our heart sing and leap for joy. We can also be big-hearted and love something or someone from the bottom of our heart. We often have a heart’s desire and may share our heartfelt feelings in heart-to-heart talks.
Our heart circulates our blood and oxygenates our body, and exercise gets our heart pumping to increase this circulation. A healthy diet optimizes the efficiency of this function. But our heart is more than just a pump, and we ingest more than just food. Our heart is our center, and we can strengthen it by slowing down and taking time to focus on integration within ourselves and our connection with others.
Because all of the systems in our body are connected, relaxing our belly and breathing slowly and deeply (a.k.a. diaphragmatic breathing) can actually slow our heart rate. This is called the “rest and digest” response and helps balance the “stress response.” Stress is a necessary part of life and only becomes a bad thing when we have a hard time letting it go. A simple heart-breath exercise to try is exhaling while visualizing opening our heart to release all that is not helping us to be happy, healthy, and whole in this moment. This will make room to receive all that will help us to be happy and healthy and whole with the next inhalation.
When we take the time to process all of our sensory inputs in “rest and digest” mode, we can be aware of their effect on us. We will begin to see that everything we think, say, and do and everyone/everything we interact with either helps us or harms us. We can then make the right choices for ourselves—assimilating what helps us and eliminating what does not. Although anyone and anything can be a guru (that which leads us from the darkness toward the light), what I love is the yoga concept that our best guru is within our heart, waiting to be accessed.
The idea of “survival of the fittest” has been replaced with “survival of the most cooperative.” We all live interdependently in society; human beings evolved in groups where love and connection are vital. We need to give ourselves time to appreciate and spend time with who and what we love. An “attitude of gratitude” helps us to recognize these blessings in our lives and also opens us to receive more of them. Every evening if we can think of three things that happened during the day that we are grateful for, we can give ourselves something to smile about before we go to sleep. We may even consider writing these down in a gratitude journal.
The heart center is powerful; it is the place of integration between the higher and lower centers in our body and the place of connection with others. Our words and thoughts can focus this power if used in a positive way. Affirmations help us to realize the qualities we desire are already within us and help us bring them forward. Repeating a simple affirmative mantra to ourselves when we are feeling unloved or unlovable—such as “I am love itself”—helps us to recognize the truth in the phrase the more times we say it.
We may also wish to memorize and repeat as a personal mantra, words from any person or tradition that inspires us. The most widely chanted mantra in the world is, “Om Mani Padme Hum” the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva (an enlightened one who vows to remain in the world to help until all beings are enlightened):
Om – the unity at the brow center
Mani – the mind
Padme – the heart
Hum – the seed sound of the throat chakra, the syllable of integration. During his discussion of this mantra in his Sacred Words of Power CD, Thomas Ashley Farrand asks and then answers a provocative question. “Where comes the light we see to dream by? It comes from the heart. The mind is like the moon. It has no light of its own. It reflects the light of the heart. When heart and mind are united, all things are possible.” My favorite version of this mantra is sung by Deva Premal. A search online will find it if you would like to listen and/or sing along.
Antoine de Saint- Exupéry reminds us that integration within ourselves and connection with others, though invisible, is vital when he tells us, “Remember, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” When we take this advice to heart, we will slow down and take the time our heart requires to be completely happy, healthy, and whole.