Soften Your Heart – Alchemy and Yoga

I am looking at my feet.  I am in downward dog.  My calves are straining and my hamstrings are too tight and my hips aren’t open.  I am trying to will my hamstrings into giving me just a little more, but they aren’t cooperating.  My yoga teacher, Julie, places her hand at my back and encourages me to soften my focus and “soften my heart,”  so I immediately drop my chest towards the floor as much as possible, which is all wrong. “Keep your armpits lifted” she says.  I try doing that but I am not even sure what it means when I’m upside down.  I am failing to follow instructions.  I realize the more guidance she gives me, the farther I am from doing it right.  I am awkwardly making this “resting pose” quite difficult.  Everything feels wrong.

Later in class (mind you this is a class of about 4 people who are mostly yoga devotees or instructors) we are doing seated poses–forward folds over our outstretched legs.  These never go well for me.  As I struggle to soften and lead with my heart while reaching my feet, the rest of the class has their heads resting comfortably on their shins, smiling blissfully.  I look at Julie over everyone else’s shoulders, and she laughs at me.  Well, more with me, because I am laughing too.  I am so tight!  Despite years of yoga, my hips aren’t “open” and when you ask me to do a pose that requires any flexibility in my hamstrings I look like a beginner.  Julie warmly suggests we not call it “tight,” we’ll call it “strong.”  She points to a spot on my upper back just behind my heart.  “This is your problem spot” she declares.  Her compassion is kind, and her read on me, good.  Both physically and emotionally, softening my heart is the ongoing challenge I face.

In yoga you hear the phrases “soften your heart” and “melt your heart” thrown around with such abandon that they lose some of their meaning.  If one looks at the etymologies of the words they ask a few things: Physically, the phrase asks us to allow the tension to release from the chest and upper back so that it can flow into poses–like downward dog.  But there’s more to it, to melt means, literally, to soften and to become fluid–to pass from one state to another.  To change your chemical structure.  These teachers are asking us for alchemy.

It’s a pretty big request, actually.

Not to get too esoteric here, but how can one not get a bit philosophical on this stuff?  To me, yoga isn’t about loosening my hamstrings, it’s about exploring the deeper meanings.  Why are my hamstrings so tight?   Why did I start crying after doing hip openers for 2 hours?  They’ll tell you over and over about how we hold tension in our bodies, but it doesn’t mean jack until yoga makes you cry and you’re left with an emotional and physical hangover from a especially successful pigeon pose.  When you have so much stuff sitting in your chest and hips that you can’t run 10 miles without writhing from IT pain for the next day, it’s time to get a little esoteric in your approach to PT.

Thus,  I am embracing the challenge to soften my heart, and by extension, my body.  To soften one’s heart is daunting.  I have spent 28 years steeling my heart against the elements–and it shows in my yoga and in my life.  To let down my defenses now after so long a battle seems daunting. Where will my sarcasm fit in? What of my cynical side?  What is even in there?  What if there’s NOTHING?  Ha.  Hopefully that’s not the case.  More worrying is the fact that in opening and softening, one exposes the most vulnerable parts of herself.  There are reasons we erect the walls we do. 

But, my hope and my ongoing personal challenge is to live with a focus on compassion and opening and melting my heart.   It is a worthy goal and I hope to achieve it, both physically and emotionally. My personal belief is that there is a safety net in compassion that is stronger than the steel I have been girding myself with for so long.   I aim to test it.



One thought on “Soften Your Heart – Alchemy and Yoga

  1. Pingback: Strong beginners Yoga Workout with JQ Williams 2015 - Must Have Yoga Gear

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