You hear it all the time in yoga, “Open your heart!” Have you ever asked what is meant by that? In this exploration, we will look at the topography of the heart, try to get a sense of the three dimensional structure of the heart in our own bodies including its related structures, and then apply it to practice.
The top right side is located at the 2nd intercostal space on the right lateral border of the sternum. The bottom right side is located at the 5th intercostal space at the right lateral border of the sternum. The top left side is located at the 2nd intercostal space about 1inch from the left lateral border of the sternum. The apex can be found just medial of the left midclavicular line at the 5th intercostal space.
The heart is located in the central forward half of the thoracic cavity within the mediastinum. The apex is tilted to the left and slightly forward.
The heart is a rounded cone-shaped organ weighing between ½ to ¾ pounds. It is about five inches in length, three inches wide, and 2inches deep. It has four chambers – a right and left atrium and a right and left ventricle. The heart is a hollow organ made of thick cardiac muscle divided into three layers that run spirals: endocardium, myocardium, and epicardium. Check out this awesome video of unspiraling the helical heart.
The pericardium surrounds the heart and has two layers. The inner layer is a double walled sac containing serous fluid to reduce friction created by the pumping of the heart. The outer fibrous layer serves to enclose the heart and anchor it through visceral ligaments to surrounding structures. The fibrous ligaments of the pericardium are attached to the diaphragm, manubrium, xiphoid process and spine. The aorta and vena cava provide the heart with suspensory support. All vessels are located at the back of the heart.
The heart functions as a pump, sending blood to the lungs and body. Blood enters the heart from the body via inferior and superior vena cava into the right atrium, which pumps into the right ventricle. The right ventricle sends blood to the lungs via the pulmonary artery. The blood is oxygenated at the lungs and returns via the pulmonary veins to the left atrium. The left atrium pumps into the left ventricle, which pumps blood to the body via the aorta.
Visualize the heart behind the sternum, becoming aware of its location, size and weight. Feel it suspended in your thoracic cavity. Feel its borders, swaddled by the lungs. Begin to shift positions. When vertical, feel the heart resting on the diaphragm, suspended by the vessels from above. When lying on your back, feel the heart resting against the spine and the vessels and esophagus behind the heart, while being suspended from the ligaments attaching it to the sternum. When side-lying, feel the heart resting into one lung, while suspended by the other. When lying prone, feel the heart resting into the breastbone, while suspended by the ligaments attaching it to the spine. When upside down, feel the heart suspended by the ligaments to the diaphragm. Remember, too, that turgor pressure of the structures and suction of the serous fluid is doing the bulk of the work to keep structures in relative position.
using breath + sound
Visualize the heart, focusing on the center point. Imagine breathing into the heart, sensing its expansion in all directions. Exhale with a hiss, continuing that expansion. Hiss only as long as the heart continues to expand. Once you feel you have mastered this, you can begin to sound. A simple ‘ahh’ or ‘ohm’ used in place of the hiss will add more vibratory resonance to your practice.
movement in all planes
Begin to sense the heart in the chest. In this exercise, my image sometimes shifts from something more anatomical to a round sphere with clear axes and rolling surfaces. In all three explorations, see if you can keep the center of the heart in the center.
Imagine the heart rolling forward and backward in the sagittal plane on a horizontal axis that runs through the heart. Try to let the heart initiate the movement, letting the bones follow. Notice the difference between the heart rolling and the heart being pushed forward or backward.
Now let’s explore in the coronal plane. Imagine the sphere of your heart rolling to the right, taking your spine into a side-bend. I can somehow never separate this from the lungs. If I am rolling right, for example, I am especially aware of the left lung expanding to arc up and over the heart to accommodate the heart’s right rolling.
Let’s rotate in the transverse plane now. Imagine an axis running vertically, parallel to your spine, through the center of the heart. Sense into the three-dimensionality of the heart and roll it along its axis into a right and left rotation. Go slow, initiate from the heart. Do the lungs rotate with the heart? Or are you finding a counter-rotation of heart + lungs at the border or joint. Does the spine rotate with or is there a counter-rotation with the spine? How does the rib cage respond?
heart to extremities
The heart is the primary support of the arms in the horizontal plane. Sit facing a wall with the palms touching the wall at shoulder-to-head height. Locate and visualize the heart. Take out the slack between the heart and the hands. Press hands into the wall sensing compression into the heart. When compression meets center of the heart, sense a counterthrust of heart out through the width of the chest into the arms and hands.
heart to brain – baby sphinx
Lie on your belly with elbows wide at heart level. Locate and visualize your heart. Take out the slack between heart and brain. Breathe and expand heart. Exhale with a hiss, sensing the triangular support between elbows and head. As the elbows press into the floor, lift the brain. Continue to feel the expanding support of the heart while taking out the slack in your triangle.
You can grow this sensation into full sphinx and cobra variations. If you lose the connection, you are taking the movement passed its organ support. Doing so makes you more prone to injury over time.
heart as base of support
Lying on right side, take out slack between heart and brain. Heart initiates movement with left hand pressing into the floor. Heart levers brain away from the floor. Repeat on left side.
In prone with head turned to one side and arms resting at sides; take out the slack between head and heart. Feel the heart sink into the earth as the head floats up and centers and then soften to the other side.
In supine with hands behind head, take out the slack between heart, head and hands. Let the heart initiate movement of the head forward and up. Repeat on diagonals.
heart as suspension support
Start in supported sitting. Take out the slack between the heart and the head. As the head drops forward into a forward bend, feel the heart suspending upwards to support the head. As you roll the head to one side, feel the heart suspend upward to the opposite direction. Begin to draw a circle with the head feeling the counter-support of the heart.
moving the heart through space
Table/Plank: Let the heart support the width and stability of the shoulder girdle. And connect you to your hands.
Cat/Cow: Try initiating cat/cow by rolling the heart in the sagittal plane. How does it feel to also move the heart forward in space through the arms increasing your shoulder extension and retraction and then backwards through the shoulder blades increasing your shoulder flexion and protraction.
Single Arm Reach/Crawling: Use the heart as base of arm support in both the supporting and reaching arms. Heart mediates the push-to reach to locomote in crawling.
Rolling: With arms over head, heart must rotate on a spatial path versus on its own axis to facilitate rolling.
Walking: Take out the slack between heart and brain. Sense the heart moving forward and backward in space.
Rotating: Twist upper torso from side-to-side through initiation of the heart.
fluid movement of the heart
I sometimes also imagine what it feels like to be the blood as it moves through the heart. The rhythmic pumping, the spirals, the swirls, the eddies.
the caverns of the heart
Other times, I find pictures of the caverns of the heart. I see the pulls of the fibers, the valves, the texture of the internal walls. I imagine spelunking in caves.
*credit here is owed to Jean-Pierre Barral and Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen. Some of this material comes directly from their manuals.