Open Your Heart
By Valerie Contract
We’ve all heard the advice to eat well, get plenty of exercise, and avoid smoking to help prevent heart disease. But there’s more to that heart-healthy equation than most of us know. Since the heart is the seat of ojas (the vital sap within us that gives us strong immunity, intelligence, compassion, and our “aura” or energetic body), any time we feel out of balance with our essential self in any way (through stress, through unhealthy relationships with others and/or the world around us), our bodies, and particularly our hearts, suffer. “As the heart is an organ of emotion, emotional causes of heart disease should always be considered first,” says David Frawley, author of Ayurvedic Healing. This is not just the stuff of philosophers; scientists and researchers have found direct links between what has typically been considered more esoteric advice and heart disease.
Find Ways to Keep Calm
While it’s easier said than done, reducing daily stress levels is key to keeping any dosha in balance—and your heart healthy. Numerous studies have linked stress to heart disease. One recent study in the journal Circulation found that mental stress can trigger a lack of blood flow to the heart and increase the risk of death in people who already have coronary artery disease. Another study conducted at Ohio State University, and published in the journal Psychophysiology, found that stress can cause the body to take longer to clear heart-damaging fats from the bloodstream.
Ayurvedic expert Vasant Lad, author of The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, suggests doing a daily practice of shavasana (the yogic rest pose) to help reduce stress. While lying quietly, flat on your back with your arms by your sides, inhale and exhale slowly. In the brief, natural stop after inhalation and before exhalation, stay silent for just a few seconds. “This practice brings tranquility and rest, which are healing for the heart,” says Lad, who suggests repeating this for at least ten to fifteen minutes daily. Another simple way to reduce stress: laugh. Research shows that people with heart disease were forty percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations compared to people of the same age without heart disease.
Establish emotional connections with others. Studies show that persons who are socially isolated have a two- to threefold increased risk of death from heart disease when compared to those who felt most connected to others. Being a member of a club, church, or synagogue significantly protected people from heart disease even when they had high blood pressure. “Anything that promotes a sense of isolation leads to chronic stress and, often, to illnesses like heart disease. Conversely, anything that leads to real intimacy and feelings of connection can be healing,” says renowned heart specialist Dean Ornish, MD, author of Reversing Heart Disease. “The ability to be intimate has long been seen as a key to emotional health; I believe it is essential to the health of our hearts as well,” he adds.
Keep Your Anger In Check
Pittas take note: quickness to anger (a typical pitta characteristic) was found to be a key risk factor for heart disease in a study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine. In fact, the male participants in the study who quickly reacted to stress with anger were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease than their calmer counterparts. The researchers theorize that stress hormones constrict blood vessels and force the heart to work harder. While deep breathing, meditation, and daily yoga can keep anger under control, Vasant Lad offers this recipe to help keep pittas pacified: Add one-half teaspoon cumin, one-half teaspoon fennel, and one-half teaspoon sandalwood powder to one cup of grape juice. “This cooling, pitta-pacifying drink will help to settle angry feelings,” says Lad.
Follow Your Heart, Not Your Head
The phrase “your heart’s not into it” was coined for a reason. Any time you do something just to please others, your heart—in its truest sense—suffers. “Always striving for something to validate yourself to the outside world brings stress, anxiety, worry, and depression,” and this can contribute to heart disease, says Dr. Ornish. “You may be looking in the wrong direction for your happiness.” This thought is also found in the Upanishads, the great ancient scriptures of India. “How we feel in our hearts is the measure of who we really are. What we think in our heads is often no more than a superficial impression, passing momentarily through us via the senses,” explains David Frawley. Realize your own sense of inner peace, self-worth, and happiness—and be true to your heart.
Valerie Contract is an editor and writer based in New Jersey.