The human heart has been known as the gateway to the soul and the center of love, healing and emotions. February is American Heart Health Awareness Month and the time of year we celebrate Valentine's Day, the perfect invitation to check in with your self-care practices and discover some new ways to stay heart-healthy for yourself and those you love. When it comes to heart health, awareness and prevention are key.
Nourish your heart and soul with these 10 simple but powerful mind-body solutions. Begin today and cultivate heart-healthy habits to last you a long and happy lifetime.
1. Set your Sacred Intention – Whether your intention is to feel more at peace, to take better care of yourself, to eat healthier, exercise more or quit smoking, searching deeper for the “why” or the “seed” of this intention will take you to the essence of your being. In yoga traditions, we set a sacred intention or sankalpa. Your sankalpa offers a profound opportunity for realizing and manifesting your heart’s innermost desires, without asking you to change who you are. Simply by focusing your mind, connecting to your most heartfelt desires, and channeling the divine energy within, you can align your moment-to-moment choices with your sacred intention. This seed of intention is already present within the desire of your heart and is waiting to be discovered, honored and nurtured.
2. Practice Mindfulness – In a recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Brown University researchers asked 382 people to evaluate statements that measure their level of mindfulness. Those who had the highest mindfulness scores also had very healthy scores when it came to the seven American Heart Association indicators for cardiovascular health. These indicators include not smoking, being physically active, maintaining a healthy BMI, eating fruits and vegetables, and maintaining good cholesterol, blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels. Mindfulness can be practiced formally, as a daily meditation practice and informally, as a daily practice of non-judgmental awareness. Mindfulness has been found to reduce stress, depression and anxiety, improve concentration, and decrease inflammation and chronic pain. Cultivating a mindfulness practice can be a practical tool for heart health as well as a spiritual practice to help you connect to the divine within.
3. Raise your Coherence: Your heart is responsible for sending electrical signals to your brain telling it what chemicals to release, and when. High coherence between our heart and brain makes us more peaceful and happier, and stimulates our body’s natural ability to heal. According to Dr. Rollin McCraty, Research Director at the Institute of HeartMath, "Coherence is the state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. It is a state that builds resiliency – personal energy is accumulated, not wasted – leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes." When you are in coherence, your heart beats more slowly and regularly. There is a smooth, wavy rhythm to your heartbeats, affecting your brain waves, your nervous system and your immune system, and well as your mental, emotional and physical body. You can easily raise your coherence by connecting to your breath and practicing coherent breathing. Several minutes of slow, rhythmic, conscious breathing, rising and falling from the heart center can calm your emotions, reduce anxiety and help you listen to the guidance of your heart.
4. Increase Intake of Magnesium: Chances are, you don’t get enough magnesium in your diet. Almost 80% of Americans don’t get enough of this essential mineral and this missing ingredient is a major contributing factor in declining heart health. Magnesium is responsible for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It is a muscle and nervous system relaxer and regulates the heart rhythm by coordinating the activity of the heart muscle and the nerves that initiate the heartbeat. Symptoms of a possible magnesium deficiency include anxiety, musculoskeletal tension, migraines, constipation, insomnia, and irregular or rapid heartbeat. Commonly high levels of supplemental calcium intake not adequately balanced with magnesium, leads to an elevated risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, plaque build-up and hardening of the arteries. While the traditional recommendation has been a cal/mag ratio of 2:1, the fact that so many of us do not meet our daily requirements of magnesium, a ratio of 1:1 or even 1:2 may be required to restore proper balance when calcium supplements are taken. Eat a magnesium-rich diet of dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, and take time out to soak in a warm Epsom salt bath, rich in magnesium sulfate, to relax your body and mind and nourish your spirit.
5. Eat Purple & Blue Fruits & Veggies: Blue and purple fruits and veggies such as blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, purple cabbage, figs, plums, prunes, purple grapes and raisins derive their royal colors from a phytochemical, a natural plant pigment, called anthocyanins. This phytochemical acts as a powerful antioxidant, protecting cells from damage. The darker the blue/purple hue, the higher the anthocyanin concentration. Studies indicate that these plant chemicals may help to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure, preventing the formation of clots and improving the health of blood vessels. These fruits and veggies also contain a flavonoid component, called resveratol. Resveratol has been shown to benefit the cardiovascular system and heart, facilitate the flow of blood to the brain, and reduce the risk of stroke, cancer and inflammation. Purple plants are also known to be beneficial for mental health by relieving insomnia, anxiety, migraine, and depression.
6. Create Sacred Space: Surrounding yourself with flowers, growing a garden, spending time in nature and sniffing essential oils, like rose, lavender, lemon, and bergamot are all great ways to nourish your heart and soul. Researchers in Taiwan exposed 100 people to a room filled with bergamot oil. Participants remained in the room for two hours, while researchers intermittently measured each person’s heart rate and blood pressure. Within 15 to 60 minutes of initial exposure, levels dropped. Soul-stirring beauty and color; brain-stimulating, emotion-balancing scents and fun outdoor activities in fresh air and sunshine can help you cultivate a heart-healthy positive mood and outlook on life.
7. "Health is Wealth, Peace of Mind is Happiness, Yoga shows the Way" : We all know by now that exercise is good for our body, heart and mind, but a simple daily yoga practice can take exercise to a deeper level. By reducing pain, anxiety and stress, raising coherence and creating a mindful fitness practice to lower blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight, postures such as Fish, Bridge, Camel, Sphynx, Cobra, “Wild Thing,” Child’s Pose and Savasana help to open and balance the heart energy center, while strengthening and balancing the physical, mental and emotional bodies. Trauma of the heart and mind resides in the physical body. Deep emotions are often physically felt in the heart. Yoga gently and safely guides us into our deeper selves, connects us to our breath, and dissolves the grief and suffering we unconsciously hold on to. Set your intention and tap into your true bliss with a heart-warming, soul-stirring daily yoga practice.
8. Heart-Strengthening Mudra – Yoga Mudras are gestures created by the hands. By creating specific shapes with the hands and fingers we can communicate with the body and mind, by guiding energy flow and reflexes to the brain. Apan Vayu Mudra is a very powerful mudra for strengthening the heart and soothing anxiety. In ancient India, it was considered to be a lifesaver in case of a heart attack. To perform this ancient gesture, the index finger touches the base of thumb, the tips of the middle finger and ring finger touch the tip of thumb, while the little finger stretches out. Breathe slowly and deeply and practice 15 minutes twice daily, to soothe the heart, and manage blood pressure and stress.
9. Practice Active Compassion: Science confirms that chronic stress can literally break your heart, while compassion may help to heal it. Compassion may boost our well being by increasing our sense of connection to others. Positive effects of compassion include healthier heart and brain function and significantly reduced risk of depression, chronic pain, sleep deprivation, and mood disorders. Acts of kindness are often associated with emotional warmth, which in turn produces the hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, reduces blood pressure and protects the heart from stress. Volunteer at your local homeless shelter, visit a friend in need, or commit random acts of kindness to increase this warm and fuzzy hormone in your body.
10. Offer Loving Kindness: Our judgments and fears can diminish our expression of love, dimming the lens through which we see ourselves and others. We may often find ourselves preoccupied or self-absorbed, preventing us from reaching out for connection. The loving kindness meditation is a way of awakening our capacity to love and to connect with the goodness in ourselves and others. In this mediation we extend kindness, first to ourselves, then to someone we love, someone we like, someone we are in conflict with, to family and friends, then finally the world around us. Practice heart-centered coherent breathing, allow your body and mind to relax, and invite the following words to fill your body, heart, mind and spirit:
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I accept myself just as I am.
May I be at peace and at ease.
May my heart, body, mind & spirit awaken and be free.
May I be my own best friend.