Heart Openers

Today in yoga teacher training, we learned about “heart openers.” Generally speaking, these are poses shaped by gentle flexion in the thoracic spine, with scapula drawn down and shoulders externally rotated. Per my instructor, heart openers evoke powerful emotional responses, especially in people with sensitive issues bubbling close to the surface. She described energetic layers congesting the heart, dispelled by thrusting the chest forward.

Also per my instructor, swimming with dolphins connotes precognitive powers – draw your own conclusions. As the recipient of a very Westernized health education, I never know quite what to believe about these less-than-tangible energetic claims. That said, she was able to discourse for over an hour about the universe’s collective mind. This is a very traditional Eastern yogic construct, detailed in the Upanishads, a series of sacred Sanskrit texts dating from 800-200 BCE. From this perspective, yoga is a means to still the mind, allowing it to dial in again to the collective experience. Yoga in this tradition allows the mind to become aware of the universal knowledge that many other beings (birds, dolphins, etc) already share.

In the Western context, most yoga devotees seem to practice for a) strength and flexibility, b) serenity and c) energy. There is also d) attractiveness/physique, which although I’m sure is another key motivator, tends not to be as vocally acknowledged, stemming from vanity as it does. I’m usually going for a combo of fitness and a moment of inner peace.


Until today.


It’s been a rough week. That’s a lie; it’s actually been a rough 7 months. I work in a stressful environment, a fast-paced operating room where surgeons expect perfection, because anything less jeopardizes both the patient’s outcome and their reputations. That, plus the arrogance and profanity I encounter all too often is causing more stress than I actively admit. I could quit, but it’s a hugely expensive sacrifice. And my grandma died yesterday. I told myself I was happy for her, because she has been languishing between dementia, delirium, and open hostility for the last 5 years. I told myself I was strong, I was impersonal, and I was doing everything expected of me– which I am. I told myself I was fine, which was another lie.

Zip back to yoga class. It’s the end of a 9-hour class, the second this weekend. We finish with 15 minutes in a dramatic heart-opener: supine, draped over a bolster (a firm, oblong pillow), a melodic chant wafting down from the speakers. It sounds like the Benedictine chants my dad used to play on Sunday mornings (with pancakes). It’s a peaceful memory. It also reminds me of the scene in Ever After, when the prince and Drew Barrymore are at the monastery, and you can hear melodic chanting in the background. I love that movie.

Then: wham! Suddenly I’m silently crying. I can’t stop. I’m laying down, so the tears just roll down my eye creases and pool in my ears. I dab my eyes, but realize pretty quick that I’m less likely to make a mess of my mascara if I just let the tears roll down the lateral eye gutters. By the way, wearing mascara and liquid liner makes me feel like a beautiful, powerful, kickass woman, and was an intentional coping method I’d employed that day in light of the shitty, shitty week. I just want to clarify, since mascara + yoga = bimbo, generally.

Anyway, I’ve lost it. Subconsciously, I’d been working so hard to “hold it together,” toughen up, and build my protective barriers, that I didn’t pay attention to the sensations that I’d walled off. I didn’t realize how tired my heart was.

You see, nursing is a job where feeling too much is dangerous. Over the last 3 years, I’ve gotten very good at professional boundaries. I had to. For example, I took care of a dying woman who’d lost the ability to feed herself, to speak, even to move. She and her husband were both in their late 60s, and he came to the nursing home every day to feed her and keep her company. I don’t know how much of her mind was alive when I started caring for her. She was like a 160 lb oversized doll that we dressed, sat up, changed and repositioned every hour. She couldn’t speak, but would make these very loud, distressing, animalistic grunts and groans. She would roll her eyes wildly, and drool. When she could no longer swallow even the puréed and thickened foods without choking, her husband chose to have a feeding tube inserted. I took care of her through all this, and eventually she began actively dying despite the tube-feedings and life-prolonging medications. It was only at the point of active death that he consented to hospice care.

That same day, she fell out of bed – I don’t know how. I was walking past her room and heard the most sickening thud. She was sprawled naked and facedown next to the bed, silent and unmoving. Finding her completely prone on the floor, and realizing that she had fallen about 2 feet to land on her face, was one of the worst moments in my nursing career. The time it took to assess her and get the equipment and personnel in place to put her back in bed was horrible. I was so afraid we’d turn her over and find her teeth shattered. What would we tell her husband? What if her nose was broken? As it happened, her neurological status remained unchanged, all bony structures remained intact, and she passed quietly the next week. Her body was bequeathed to science. I wonder what her husband does now, with the days he used to spend at her side. It was the end of his world, and hers, but mine went on.

I have so many stories like this – stories of cancer, death, families maimed, timid children in hospital rooms who don’t understand the tubes and bags and machines tethered to their parents. I remember a father with end-stage cancer, 5 young children, and a pregnant wife. He wouldn’t try chemotherapy and radiation because he was afraid it would kill him faster. He was in so much pain, and his children were always there, climbing all over him and making the pain worse, but he couldn’t bear asking his wife to take them away. We knew that by next year she would be a single mother of six.

The point is: you can’t allow yourself to feel the same way you do in the outside world. You’d never stop crying. You couldn’t do your job because you’d be paralyzed by grief. How can you do something as mundane as charting when your patient is waiting to find out if the tumor is malignant, evacuating a miscarriage, or getting a colostomy that they’ll bear for the rest of the their life? You can’t, so you close your heart a little bit… until a damn yoga class tears it open in 15 minutes or less. And you realize that it’s spilled over into your personal life – my personal life – and I’ve only been functioning at 75% capacity for self-awareness and authentic emotion. So, do I embrace the suffering, or close it back out?


I don’t know.


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