How To Make Your Heart Happy
From before birth until your last breath, your heart works tirelessly to keep your Qi flowing. No part of your being is more consistent or essential than your heart. It circulates blood, processes emotions, and proves that you’re alive.
As such an important part of who you are, it only makes sense to pay close attention to what your heart needs. Unfortunately, western medicine doesn’t do a great job of helping people to take good care of their hearts. This blog post will discuss some of the pitfalls of western medicine when it comes to heart health, and how you can take control to cultivate physical, emotional, and spiritual health in your heart.
A Broken System
Let’s face it, most of our surrounding influences do not support healthy choices when it comes to caring for your heart. With a stressful environment, unhealthy food choices, and lack of regular exercise, it’s no surprise that heart disease is one of the top killers in America. The default in our society is to overwork, overeat, and under-exercise. Of course, this lifestyle pattern is a recipe for premature aging and depleted heart-health.
What is the “solution” to heart-related issues?
Well, if you live in America, it’s likely that your medical professionals will be quick to suggest medications and invasive surgeries to address many of the health issues that people experience. While there is definitely a time and place for the powerful tools that western medicine provides, these sort of “solutions” are heavily over-prescribed. The medical system’s tendency to jump straight to these choices is yet another reflection of our unhealthy imbalance toward “Yang,” while neglecting the immense importance of “Yin” energy.
When medication and surgery become such ubiquitous choices for addressing health issues, individuals feel disempowered in their relationship with their body and health. The message they are told is: “Your body has a problem and we hold the solution.” Unfortunately, the “solution” that is presented often leads to more negative side effects while avoiding the true cause of the problem: Lifestyle choices.
Even though many medical professionals realize this destructive and self-perpetuating cycle, they are often powerless to do anything about it. Large insurance companies will happily pay for medications and surgeries, but it’s rare that they’ll pay for programs that support lifestyle changes. Can you imagine your health insurance company paying for your gym membership? How about a subscription to Lee’s weekly Qi Gong classes? Most of us couldn’t imagine a health insurance company being so forward-thinking to invest in solutions that prevent people from getting sick in the first place, despite the fact that they’ll quickly fork over tens of thousands of dollars for surgery after it’s possibly too late. Although this is a very sad and disheartening reality, there’s still a lot that individuals can do to take control of their own health and well-being.
Stress And The Heart
According to Chinese Medicine, stress is the largest contributor to heart-related issues. Ironically, western medicine also recognizes the enormous damage caused by stress but still fails to invest in effective solutions to reduce the stress of patients.
Stress causes your body to contract and become tense. If you pay attention to your body when you’re feeling stressed you’ll notice that your breath is shallow and your shoulders and neck muscles flex as if a giant weight is about to land on your head. The tensing of these muscles often creates headaches and disorganized thinking.
Even though we’re usually not as aware of our internal organs, they are greatly affected by our state of stress or relaxation. Just as stress causes your neck muscles to flex, it also causes your heart to become tense and rigid. Needless to say, this is not healthy for an organ that needs to be constantly moving and flowing. A contracted heart needs to work extra hard just to do its usual job. This doesn’t even take into account the emotional damage of stress in your heart (more about this below).
Not only does your heart become tense, but your blood vessels contract and narrow like a fist around the steering wheel. In short, stress is both uncomfortable in the present moment and deadly in the long term.
Proactive Heart Health
Luckily, there is a lot that you can do to be proactive and care for your heart. Rather than wait until your doctor tells you that you’re at risk for heart disease or a heart attack, it’s essential that you take the appropriate steps now to ensure that your heart stays happy.
In Chinese Medicine, we put a lot of our focus into maintaining a happy and healthy lifestyle. In Qi Gong, there is an old saying that reflects our approach to health: “Don’t dig your well when you’re dying of thirst, do so while you’re still strong.” The meaning is obvious. A person who is dying of thirst may not have the strength to dig a well, but a healthy person who digs a well while they’re still strong will never be at risk of dying of thirst. This strategy holds true for how we care for our hearts. Take care of your heart while it’s still strong and you may never need to heal from a catastrophic heart issue such as a heart attack or heart disease.
There are a few simple yet powerful things you can do to maintain a healthy, happy heart.
Everyone talks about diet but many of us fail to eat in a way that we know is right. Too often, fulfilling a busy schedule takes priority over eating healthy foods. However, eating in a healthy way can be easy and delicious. While Chinese Medicine doesn’t make any hard boundaries about what you should and shouldn’t eat, your body will tell you what it needs. Generally, people do best when they eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and minimize sugar and heavily processed foods.
Exercise is another essential ingredient to a happy heart. When you move your body, your heart becomes stronger and the rest of your body becomes relaxed after you’re done. This reduces your blood pressure so your heart doesn’t need to work as hard, as well as gives your heart greater vitality to do its job.
In addition to caring for our physical needs, we must also seek to cultivate the positive emotional qualities of the heart. Our energetic and physical body is intimately interconnected, so our emotional experiences have a far-reaching impact on our physical body.
Emotional Heart Health
How do you respond to external stress? As humans, our internal energy is sensitive to what is happening around us. Although the world is full of beauty for us to appreciate, it also contains plenty of challenging situations that inevitably enter our personal space. Whether it’s through other individuals or the collective force of nature, the trials we encounter can affect us on a deep and meaningful level.
There are many reactive patterns that we turn to in order to make sense of situations that threaten our own sense of peace and well-being. Some of these include creating stories in our minds that don’t match reality, externalizing our pain onto others, and engaging in self-defeating behaviors. However, as humans, we also have the profound ability to choose how we want to respond to external challenges. By doing so, we can transform stress into vitality to experience strength, joy, and resiliency.
The “Healthy Emotions” Diet
We’re used to taking in energy and using it to fuel who we are. We do this at every meal. Energy enters our body in the form of food that came from the earth (hopefully) and is then transformed into energy that allows your body and mind to flourish. When your body has absorbed all of the valuable nutrients, it releases those that are no longer valuable. It is through a beautiful and well-balanced system that your stomach, intestines, and colon know exactly how to process the energy that you give it.
Although you can’t hold and touch emotional energy in the same way as food, it still circulates in a similar fashion. Emotional energy is absorbed through all of your life’s experiences and then digested into your being. How we choose to digest our emotions is up to us, and Qi Gong offers us tools to do so in a skillful and mindful way.
Just as the stomach and intestines break down food and absorb its nutrients, the heart participates in a similar role for emotional energy. When you take in new experiences, your heart is sensitive to the emotional energy that the situation presents. Whether we like it or not, our heart is aware of the energy of others, just as our ears are aware of the sounds around us.
Since energy inevitably influences us and informs our experience, it’s important to be mindful of what we allow to enter our hearts. By paying close attention to how we feel in different situations we can allow our heart to guide us toward experiences that nourish us and to avoid experiences that deplete us. Just as some foods may cause your stomach to hurt, some experiences can have a similar effect on your heart. Have you ever found yourself in a toxic conversation or relationship? Being around someone who is constantly feeding you negative emotional energy is similar to eating a moldy bag of potato chips; it just feels terrible in your body and depletes your health.
It’s wise to steer clear of negative emotional energy whenever possible. Choosing to spend time with people who treat you well is one example of practicing a “healthy emotions” diet. Nature is another great source for positive emotional fuel, as it’s constantly reminding us how to return to our place of internal harmony and balance.
Although in a perfect world we would be able to choose every energy we come in contact with, but we all know that isn’t possible. Even if we make wise choices about the energies we seek to cultivate, there will always be situations we don’t like. Therefore, it’s important to know how to process unpleasant emotions.
Facing Negative Energy
How can we face negative emotional energy in a way that doesn’t deplete us? Well, the first way is to limit what we allow ourselves to absorb in the first place.
Humans are hard-wired to look for negative energy more than positive. In prehistoric times, this was necessary for our survival. People needed to be alert for predators and other tribes that could threaten their survival. Even though most negative energy that we encounter in the twenty-first century doesn’t pose an existential threat to our lives, our parasympathetic nervous doesn’t know that. Even just an image of a life-threatening situation captures our attention and can evoke a powerful emotional response. Of course, the media isn’t shy about exploiting that reactive pattern to capture our attention.
Instead of allowing our mind and heart to be oriented around the negative energies we come in contact with, we can choose to pay attention to the qualities of love and joy that our environment holds. This can be as simple as ignoring an angry driver and instead noticing your appreciation of the landscape around you. By doing so, you allow the other driver’s emotions to pass right by you while taking in the positive qualities that the situation presents. Once you decide to practice this approach to facing negative energy, it becomes easier to observe your mind noticing the negative so that you can reorient it toward the positive.
Sometimes this approach is simply not practical. After all, part of the journey of being human is to overcome challenges. When facing negative energy is unavoidable, we need to be especially mindful of how it enters our body and what we do with it.
Since your heart processes emotions, it’s important to be aware of how it relates to the energies it comes in contact with. In Chinese Medicine and Qi Gong, we view the heart in parts. Our energetic heart experiences emotions and feelings. Our physical heart circulates blood and oxygen throughout the body. The energetic heart is very powerful and greatly influences the physical heart. That is why stress and anxiety can have such dramatic consequences on the physical health of your heart.
The other part of your heart is spiritual. Your spiritual heart transcends your own experience and is able to recognize the unity of all life. It is able to feel compassion and kindness for all beings and understand the illusion of separateness from which pain arises. When we’re in touch with our spiritual heart, it naturally leads our energetic heart to let go of pain, anger, stress, and sadness. In turn, when our energetic heart experiences healing, our physical heart releases tension and tightness as well.
Through this awareness of the heart, Qi Gong practitioners seek to bring the wisdom of the universe into their emotions and body. In addition, by working with the body you can cultivate your emotional health and spiritual awareness. At Holden QiGong, Lee seeks to educate students on how to care for your emotional energy in a way that supports love, joy, balance, and growth.
If you’re interested in learning Qi Gong practices designed to help you cultivate more joy and greater heart-health, be sure to check out our Qi Gong for a Healthy Heart Online Program.