*Check out my review of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove on Burlesque Press!*
“Melt your heart. Strengthen your heart. Breathe around your heart and support it with air.” Last night my yoga teacher had lots of instructions having to do with the heart. She was a woman about my age with black corkscrew curls escaping from a loose braid down her back, and she had equally dark hair that appeared whenever she raised her long, white arms. I watched her as she sat at the front of the room in lotus position, her limber legs folded, her eyes closed. Her skin was radiant and smooth against the planes of her face — a face that was soft and round, yet strong, like a cherub carved in marble. She was beautiful, but I got the feeling that her beauty was strengthened by a constant, joyful light that shone out from somewhere deep within her.
“Feel the muscles around your heart tighten,” she told us. “We need this heart. We need to support it and keep it strong.” I breathed in, breathed out, and for the first time all day, I thought of the beating core of my body.
At the end of class, we chanted “shanti,” which means peace in Sanskrit, followed by three long, deep oms.
“People are assholes,” Paul said when I got home from yoga. “People do terrible things to each other all the time. People are immoral and awful.” He had been reading the news.
I thought about the people I had just been with in yoga class – strengthening their hearts, chanting for peace.
“Not all people,” I said. “Some people are trying to be good and do good things.”
Paul had been reading about Syria. He was worried this was the beginning of another world war. “You don’t seem concerned,” he said. “Why?”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew I should be concerned. But Syria is so far away from my daily experience, and I can’t understand the motivations and actions of these power-hungry people with their violence and their chemical weapons. Maybe everybody needed to start practicing yoga. (Fat chance on that, though.)
“I feel optimistic that the diplomatic intervention will work,” I said finally. I was hard for me to imagine war when I’d just been been meditating on peace.
At the end of yoga class, before we chanted, the beautiful teacher told us to place our palms against our chests. “Think about your heart,” she said. “Think about it physically – what it does for your body. Think about it emotionally. Set an intention for your heart.”
My heart, I thought. It sends blood to the rest of my body. Without it, I would die. The heart is associated with certain feelings, but not all of them. We feel hate and excitement and fear in our gut. (I hate your guts. Butterflies in my stomach.) We feel anxiety in our chests, our lungs. We carry stress and frustration in our necks, our jaws, our shoulders. The heart, it seems, is associated with only things: love and the loss or lack of it.
The thing about feelings is that, in general, we expect them to come and go. We may feel angry or excited now, in this situation, but we know these feelings will fade and be replaced by different feelings in different situations.
So why do we assume that when we say “I love you” to someone, it is a feeling that will endure? Isn’t love like the other feelings – something that floods through us and then recedes? Is this why people get divorced? Because that feeling of love they thought was forever faded from their hearts?
As I lay in shivasana, I wondered if we should think of love as something more than just a fleeting feeling, something out of our control. Maybe, instead, love is something we create and strengthen and support. Something we learn to cultivate and share.
The heart has an important job: it pumps blood to the rest of the body, bringing oxygen to the limbs and organs and brain. Love, too, is felt through action. Love must work hard. It moves outward, away from the heart, strengthening the world. Without it, we will die.