Yoga Rockford: The heart of yoga

By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio

What is yoga, and why do we practice? “Yoga” is translated from Sanskrit as “union.” The eight aspects of the yoga practice are set up to unite and align our outer nature (Prakrti) with our internal self (purusa). Through this union, we come to a better understanding and awareness of who we really are, allowing us to live a more truthful and realized life, from the heart.

The heart space at the center of the chest is where, in yoga terms, our true self (purusa) lies. It corresponds to the Anahata chakra, the energy center of emotion and the bridge of connection between the lower material chakras to the higher spiritual ones. Awareness and connection to this space is key to the union toward which yoga guides us.

But, so much talk about the chakras and the spirituality of yoga gets to be esoteric and ungrounded when the reality of yoga is practical and stabilizing. The actual practice of yoga gives tangible and reachable results.

Take, for instance, simply the way we hold our body. As life takes over and we are weighted down by stresses and aggravations, we begin to slouch, to close off the heart space, to shut our own self down to protect ourselves from feeling what is going on around us. We become who we think people want us to be, and we continue to disconnect from that eternal truth within.

The first Iyengar Yoga class you take will draw you immediately back into the space of the heart. You learn to stand up straight and to engage the shoulderblades, so the heart is supported from the back body. You strengthen your base through standing poses, and, as your base strengthens, your heart is lifted. You don’t have to think about the heart or the chakras — you just experience them.

So, stand up a moment and see how your chest feels from all sides: maybe a little weighted down by the heaviness of your shoulders, maybe completely dull and unaware, maybe sunken in from years of sitting at a computer or desk. Then, take your arms overhead, really reach them up, extend them as far as you can. Take some very deep breaths trying to bring your breath a little higher toward the top chest. Most of the time, we try to do this by pulling up on our shoulders, still putting stress on the heart. Take some time to see where your feet are: are they equally balanced and underneath your hips, can you feel the muscles firm, supporting the bones — or do the legs dump all your weight and energy into the floor instead of pulling energy up toward the heart?

The simple act of standing with alignment in this pose — called Tadasana (mountain) — will bring strength and stability back to the center of your self. And this is just the beginning of the practice to bring more awareness and connection to the heart of yoga.

Physically, all poses (asana) develop the strength and flexibility needed for stable, seated meditation, allowing us to focus the mind inward. We work on the breath (pranayama), increasing energy and lung capacity, and bringing more space and support from the inside out. These practices are directly connected to our emotional well-being and have broad effects on our life.

With increased internal awareness from the practice of yoga, we also build awareness of our surroundings and their effect. We are able to begin the alignment of our internal self with our external environment, ultimately sustaining a place of balance and stability through all the changes of life.

The heart of yoga is inside every one of us. We just have to step onto the mat, do our work, and discover the truth within.

For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit or call (815) 968-9642.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2011, issue

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