— Shiva Sutras, 8th – 9th century
The story of humanity’s fall from grace has been told and retold in cultures throughout the world for many ages, and while it has been used as parable for countless aspects of the human condition, I can think of no greater example of this fundamental disconnect than the fact that we as a species have literally forgotten how to care for our own hearts.
Of all the thousands of varieties of creatures on this planet that are blessed to have full, beating hearts, we are alone in this fate. We neglect our hearts, and our hearts fail. This is a great, and growing tragedy.
Historically our fall from grace is almost universally depicted as a result of stubborn rebellion against a natural law or order, and this holds true in relation to our treatment of our hearts. Through increasingly complex lifestyle structures of our own design, we have lost what it means to live within the natural order and balance that our hearts actually want. The earth provides bounty that will keep us whole and healthy, and we choose that which will make us sick. The earth invites us to run wild and free across her vast expanses, and we choose to seclude ourselves to little boxes.
How we treat our physical hearts is the direct foundation for our lives and for our spiritual path. The great alchemists of antiquity knew full well that physical reality mirrors spiritual reality, and it is no accident that the very behaviors that result in a sick physical heart stem from the exact impulses that we are working to transform on the spiritual path.
So the most basic, fundamental practice we can develop on our journey of reconnection to the heart is to know what our physical hearts need to be truly healthy and to care for them diligently and lovingly.
I call the practice of the physical heart The Crucible.
The Crucible, in alchemy, is the heated vessel that sits upon the sacred fire and holds the base material that is methodically cooked and purified into gold. Spiritually, the process of lighting, feeding, and caring for the sacred fire and burning away impurities directly reflects the process of caring for the physical heart. The crucible is also this physical life itself, this world of substance that we inhabit that provides infinite opportunities for practice.
As we embark upon the practice of the crucible, the yoga of tending the sacred fire of the heart, let us begin by waking up to the first grace of this universe — the gift of the precious flame that permeates all of creation. The white-hot furnaces of stars forge the iron in the blood that surges through our physical hearts with every breath. The heat of our bodies is generated and maintained through kinetic movement, the exact same friction that creates fire. By the time you have read this article, you will have generated and released enough heat to boil several cups of water. We are burning through this lifetime, our very cells mirroring the consumptive and expulsive process of flame itself.
When human beings first mastered physical fire, it was often the sacred and entrusted duty of one person, the keeper of the flame, to ensure that the precious fire was never extinguished. This person had to deeply understand the process through which a fire is kept alive. And there are some very basic principles in the construction and care of fire that relate directly to how we can work with our physical hearts.
The first principle is that of regular sustained effort. In order to create the friction necessary to produce a healthy flame, we need to work, to practice, and we need to do so regularly without interruption or the friction dissipates. In this world of constant transformative movement, the body is also meant to move, and unless you are a tri-athlete or a professional dancer, you probably need to move more. Our body is not designed for anything remotely resembling the sedentary lifestyle we’ve created for it. We have fallen from grace straight into office chairs and cubicles, and the results of our self-imposed stasis manifest in everything from aches, pains, and arthritis to depression, anxiety, and mental restlessness to the actual rancid fur that grows within our tissues after even short periods of non-movement.
When the body doesn’t find its natural fulfillment through movement, the mind wanders, seeking to bring the heart back to its naturally enlivened state through other far less healthy and far more immediate stimuli. We combat the fatigue that comes with immobility through sugar and caffeine, we combat the stress through alcohol and cigarettes and anti-anxiety meds, we go to movies to hear loud crashes and explosions while slurping down sugary beverages in an attempt to shock our hearts into the same state they would be if we were running across a great mountain plateau as we are designed to do – and we fail.
Our rhythms remain completely off, our fires vacillate between weak uneven sputters and reckless blazes that burn out all too fast; we lose our natural rhythms – our sexual rhythm and sleep rhythm, our connection to seasons, all simply because we do not move.
The simple truth is we want to move. The heart wants to beat, to push blood to our limbs to fulfill our primal purpose of movement. As we light the fire of the crucible, we commit to more and more movement. We practice asana more. We hike more. We run more. We swim more. We move more so we can sweat more, so that we engage the natural fiery process of cellular purification every day. Whatever it is that brings our body joy through movement, we do it more, and we do it with greater vigor and purpose — wider movements with our limbs, life in our fingers and toes, movement in which the very skin – as it says in the tantras – is a membrane of pure radiance around an infinitely spacious vastness.
At the same time, when making this commitment towards more movement, more fire, more breath, more life, more vitality, it is important that we not get overzealous. Our tendency is to react out of a sense of panic and impulse and to try to stoke the transformative fire to its absolute fullest immediately. Such a fire will not last long. We have to remember that we are entrusted with this flame for our entire lives. We can take a longer view of our life practice and slowly set a foundation from which we can build towards a healthy heart. So the next principle that we bring into our care of the fire is that of evenness, of steady rhythm.
Rather than practice extremes — short term fixes and 14-day diets and tendon-grinding fitness challenges and weeklong cleanses followed by self-congratulatory food binges and happy hours — we look at the bigger picture of the practice we are seeking to cultivate in our hearts and we build it slowly and steadily. We set a long pace for the deep physical transformations we seek – taking a view of 10, or 20, or 50 years as opposed to a matter of weeks. We back off our short-term impulse to suddenly be the pinnacle of human fitness, and come from a place of knowing that the deepest goal is spiritual transformation and we have a very, very long time to get there.
If we do not start to bring this evenness, if we dwell in the short term and vacillate between extremes in diet, in exercise, in movement, it directly stresses our physical hearts and takes us away from the true practice of yoga, which dwells in the space of the deep and gradual. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t undertake cleanses or short term challenges at all, it means we should look at the longer term patterns we have around impulse, exercise, and diet and begin to work from a place of depth and sustainability.
The deep, rich, often emotionally painful playing field of physical exercise and of dietary consumption provides us with all the opportunity we need for a true yoga practice. If we can bring balance to this foundation of our lives, we can bring balance everywhere. We can forego many of the more complicated yogas of antiquity – and of current fleeting popularity — if we commit to a practice that deeply addresses the two most important considerations of our physical hearts as incarnate human beings: what we consume and how much we move.
To do so, we need sensitivity and patience, the next principles of keeping a flame alight. We have to know when to stoke the fire, when to feed it, what to feed it, what makes it burns cleanest and brightest and what sullies its brightness. Knowing the deep sensitivity of the human spiritual organism is a key foundation of yoga. And sensitively navigating this world of substance is the heart of Tantric practice.
The consumption of any substance that is addictive in nature has a direct spiritual impact on the human organism, regardless of whether we are consuming it in quantities sufficient to become physically addicted to it or for it to be – in western terms – a “problem.” One of the primary effects such reward substances have is that they condition our minds and hearts to remain within the cycle of the short term. Regardless of whether we are addicted, if we are always able to satiate cravings when we have them, if we are always able to reach for a drink after a bad day, then our hearts are not developing a deeper foundation.
It is not remotely an accident that all the substances that fall under the category of short-term reward – sugar, alcohol, saturated fat, and caffeine — are the very substances that are the worst for the human heart. The healthy heart asks patience of us, and steadiness, and balance and rhythm. In order to cultivate this, we need to work directly with the cycle of craving, impulse, and gratification that dominates our culture and our lives. We need to bring some evenness and depth into this very difficult place. If we try to fight impulse with more impulse, making sudden, rash decisions about what we consume or how much we exercise, then we are missing the yogic boat.
Those who know ashram life know that on arrival there is an adjustment period of a few days when the addictive mind restlessly wanders in this new space where it has no option of short-term reward – and then very quickly a deeper peace takes hold. The regular rhythm of a communally cooked meal, served when it is ready — and one which we have no control over in terms of content or portion size — is a gift that brings a great evenness and peace of heart. Eat when served. Eat what is available to all.
The natural fruits of the world, the gifts that nature gives, should ideally require some effort, some patience, some practice, some balance in order to obtain them. The rare gift of the honeycomb, the sweet fruits of the mango tree – these were rewards that came to us only seasonally, after much practice and effort and patience on our part. We are not meant to have every type of food we could ever want available to us at all times. The natural balance is right in that place between abundance and lack.
In the yogic calendar, the bi-monthly lunar days of ekadashi offer an excellent opportunity to bring some rhythm into our diets. This regular practice of fasting twice monthly is very different from making an impulsive decision to do a juice cleanse for a week because we don’t like the way we look in the mirror and then breaking that fast with an overabundance of “reward” foods. Regular, methodical fasting is a long-term practice, a clean and slow-burning flame. I plan to keep this practice for life. And every month that goes by that I keep it, I can feel the benefits of the long-term practice accumulate.
In the early Christian tradition, fasting was a key component of the spiritual life, and it is very likely that Christ lived by what was called the “harmless diet” – vegetarian, if not fully vegan – of the Nazarenes. Christ understood better than anyone the balance of the healthy heart. The true heart does not want to keep or hoard anything. The physical heart itself exists to receive and pass on. We need to create the physical conditions possible for our heart to do just this.
For most of us, this means re-tuning our sense of what is a balanced and moderate way to live. The lives that many consider moderate still lead to diseases of the heart. The lives that many consider extreme – eating more sparingly, fasting regularly, refraining from alcohol – are in line with how human beings lived, in accordance with their design and the seasonal world, for hundreds of thousands of years.
The practice of the Crucible is the practice of how we navigate the physical world, the world of tangible matter in which our physical bodies and hearts reside in a state of slow and languorous burn. In this world, we work first with the most basic elements of our physical foundation and then we can work with the fire of the heart in other ways. Here are a few:
When we rise, we connect directly to the transforming and sustaining fire of this universe by connecting with the sun. We step outside or we find a patch of sunlight and we breathe that radiance right into our lifted hearts. Maybe we do a few sun salutes. We do some deep, full breathing. We connect with the gift of life and warmth and fire within us. Practice like this, every morning.
We start to increase the amount of time we spend moving and the amount of time we spend in nature. Slowly, we start to take longer hikes. We hike to new places, gain new vistas. We add an extra asana practice into our weekly schedule. If our lives are constructed in a way that do not allow us time to move, then we take a long view of our lives and figure out how we are going to change our lives so that we can spend enough time moving. We need to this. This shifting of schedule to allow for more movement can be a deep practice in and of itself.
We increase the amount of time we spend with animals. Our hearts are naturally connected – through the ancient and holy web of biology — to all creatures on this planet, and our physical hearts respond directly to the smell of other creatures, the feel of their coarse fur, their warm muzzles on our necks.
We slowly start to work with what we take into our bodies. When possible, we choose food in its natural, divinely given state, before it has fallen from grace by being processed and modified into something other than its original form.
We cook our own food as often as we can, participating in the direct alchemy of preparing and heating the very source that nourishes us over fire. We share food with friends. The heart responds to communal meals. Before we eat, we acknowledge the source of that food and pay respect, out loud.
We connect with fire directly. We keep candles burning at home. We have a hearth, which we tend to regularly.
We recognize the wisdom of the oldest of the Vedas, which states that spiritual truths are best transmitted through song and we spend time every day exposing our hearts to song and poetic verse.
We recognize the effect that beauty has on our hearts and we surround ourselves with pleasing images of the Divine and fragrant scents and flowers. Maybe we keep a Shiva stone, directly honoring the transformative fire of the universe with the milk of birth and nourishment, the flowers of life in all its fullness, and the ash of death and regeneration.
As we practice this yoga of physical existence, we stoke the fire of the heart throughout the day. Any fire needs oxygen to grow — it needs the pumping of the bellows to reach its white-hot fullness. So we commit to breathing more deeply.
There is no need for us to do any fancy or elaborate pranayamas, we simply commit to a spaciousness of breath. We practice prying open a few more little spaces in the ribcage through our breath, finding more and more areas that can receive light and warmth and fire. We practice returning to the breath more often throughout our day. We find that primal rhythm as often as we can – from once or twice a day to hourly, from hourly to once every few minutes. From there, to each breath we take.
In the Vedic understanding, tapas, the heat, the flame of rhythmic spiritual effort, fires the very universe, permeates all processes of creation, heats the body, incubates the newborn in the womb and the seed in the soil, causes growth and pain, brings fruit, and draws the love and attention of the gods. All is surrounded by fire, evidenced by the great wheel of stars in which we make our home. All is permeated with heat. And we are holders of that first, primal, precious flame.
Let it not be said of us that we let our precious flame suffer or die out before its time. Let it be said that we cultivated that flame wisely — that we found the grace of our natural hearts all over again, and that we were wise keepers of that which was entrusted to us.
In the careful cultivation of the flame of the crucible of our hearts, there in that glorious practice of heat and breath and light, shines the true gold.