September 14, 2011

Confessions of a Tin Man

One of my favorite moments in the  Wizard of Oz is at the end, where the guy with a kettle for a chest finally gets a heart to put in it.

Move over Tin Man, I’m next in line.


#1: My chest is an empty kettle. See Confession #4.

#2: I often borrow Kleenex from my wife. At movies, for example, when muffled sobs come from my seat before hers.

#3: I would rather have love in my heart than anything else.  It feels better, no question, hands down. The Tin Man was the same way. This explains why we’re in the same line.

#4: (The real confession.)  OK… I really don’t get all this “heart” talk from yoga teachers.

To wit, please see the examples below.

 Examples of what I don’t get

“Today’s practice will focus on heart-opening poses.”  
(Pardon me? Are we all cardiac surgeons here?)

 “Now extend your arms and open your heart!”
(I’ll stop at arm extension thanks; the bloody excision can wait.)

 “Let your eyes, ears, and brain descend into your heart…”
(I imagine my eyes, ears, and brain swirling in a toilet bowl. A guttural chuckle issues from its throat. But then it refills and waits for more. Evidently my heart is still not satisfied.)

To restate my confession:  I really do have a tin ear for this heart stuff in yoga.  It doesn’t make sense to me, and it seems that making sense is the only way things get into my brain.

Please, pass the oil can.

The oil can

I read a white paper last week that really greased my brain on this subject, upending what I learned as a kid.  (Mrs. Thompson, 3rd grade: the brain thinks; the heart pumps blood.) As it turns out the heart is a stupendous information processor.  In this and other regards it surpasses the brain as the ruler of the body.

Here’s what the paper  said, in order of how credible the data behind them seems to my inexpert mind.

The heart has its own brain.  The heart’s nervous system contains over 40,000 neurons.  Besides allowing the heart to operate somewhat independently of the brain (thus making transplants possible) these neurons sense and interpret data, and they pass tomes of signals up to the brain.  Sometimes these signals override the brain’s own calculations.


 The heart secretes hormones, responding to changes in its environment. Some of these hormones were previously considered the sole province of the brain.  No longer.  For example the heart produces the “love-hormone” oxytocin, which occurs in even greater concentration there than in our brains.  It’s no wonder that on Valentine’s day we send our beloveds, not cross-sections of brains, but silhouettes of  hearts.

 The frequency of a heartbeat is like a chorus of voices: when they’re in harmony, something magical happens. Without going too deeply into the numbers, it’s sufficient to say that a heartbeat is a very complex waveform containing myriad patterns and overlays.  When these patterns resonate the result is enhanced mental clarity, decision making, and creativity.  Also, a harmonic heartbeat seems to be associated with positive feeling states. Om, indeed.

 The heart emits electromagnetic signals. A radiant electromagnetic field surrounds any electrical apparatus, and the gadgetry of the heart is no exception. Interestingly enough, the field generated by the heart is several thousand times stronger than the brain’s. Imagine undulations in the force field pictured below, pulsing in the resonant rhythm of the heart. It’s an amazing concept, and it happens every minute around every living mammal.

 The brain detects changes in the heart’s chords and can harmonize itself to them. The electrical patterns in the brain exhibit rhythms and resonances just like those of the heart.  It’s possible for the rhythms of the brain and heart to ‘align’, a phenomenon called entrainment.  This quality seems to be associated with enhanced feeling states and mental performance.

 Our brains may respond to signals from the hearts of others. In the same way as my brain can align with the resonance of my own heartbeat, it can also align with the rhythms from someone else’s heart.

Maybe it’s like picking up radio waves in your fillings, a phenomenon which I imagine was a real problem for the Tin Man.

A gift from the wizard

 These neat ideas all come to roost in my understanding of yoga.  Suppose the heart really does possess all of these processing capabilities, making it the yin cpu next to the brain’s yan.  If so, I’d be a fool not to learn how to use it.

And for me this heart-as-brain concept – and it is only a concept after all – provides a way to make use of the ethereal heart language floating down from the front of so many yoga classes.  It puts ham and cheese, if you will,  between the flakey wings of those low-fat croissants.

So now when a  teacher says to” tune into the wisdom of my heart”, I can imagine that I really do feel the inner voices in my chest coming into synchrony. I imagine my brain waiting for love hormones – like Toto awaiting a biscuit –  listening carefully for whatever music issues from below.

And I’m willing to imagine that there are within me other harmonies,  rhythms, and entrainments subtle or sacred,  that even the Wizards of science can’t yet describe.

Learning about them is something I’m  looking forward to.

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