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Heart Basics: Restoring Balance to Our Beautiful, Effortful Hearts

Our hearts are a study in capacity. Like a salmon swimming upstream, our hearts are constantly beating, working and pumping. While we are planning a wedding, sitting at a loved one’s bedside, driving in maddening traffic, watching our team win the World Series-our hearts are there through it all. Toiling away- they create the steady drumbeat that allows for our life.

We have a unique felt sense of the heart associated with emotion. Reflect on the following phrases:

- Heavy heart

- Heartbroken

- Open hearted

- Tender hearted

One of my favorite teachers, Pema Chodron, has a beautiful meditation in which you imagine venting your heart. I love the imagery of the actual heart- the multi-chambered, muscular, complex pump. I imagine my heart vents are like big beautiful sails (more like gills- for some reason they are ombre colored, tapering from red to gold) that allow my beating heart to contain more, to expand, to fill the entire center of my chest. In imaging my heart splayed open like this, I connect with how my suffering is not unlike the suffering of others, how many suffer more deeply than I can ever understand, how I can be more generous and open hearted to bear witness to myself and to others. Is there anything more nourishing?

Functionally, our hearts are the great pump for our body. Since most of the processes in our body require oxygen in order to run smoothly, our hearts take blood that has been oxygenated at our lungs, and they move that blood to help bring fresh oxygen to almost all cells in our system.

In order to generate enough force to move blood throughout the entirety of our system, the inner wall of hearts are made up of a special kind of muscle tissue- myocardium. Myocardium (cardiac muscle) is similar in structure to skeletal muscle, yet it is also specifically designed to communicate electrical impulses in order to allow the heart muscle cells to function well together.

If our hearts are the steady drum beat underlying all of our body’s functions, then our sinuatrial (SA) node is a special group of cells within our heart, is the conductor for that drum.

The specialized cells of the SA node, also known as the pacemaker cells, create an electrical impulse that affects the function of all heart cells. The SA node tells the other cardiac muscle cells when and how to fire.

The pacing and activation of the SA node comes directly from two branches of the autonomic nervous system (that we have discussed quite a bit in our explorations) – the parasympathetic and the sympathetic.

The sympathetic system arises from the thoracic portions of the spinal cord, and has branches of the sympathetic nervous system which articulate directly with the SA node. When activated, these fibers create an increase in heart muscle contraction rate and force. The sympathetic fibers also allow for the dilation of cardiac arteries (the blood vessels supplying the heart). The sympathetic nervous system communicates in norepinephrine (you can think of it as adrenaline).

The parasympathetic nervous system fibers that supply the heart, arise from the brain stem- specifically the Vagus nerve (Cranial Nerve X).

The parasympathetic fibers communicate directly with the SA node, and causes heart rate to slow and force of heart contraction to decrease. This process is necessary for healthy heart function and a restoration of balance within our cardiac system.

Cardiac exercises generally causes a stimulation of the sympathetic system- heart rate increases and the demand for oxygen increase. Our hearts pump with greater force to move blood from our center all the way out to our toes and fingers.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults get between 150- 300 minutes of moderate cardiac activity each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Additionally, they recommend that of that total time, 2 workouts consist of moderate to high intensity strength training.

The AHA examples of moderate exercise are:

  • brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour)

  • water aerobics

  • dancing (ballroom or social)

  • gardening

  • tennis (doubles)

  • biking slower than 10 miles per hour

The AHA examples of vigorous exercise are:

  • hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack

  • running

  • swimming laps

  • aerobic dancing

  • heavy yard work like continuous digging

  • tennis (singles)

  • cycling 10 miles per hour or faster

  • jumping rope

Take a moment, and honestly reflect on your time spent in activity each week.

It can be really helpful to maintain a journal for the week, and write down (in a typical week), the minutes you spend in each of the above activities. Begin to reflect on where you fall within these recommendations.

Is it a bad thing if you are getting way over the recommended amount of activity? Not necessarily. But please investigate why you are- and please let it be out of the pursuit of joy. If you are getting up at 5 to hike in the hills because you love it so much and connect with the sense of aliveness and delight in the early hours - let it be.

If you are waking at 5 to hike in the hills because you are worried you will (insert a common human neurosis here- gain weight, let someone down, not be as healthy, fall behind someone else's capacity) please consider letting it go. Beliefs and emotion are a big driver of our autonomic function.

Like all healthy muscle, cardiac muscle is healthiest when its function is balanced. Our hearts are not served when they are underused- or when they are overused without deep restoration.

Fascinatingly, the AHA has not yet created recommendations for deep rest- deep cardiac restoration (another way of stating this would be balancing the parasympathetic and sympathetic activities). I sincerely hope they will!

I am of the strong opinion that many of us have a difficult time inhabiting a middle road practice with the heart- both challenging it with enough cardiac stress (which is ultimately nourishing), and supplying it with enough deep rest and recovery with elevated parasympathetic input.

Even if you are at a sweet spot in your minutes spent in activity, I would challenge that (as a Westerner, an American specifically) you may not be getting enough deep rest and parasympathetic stimulation.

The seeds that have been sown in our Western culture around work, around success and achievement, have made monsters of our sympathetic branches.

I know many, many of us women who feel compelled to get a heart pounding 60 minute workouts, before working for 10 hours, before preparing the perfect meal, before creating the perfect play with our children (or grandchildren), all while looking perfect while doing it. If we do go on vacation, the trip often needs to have the same goals for achievement and success that our work does. We need to vacation the hell out of Hawaii!

If this scenario of over-striving does not apply to you, perhaps there is another area of your life where you might be able to ease off the throttle a bit. Many of us have received lifelong messages that whatever we are, it is not enough. And more is the answer that will create our happiness. Maybe start to gently look at this with 5 minutes of sitting still, and noticing your breath. Wherever we are- we are enough. We start every Practical Strength class in this way, because it is so damn important.

When I was diagnosed with Grave’s Disease in 2015, my resting heart rate was 120 beats per minute (hello, norepinephrine!), I was in pain and fatigue and I could only really navigate the most basic functions of my life. I had to allow my life to contract inward- I had no other choice.

I constricted my social and work obligations, to allow for more ease, less doing and more quiet. I had to allow myself to give up goals, to be still, to practice saying no. I had to find a way to allow my business to stay OK, and let go of things being perfect, while I figured out survival. This was painful as hell at the time, and ultimately, it was a beautiful practice for my growth as a human (I had no choice but to move away from the devastating practices of control and perfectionism) and for the expansion of my parasympathetic processing system.

Striving and stress are good for our hearts and for us. Indeed, athletes and Navy SEALs become well adapted to learning the upside of how stress can enhance performance. They learn how to harness stress, and train both branches of the autonomic system to allow their heart to perform optimally. We will explore a technique for this (known as Heart Rate Variability or HRV training), this month.

But striving and constant stress of adult life can really mess us up. We can lose years caught in fret and anxiety. When we do not offer rest and relaxation, when we are anxious, afraid, in worry, our hearts respond as though we are getting chased by a lion on the savannah. This can happen not just with cognitive habits, but also with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not only does our heart health suffer, our brain and cognitive capacities, our bone density and most importantly - our joy are all diminished. Reduced to rubble- that is how powerful our autonomic system is.

This month we will explore the practices to give our hearts the deep rest that they need, through balancing the activity of our parasympathetic branches.

For now, put one hand on your heart. Feel its constant pulse. Take a deep breath, and allow your mind to be present for both your inhalation and your exhalation. Allow yourself to reflect, without judgement, on where you currently fall with respect to the AHA’s recommendations. Allow yourself to notice, if you can, the subtle pull to sympathetic or parasympathetic processing. You can choose to use this information as a sort of pre-test. You can choose to begin to create a different heart and cardiac balance, starting from this point and moving forward.

Until next time, happy hearts and minds!


Chana, as a stinky, baby burrito! Spend more time with puppies, and less time perfecting!

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