“Guard the Heart.” or “What’s up with the left shoulder?”

Last week in my practice, one day I was doing what I call “Earth-hugging twist.”  In this case I was lying belly-down with the left arm extended, and reaching over to the left, I rolled over to the left to open the chest/shoulder/arm. This pose is one of my “self-created” poses that I only many years later had a teacher lead and give it some Sanskrit name which I don’t remember.  I lead it in class with some regularity.  This particular time was unique since lately in class the focus has been on “playing the edge” (still from Joel Kramer’s old Yoga Journal article Yoga as Self-Tranformation) and specifically finding the first or minimum edge, so I was doing that.  As I moved into the pose and found the first hint of resistance and stopped there to acclimate, as he suggests and as I’ve done many times before, I noticed that even here at the minimum edge, the resistance was surprisingly intense, and then all of a sudden I heard a loud, scared and earnest voice inside, felt like from the region being asked to stretch and release, “Guard the heart!”

Fortunately I have enough experience that I didn’t need to minimize, criticize, ignore, fear, justify or try to coerce that voice to be other than it was.  I just received it lovingly at face value with kindness, respect and love, and I backed up just a little bit in the pose so that it wouldn’t need to be so strident in its call.  I have done a lot of what a person may call “heart opening,” but in no way do I consider that I’m anywhere near done, so though it was surprising in its urgency, at the same time it felt like I had, in my respectful approach to my body in the pose, uncovered a long-buried and “secret” tendency; I had unearthed something that had been there all along, and which I knew about and had encountered in different ways before, but it was a layer so far under the surface that it could remain “hidden” and only come out when it felt safe enough to reveal itself.

I give all this as background on “me” and “my” exploration, but I don’t consider that this experience is in ANY WAY unique among human beings!  If you don’t feel even just a little (or a lot!) guarded around your own Heart, around the potentially divine energy center inside the center of the chest, then either “Good for you! That took a LOT of work!” or “Look deeper,” most likely, I assume, the latter.  I also share the above as encouragement to everyone reading this that you may be able to approach your body in your practice with even more care, sensitivity and respect and in the process, uncover even more, surprising but possibly obvious, deeper parts of yourself.

One of the things I’ve had on my list of things to write about for a long time now is “What’s up with the left shoulder?” since SO MANY (probably 90+% of the people I see) have some issue with the left shoulder, anywhere from obvious and painful to subtle and relatively innocuous.  (And yes, of course, some people have a right shoulder issue also or instead, especially if it’s been from injury.)  One simple and easily seen way this left shoulder issue shows up is when I guide the class to do arm circles, first one way and then the other. Then I guide the class to start with both arms up and move one arm one way, i.e. forward, and the other arm the other way, i.e. backward, and if a person does that, the two arms will pass each other at the bottom and top.  Many people can do this and some cannot, however EVERYONE I’ve seen who can’t do this motion and have the arms passing each other at the top and bottom, it’s because of some block or stuckness with the left shoulder.  In human bodies, generally we can’t say “always” about anything, and I’m sure even in this case there are exceptions, but I haven’t seen it yet, which is itself extremely noteworthy!

The obvious question then may arise, “Why the LEFT shoulder?” and not the right shoulder since most people are right-handed, which would, of course, tend to make that side more prone to injury just from its frequent use.  I think the answer was revealed in that simple statement from my body: “Guard the heart.”  The physical heart is, of course, slightly off-centered on the left side of the body, though it does overlap the midline.  Even though I think that what we really are unconsciously trying to guard is not so much the physical heart but more the energetic Heart, which is on the midline at the level of the physical heart, for some reason, maybe our physical sense of or perhaps from our training about the location of the physical heart, we tend to overwork the left pec muscles and consequently the left shoulder pulls forward in that attempt to guard the heart which starts a whole cascade of effects in the body since “it’s all connected.”  The left shoulder, then, is put in an uncomfortable or painful situation in which it is enlisted in protecting this deep, central and potentially glorious and blissful part of our Self.

A few years ago after coming back from being with Amma for a week in the summer and then being with one of my Amma brothers, he noticed that I had some special openness or Love or Peace happening, and I pointed to the center of his chest and said, “It’s right here.”  He said something like, “That seems too painful. I’m afraid that if I go there, it’ll be all dark and scary.” (good honesty, right?)  In our lives we all have experienced some emotional pain that we couldn’t deal with at the time and so “put it off till later.”  Over the years it gets compounded, in many cases around the heart as my brother had noticed.  I replied, though, “The Goodness, the Light, the Love, the Peace there in the Heart is underneath the pain and darkness.”  I still maintain this view, only from personal experience.  I believe that this pain or binding or armoring around the heart, is itself painful, quite possibly more painful than the emotional pain underneath.  As a result we are guarding against some (probably) emotional pain AS WELL AS the pain of guarding against THAT pain!  That must take a huge amount of energy!

The irony is that, as one of my teachers said so long ago, we actively, if unconsciously, guard the Heart but really the Heart is the protector!  I’ve pondered that over the decades and I still believe it to be true.  It means that we guard the region of space that we call the “Heart,” obviously, but the “Heart,” both 1. the qualities of the Heart like Love, compassion, empathy, connection, sensitivity, Universal Motherhood (as Amma, my teacher, speaks about), etc. as well as 2. That which dwells within the Heart, which the Yogis describe as The Self/God/The Indweller in all beings/Source/Emptiness/Oneness/Peace/The Inner Light, etc, ARE THEMSELVES the Protector (of us and of all beings!) and are truly in no need of outside protection IF (and that’s a HUGE “IF”) we will only let them come out and be manifested in and through our lives every day and every moment.  As long as we are intent on keeping them “protected” in our ego-/“I”-/“me”-/“mine”-mode, then that protection alone will give us plenty of suffering and prevent us from the larger “Protection”  (and Peace) that the qualities and Indweller of the Heart can provide.

Though this article is titled as it is due to simple honesty of experience, where we ARE, with the many gates we pass through, is not what I am advocating, nor, for those of us on a conscious Path, is it where we are intending to nor will we stay.  We can love ourself and Life as it is knowing full well that nothing in this world stays the same, and we can apply our loving energy in the moment and have faith coupled with introspection and know that we are, through a continuous and dedicated process, moving toward a personal experience of the Heart unguarded and ultimately unbounded and unlimited and flowing.  We just have to keep going till we get there!  May it be so.

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