When we look to the ancient texts of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) we see that the heart is thought to be the master of the blood, the commander of the vessels, and the steward of Shen. TCM is thousand of years old and their poetic descriptions of the body were born from a deep connection to themselves, to nature, and to the surrounding environment. It isn't such a stretch to imagine the heart controlling blood circulation and blood vessels, but what the heck is Shen? Shen is loosely translated as vitality or spirit, the best way I heard it described was as "The light that shines out of your eyes when you are truly awake". It is the manifestation of our vitality. The heart works closely with the pericardium, small intestine, and 'San Jiao' (not a physical organ but an energy system that governs the movement of fluids). It is also connected to the season of Summer, to the taste of bitter, to the element of fire, and the health of the heart is reflected in the tongue and face. Exercise and cardiovascular health is only part of the story when it comes to your heart. Heart health has much to do with your sense of purpose, contentment, and vitality.
Because your heart is so intimately linked to your vitality, if your heart energy is low you may get symptoms such as a vague sadness that doesn't seem to have a cause, difficulty concentrating or poor memory, a feeling of a lack of purpose or direction, anxiety or a type of chronic restlessness, and of course, heart symptoms such as palpitations or an irregular heartbeat.
Garnering a sense of self-love, finding your purpose, practicing gratitude, and finding your joy can all help to nourish your Shen and your heart energy. Let's take a look at those individually:
Self-love: When I was growing up (in the UK), the idea of loving yourself was frowned upon as being 'big-headed'. There was very little emphasis on the importance of being comfortable in your own skin and having love and compassion for yourself. But the consequences of this can be detrimental and far-reaching. If you haven't been used to having love for yourself, then this is going to take some practice. It is like a muscle that you have to gradually build. It is no good just to look in the mirror and say "I love you" because your cells won't believe you if the only message they have heard is the opposite of love. Start small by naming a part of your body that works well, or something that you did that was kind, or a job that you did well. And do this consistently.
Finding your purpose: Research shows that people with a strong sense of purpose are less likely to develop heart disease, have a stroke, or develop depression or dementia. But what does it mean to find your purpose? Your purpose is the part of you that is left when you take off all of your hats. It is not your job title or the fact that you are a parent or a spouse. It is the drive that gets you to donate your time money or skills to something you believe in. It is the part of you that does the thing that you love, (even though you don't earn any money from it). It is doing that thing you loved to do as a child, (even though you might not be very good at it). It is doing more of the things that get you into your flow, (you know when you are so engrossed in something that you forget to check your phone). Finding meaning in your life, however small, will have a positive effect on your heart health.
Practicing gratitude: One thing I do most nights before I fall asleep is name 3 things I did well that day and 3 things I was grateful for. This can vary from "I drank plenty of water today" to "I didn't stab anyone in the eye with my fork today" to "I was grateful for the birdsong this morning". By listing all of the good things in your life you are re-wiring your brain for positivity. The scientific research is very promising in this area, but try it for yourself, be consistent, and notice the shift in your own mindset.
Finding your joy: It is easy to see why joy is the main emotion associated with the heart. Joy tends to be found in the small daily things: the smell of other peoples washing powder (why does it always smell better?), fairy lights left up all year round (they are called joy lights in our house), the heat you feel when your little one (or cat) leans against you, or seeing a dog with its head out of the car window. The trick is to be mindful enough to notice the small things and to continuously drip feed the tiny moments of joy into your heart's deposit account.
When I trained in China, I noticed the parks were full of people exercising, but I didn't see anyone jogging, HIIT training, or generally breaking a sweat. They were all practicing Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or ballroom dancing. They were exercising for health rather than to burn calories or change their body shape. The thought of having to wear tight-fitting clothes and being in a room full of hardcore gym-goers can put some people off exercise. If prescribed exercise isn't your jam, keep it simple, regular, and fun, by finding movement that gives you that inner glow and makes you feel good inside. It can be as simple as taking a walk, forest bathing, or salsa dancing. And you get extra heart points if you find movement that you enjoy that you can do with a friend. You don't have to push yourself to the limit to improve your heart health.
Another way to nourish your heart is to look at its partnered organ, the pericardium. The pericardium is the connective tissue that surrounds your heart, protecting it from infection and physical shock. But, your pericardium also tries to protect you from emotional shock, grief, or trauma. If you have ever suffered from a broken heart (and who hasn't?), then your pericardium will energetically put up protective walls to prevent you from further pain. This can be a great strategy at the time, but in the long run, it can prevent you from fully giving and receiving love to and from others, and to and from yourself. The drawbridge that stops more pain from coming in also prevents the love from entering and leaving. This fear of being hurt again can mean we lose a meaningful connection to others and ourselves, which is not so good for our hearts.
You can practice a visualisation where you thank your pericardium for its protection, but let it know that you are safe now, and if it continues being on high alert there will be the potential of shutting out love. You can then invite that protective wall to take a couple of bricks out here and there, then if that feels safe you can take a few more bricks out at your own pace. You can do this with one hand over your heart while saying whatever words are meaningful to you, or you can journal or dance the emotional blockage away - do whatever resonates with you. You can also use the acupressure points P6 and H7 that I will discuss later on to clear the energy from the meridian.
Another aspect to consider is the TCM connection between the heart and the uterus. There is a meridian that bridges the two (Bao Mai meridian), but it isn't such a stretch to think of the heart and womb being connected (or the heart and prostate in men). If you have unprocessed emotions from trauma such as a miscarriage, sexual assault, birth injury, or a termination then the meridian between your heart and your womb may be blocked. An event can be so overwhelming that we shut the memory of it away in the hope of not having to process the pain. I see this in a lot of clients who are having a challenging time getting pregnant. After a while, they start to think of their womb as being broken, and they (non-consciously) disconnect themselves from that area. So, if I am working with a client with reproductive health issues, I often work with their heart energy too. If you have had a challenging time with fertility, miscarriages, or period issues, you can connect with your heart and imagine that channel between your heart and womb flowing freely. You can do this in any way that feels right to you, either by sending a colour, words, or feelings between the two. Or book in with your acupuncturist if you feel too numb or cannot find a way through your blockage.
We will focus on two acupressure points that you can use at home for your heart.
The first one is called Heart 7, H7 for short, or more poetically called Spirit gate. Because you don't need pinpoint accuracy, you can gently massage where the palm of your hand joins your forearm (little finger side) at the crease of your wrist. This point is good for:
The next one is called Pericardium 6, P6 for short, or Inner Gate. This point is well known for relieving nausea, and you may have seen magnetic wristbands that sit over this point. It is also on the forearm (on the side of the forearm that doesn't tan), and you can find it 3 fingers widths along from the crease of the wrist.
So, of course, your cardio fitness is going to support your heart health, but here are accessible affordable ways of nourishing your heart and feeding your spirit so that the Shen can shine out of your eyes.
Alison is a registered acupuncturist and co-owner of Blossom Natural Health in Chelmsford. She has been specialising in fertility and women’s health for the last 20 years and is the fertility acupuncturist for Bourn Hall fertility clinic in Wickford. She loves combining Acupuncture, Cranio-Sacral Therapy and Somato-Emotional Release to help her clients with stress, digestive issue and pain relief.