During the hot summer months, it can be hard to psych yourself up to "get out and sweat." But according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), intense cardio isn't the only way to boost heart health.
Gentle poses can tone this life-giving muscle, too, by stretching and compressing the torso and rib cage, which house and protect the heart, and by activating the meridian (energy path) that carries the heart's energy.
"When you hold a pose and relax into it, you stimulate the connective tissues that the deeper meridians run through, improving their ability to function," says Sarah Powers, author of "Insight Yoga."
Powers developed this sequence of poses to address the major body parts through which the heart meridian flows. "The idea is to relax, release stress, and let your body rest," she says, "so it can balance and heal itself."
For optimal heart health, alternate between a day of quiet practice and a day of more active exercise like Vinyasa yoga or traditional cardio. Balancing physically demanding exercise with a gentler routine works your heart in new ways, while nourishing your whole being.
Find a cool spot to spread out your mat, and use whatever props (pillows, blankets) you need to make each pose comfortable. Breathe naturally when performing this routine -- don't strive or push -- and let your muscles soften. Start by spending 1 to 3 minutes in each pose, and then gradually work up to 3 to 5 minutes.
What it does: Compresses the front of the torso, nourishing the heart meridian. Also opens the hips and lower back, and decompresses the spine.
How to do it: Sit on the floor with knees bent and soles of the feet touching. Move your feet away from your hips so that your legs form a diamond shape. Lift your spine tall and bring your hands to your ankles, palms together. Fold forward at the hips; at the same time, extend your arms as far in front of you as you can, keeping your palms together. Let your head fall forward or rest it on a firm pillow (or stack of pillows, depending on your flexibility) placed on your feet or lower legs (again, depending on flexibility). Hold for 1 to 3 minutes.
What it does: Lifts and broadens the chest, which stimulates the heart meridian. Temporarily puts pressure on the lower back, releasing tension and stimulating the kidneys, which promotes vitality.
How to do it: Lie on your belly on the floor with your legs, buttocks, and feet relaxed and arms folded (palms down) by your sides. Prop yourself up on your forearms, with your elbows shoulder-width apart and 1 inch ahead of your shoulders. Bring your palms together. The buttocks, legs, and feet remain relaxed. Gaze straight ahead, keeping your chest lifted and shoulders back. Hold for 1 to 3 minutes.
What it does: Opens the chest and heart meridian and relieves lower-back tension. Also stimulates the kidneys.
How to do it: Lie on your stomach with your legs relaxed and arms extended in front of you. Using your back muscles, lift your torso up into a backbend and rest your hands on the floor about 4 inches in front of your shoulders, keeping them slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Turn your hands out to a 45-degree angle; don't lock your elbows. Look directly ahead. Hold for 1 to 3 minutes. (If you feel any pain, follow suggestions from Sphinx pose.) To come out, bend your arms and lower your torso to the floor. Spend a minute on your stomach, and then push your hips back and sit on your heels, with head down and arms stretched in front of you. Stay for a few minutes to rest the lower back.
What it does: Applies gentle pressure to the shoulders and upper arms, stimulating the heart meridian as it travels to the fingertips. Also relieves tension in the neck and upper back.
How to do it: Start on all fours with your knees directly under your hips and palms below your shoulders. Drop your left forearm to the floor; it should be horizontal in relation to your body, with the upper arm perpendicular to the forearm. Reach your right arm straight out with fingers spread and extended. Stretch your spine until it is as long as possible, keeping your hips directly above your knees (adjust your arms to accommodate the length of your spine), and rest your head on your left forearm. Relax for 1 to 3 minutes. Come back to all fours, reverse the placement of your arms, and repeat the move.
What it does: Energizes the chest and side of the body, nourishing the heart and lung meridians. Also stimulates the meridians of the lower body, improving the flow of qi (energy) throughout your body.
How to do it: Sit on a mat with your legs in a wide straddle and your weight shifted slightly forward. Lift your spine tall, and then lean your torso to the left and bring your left elbow to the floor in front of your left knee. Reach the right arm overhead and let it rest on your head. Relax for 1 to 3 minutes, then return to the starting position for 5 breaths. Repeat on the right.
What it does: Stretches the spine, abdomen, and chest, stimulating the heart meridian. Also improves digestion. "This pose is particularly helpful to anyone with diseases of the breast, heart, or lungs," says Powers, "because it gently opens the chest, encouraging the flow of qi and activating the body's natural healing response."
How to do it: Lie on your back with your knees bent, soles of the feet on the floor, and arms extended in a "T." Drop both knees to the floor on your left, keeping your right leg stacked directly on top of your left leg and your knees at hip height. Keep your right shoulder weighted toward the floor. Extend your right arm straight above your head. Turn your head to the left and stay for 1 to 3 minutes. Use your abs to bring your knees back to center. Rest here for 5 breaths, then switch sides and repeat. When done, hug your knees into your chest for 5 breaths to allow your spine to unwind.