5 Intention-setting Ideas to Improve Your Heart’s Health

“If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.” ― Rumi

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing the same old suggestions of eat healthier, exercise more, and stop smoking if I want to keep my heart strong.  Not that these suggestions are bad ones, it’s just that when they stand alone without a broader view of what impacts our hearts, they can be almost impossible to do.  Easier said than done, I say!

Living in a culture that values independence, extroversion, and multi-tasking, we can find ourselves alone, seeking the company of others for inspiration and energy while trying to do more with less.  What I have found is that this can be a recipe that feeds an underlying monster gnawing at our self-worth, supporting a compulsion to compare ourselves to others in an attempt to measure our value, and fueling behaviors that reflect our efforts to try to be “super” human or risk being perceived as “less than” when we fail to accomplish the unrealistic or impossible.  If we don’t recognize all of the factors that create chronic stress in our lives and work to reduce that stress, we will continue to crave “comfort foods” and be less likely to seek out, none-the-less implement other heart health-supporting activities or behaviors.

I was directly and indirectly taught as I grew up that it was “selfish” if I focused on myself in any way.  What I have since learned through much trial and error, anxiety, and exhaustion, is that i MUST focus on myself or risk becoming someone no one wants to be around.  If we don’t practice some sort of “self-care” each day where we honor our own needs, we create an internal environment of increasing, chronic pressure that builds to a boiling point, jeopardizing our own well-being and the well-being of the lives we touch.

Therefore, below (and in my blog this month) I am honoring American Hearth Health month by offering 5 intention-setting ideas supported by new research that can reduce cortisol, our stress hormone and improve your heart health by creating opportunities to slow down and giving ourselves permission to focus on one task at a time in order to honor our humanness and our universal value by simply BEING:

  1. Shorten Your Daily “To Do” List.  A belief that has crept into many of our hearts and minds is that we must do more than others in order to be valued in this world.  The fear that underlies this belief is that if we don’t outperform others and be recognized for our “super” human feats, we will be pushed aside, left out of our tribe leading to the loss of our basic human survival need of connection. This unhealthy belief may have some roots in Darwin’s theory of natural selection, yet this theory simply suggests that we adapt to our environment not expect humans to have super hero qualities. Therefore, I challenge you to try limiting your “to do” list to just 3 important tasks per day, with at least one of them being a self-care item, for one week. After a couple of days, reflect on what it is like to set and maintain more realistic expectations of yourself.  And don’t forget to reflect on the responses you get from others.  To support yourself in this challenge, a mantra that I repeat often is “less is more” so maybe write this mantra down first before crafting your new shorter daily “to do” list.  I look forward to hearing about the results!
  2. Remember to Breathe.  The human body is amazing in so many ways and one of the most magnificent is the fact that our breath has both an involuntary and voluntary component to it!  We all recognize that we don’t have to consciously think about moving the body systems that support our ability to breathe in order to breathe.  If it was required then the only thing we would need on our daily “to do” list is a reminder to constantly focus on our breath! However, if we don’t take time to sit with our breath more consciously, it will become short and constricted, depriving our bodies of what it needs most to live fully, exacerbating the stress our bodies are already under.  On the other hand, stopping several times throughout our day to engage more actively with our breath has been shown to reduce stress hormones in the body and mind. When you focus on your breath, you more deeply appreciate the fact that it is the only part of your autonomic nervous system that you can control.  And it doesn’t take too long for the breath to reduce the increased levels of cortisol created from stress.  Simply inviting a longer, deeper inhale and exhale into your day for 3 to 5 breaths maybe 3 times a day for a week is a great place to start. With this practice you may begin to notice that it only takes about 90 seconds to feel a difference!
  3. Aromatherapy.  Engaging our sense of smell with essential oils has also been shown to affect the levels of stress hormones in the mind and body. Specifically, bergamot has been shown to increase the hormone responsible for calming the adrenal glands so they are less likely to secrete cortisol and lavender has been shown to reduce cortisol levels.  One simple way to incorporate the heart-healthy benefits of aromatherapy is to use a diffuser.  Another option is to put about 5 drops of oil on a wet wash cloth and place the cloth on the shower floor as you shower each morning.  If you prefer taking a bath, no problem just add the oil right into the bath water and maybe consider adding some Epsom salts for a two-pronged approach to reducing inflammation in the body and mind.
  4. Listen to Music.  Research is starting to show that listening to a specific genre of classical music can reduce blood pressure.  The classical music compositions that had the greatest impact were ones that matched the rhythm of the body, ones that had a slower, repeating 10-second rhythm.  Not a big fan of classical music, maybe try finding a mix that includes the sounds of nature, such as rain, thunder, ocean waves, waterfalls, or even crickets.  Double the relaxation by having the music playing while you bathe!   .
  5. Strive for Satya.  Satya is one of yoga’s guiding principles and is the Sanskrit term for truthfulness.  However, it has a broader meaning than simply speaking the truth.  It challenges us to consider the intentions behind our actions and our actions themselves. So not only do we consider the truthfulness of our words, we consider if our words, intentions and actions are in harmony and integrity with the greater truths with which we value and by which we live.  When we stray from our truths and thus venture into deceit, we betray ourselves and others, bringing unnecessary stress and pain into our bodies and minds. And one of the most common experience of straying from our truths is buying into the story that self-care is selfish!  In fact, spending time with ourselves, by ourselves, in self-reflection for self-discovery is another one of yoga’s guiding principle, but that is a topic for another day.  Suffice it to say here and now that by taking the time to identify and own your personal values and being guided by those values in your daily interactions will go a long way towards reducing stress in your life and the lives of others.