Analysis of deformations in terms of principal directions appears well suited for biological tissues that present an underlying anatomical structure of fiber arrangement. We applied this concept here to study deformation of the beating heart in vivo analyzing 30 subjects that underwent accurate three-dimensional echocardiographic recording of the left ventricle. Results show that strain develops predominantly along the principal direction with a much smaller transversal strain, indicating an underlying anisotropic, one-dimensional contractile activity. The strain-line pattern closely resembles the helical anatomical structure of the heart muscle. These findings demonstrate that cardiac contraction occurs along spatially variable paths and suggest a potential clinical significance of the principal strain concept for the assessment of mechanical cardiac function. The same concept can help in characterizing the relation between functional and anatomical properties of biological tissues, as well as fiber-reinforced engineered materials. © 2012 American Physical Society.