Monthly Archives: July 2016

Listening to the Heart During Practice – Vinyasa at Yoga on Yamhill in Downtown Portland

Heart Chakra, from WikimediaOne thing I love about teaching at Yoga on Yamhill is that I tend to have students who are visiting from out of state. I suppose they’re staying or visiting downtown, and the studio’s location at SW 2nd and Yamhill is  walkable. Plus the studio is donation-based. This Saturday I had 26 students in my class, including two visitors from So Cal. I have also had students from New York City and Salt Lake City, that I recall off the top of my head. Saturday is a good day for visitors–I always see walking tours as I stroll around between classes. Today in my noon vinyasa class we worked on heart-opening–stretching, relaxing, and healing the front, back, and sides of this very intelligent organ.

I say intelligent because the heart is actually a major location of neurons in the body. Rather than one singular location for intelligence in the body (the brain) it turns out we have many centers of intelligence, including the heart and the gut. When we say our “heart skipped a beat” or “my heart dropped,” we are speaking to the wisdom of the heart.

In yoga the heart is the location of the 4th chakra, a balancing point between lower and upper  chakras. This is where the self-protection and self interest of the lower three chakras meets the upper three chakras, which have more to do with truth, intuition, and wisdom. In other words, this is where selfishness transforms into altruism.

Over the last couple of years I have been focused on the third chakra, the energy center in the body having to do with ego. I have sought avenues for building strength, confidence, and a stable career path. I have participated in triathlons, half marathons, bootcamps, and sweaty, sweaty power vinyasa yoga classes. And now it appears I may be moving more into fourth chakra territory–how my own personal strengths and talents can serve others.

As is often the case, my own spiritual musings informed my class, where I spoke about paying attention to the heart. I know, I know, platitudes about listening to your heart abound. But my own experience in yoga and Vipassana meditation suggests that when we take time to tune into this area of the body, right around the heart, we often find what we need. We may discover that we feel hurt or jealous. We might discover disappointment or vindictiveness. Whatever we find there, we just sit and observe it.

That’s it. We notice. We pay attention.

Natarajasana Florence

Dancer’s Pose, Natarajasana, on the Oregon coast!

The trick is noticing without passing judgement on ourselves for what arises. This objective space allows a breath, a beat, to realize what our first impulse says, and then to hopefully see an opportunity to choose whether we really want to make that knee-jerk reaction. Oftentimes just acknowledging how we feel is enough to calm the spirit and bring the rational brain back online. This is the sort of meditative approach I try to foster in my classes.

Throughout today’s class, we used our arm and hand positions to open the heart. This was the crux of my “lesson” for the flow. (Students always tell me that one way my classes are different is that I actually teach, I don’t just lead movements.) I hoped that we could establish that it’s possible to open the area around the heart by moving the hands and the arms. We used hand binds to open the chest. We kicked into dancer’s pose to continue opening the front of the heart. Side body stretches–including one in an archer’s arm variation–brought us to later opening for the sides of the  heart. And finally, embryo pose and a thread the needle variation helped us open the back of our hearts.

After class, I felt so grateful for the students, and for the beautiful teaching space and community. That’s a final add-on for the 4th chakra/heart area: We can take care of it through gratitude. Physical movements, cardio, emotional support, and self-awareness are all wonderful tools for heart health, as is gratitude. Investing in gratitude always pays off–in more gratitude reflected back at you.

Here’s wishing you a heart-happy weekend!


Anjali Mudra

<image 1: By Mirzolot2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons>

© Colleen Cash 2016.


Non-Violence Starts with Each of Us

Before working on a problem, one must first admit that it exists. America’s most recent slew of police gun violence against people of color brought this conclusion from The Daily Show’s Noah Trevor, and I couldn’t agree more. But what I think this and most other analyses of violence in America fail to see is that violence is not only external. It begins inside each of us. Whatever appears in our words and actions first appears in thought. And our own reactions to life are really responses to internal experiences. In order to bring about the revolution toward love and compassion for all beings on our tiny planet, humans must first know their own internal landscapes. Certainly, we should all be working to change the world through exercising our rights as citizens. But in order to make wide-spread change that will stop the impulse toward violence, we must also set aside time to identifying and observe our own reactions.

Let me back up a step and explain how I got to this point. For the past ten years, I have practiced yoga. In my first savasana I felt comfortable in my own skin–a strange sensation since at that time I was immersed in clinical depression. I began craving yoga classes and gobbling up different types of yoga, from Kundalini to Vinyasa. After seeing how my yoga practice was moving me quite naturally toward self-acceptance and self-awareness, I decided the best way to guarantee that I would do yoga every day (which I recognized as necessary for my own health, sanity, and personal growth), was to become a yoga teacher.

What began from a very selfish place soon transformed. While I was indeed a happier, more centered person from practicing yoga regularly, I also noticed a special energetic echo from teaching yoga. I cherished observing students in what I consider their best moments–moments of struggle, challenge, doubt–moments when it’s so easy to run away or numb out. I was inspired to see people striving to stay present to all of it, the pretty and the ugly parts of themselves. I soon felt as “addicted” to the bliss of helping others practice as I was to my own   practice.

My awareness of the importance of regular, personal yoga and meditation practice grew through a retreat experience. Over the winter holidays, I spent ten days in silent meditation, learning and practicing Vipassana meditation. That style of meditation teaches that any action we take is precipitated by an internal response. Whatever strong emotions arise, we can move toward purposefully choosing our own responses by dedicating time every day to seated meditation.

That retreat reiterated the importance of personal, daily practice, and upon returning I prioritized regular seated meditation. Of course, it’s not always easy for me to set aside time for sadhana (personal practice). But I notice when I am able to practice regularly on my own (in addition to taking classes) I am much kinder to others and myself. I am better able to see my own negative mental and emotional patterns. And I am better able to take a deep breath before blurting out a hurtful comment or automatic judgement.

This fall, I will be sharing tools for inner awareness with elementary students in NE Portland at a local elementary school. In a part-time position teaching yoga to K-5 students, I will have the chance to teach breathing exercises, yoga postures, and mindfulness techniques to help students stay present. I will be focusing on how yoga can help us learn to stay present even when big emotions and automatic reactions arise. It is my goal that this work will help influence the next generation to choose awareness over violence. I hope that my work helps others feel more peaceful and more compassionate toward themselves and others.

These days, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by and powerless in the face of violence. Taking political action, volunteering, educating family members and friends–these are all healthy ways to feel better about the state of our world. But the ultimate shift toward worldwide love will not come until we also learn how to effect change from the inside out, through personal awareness practice, whether that is seated meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or other practices that help us feel present to our own physical, emotional, and mental experiences.

How do you stay present in the face of overwhelming emotions? How do you practice peace in your daily life? I would love to get a conversation started! Comment below.