Category Archives: Chakras & Energy

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!

XO,
C

Anjali Mudra

<image 1: By Mirzolot2 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons>

© Colleen Cash 2016.

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The Body Language of Success: Using your Body to Trick your Brain into Confidence


Maybe you’ve heard of Amy Cuddy. Her social science work on body language is renowned on The Interwebs. In her fascinating TED Talk, Cuddy discusses how, by choosing the body language corresponding to various emotions, we can attract those feelings into our lives. In other words, by shifting how we hold ourselves, we can influence which hormones–and therefore, which feelings–are distributed into the body. I find that notion simply astounding. We really can choose our emotions, just by positioning our bodies the right way.

Cuddy’s TED Talk slideshow features celebrities in powerful postures–arms extended, and always with a broad chest. (As I would say in a yoga class, they have open hearts.) In one montage we see various winners in power poses–Oprah leaning back with her hands behind her head, a winning Olympic runner with arms extended toward the heavens. Another power pose would be the  Superman and Superwoman posture–rock-solid footing with hands on hips. Power postures are open in front, while powerless poses are closed, with a rounded back and often folded arms. Powerless postures are protective, retreating, diminuitive, while power postures are open-hearted, embracing, expansive.

A classic power posture: Triumphant!

Cuddy’s research shows that holding power poses for two minutes can actually change one’s brain and body chemistry. Power poses trigger the brain to increase testosterone and decrease cortisol, bringing feelings of confidence and enthusiasm. Low cortisol and high testosterone is the hormonal profile of strong leaders–the biochemistry for “calm under pressure.” As Cuddy points out, holding a power posture for two minutes before that big meeting can actually improve your performance during negotiations.

The flip side is also true–participants in Cuddy’s experiment who were directed to hold a powerless posture for two minutes performed poorly. Makes you think about how often you sit hunched, doesn’t it?

Chakras & Power Poses

As a yoga teacher, I can’t help see connections between Cuddy’s research and the chakra system in yoga. The chakras are the energetic centers of the body. (See my post on Staying Grounded for more info on how the chakras work.) Each chakra influences its own area of life, from pleasure (second chakra) to communication (second and fifth chakras) to love and connection with others (fourth chakra). And by choosing activities that balance a certain chakra, you can improve the flow of energy throughout your body and bring corresponding balance into your life.

Intro to the Seven Chakras

When I first heard of the chakra system, the idea that certain emotions could be triggered by activating different body parts struck me as absurd. Just by twisting and building a strong core, my teachers said, you could facilitate energy flow at your third chakra. And because this area is associated with ego, self-confidence, strength, and personal imagination, by strengthening the third chakra area of the body, you could increase these qualities in yourself. As a person who had always obsessed with the intellectual side of life, I couldn’t swallow the yoga kool-aid on this concept.

At least initially.

After a chakra pop-quiz during teacher training, my results were lopsidedly obvious: I needed to work on my third chakra. I had low self-confidence. Why not put the yoga philosophy to the test and work on my core? First, I signed up for a boot camp which required me to arrive at 6am daily for high-intensity, high-pace exercises. This taught me the joy of early morning workouts. Next, I trained for a sprint triathlon, relearning how to side breathe for the quarter-mile swim section. Later that year, I did a second picturesque bootcamp, this time outdoors along the Willamette River. And this year, two years into my third chakra focus, I am about to complete my first Olympic-length triathlon.

As the hamster in my own chakra correspondence experiment, I must report that you can indeed strengthen a chakra to form the life you choose. If you had asked me ten years ago if I saw myself a decade in the future completing a triathlon–swimming a mile, biking twenty-five miles, and running six miles, all in a row, and moreover having FUN doing it, I would have laughed in your face. At that time I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, drinking heavily, and thinking extremely negatively about  myself. Today, ten years into my yoga journey, I am more fit, less stressed, and more self-accepting than I have ever been.

Ultimately, the body and the mind are one. Our Western philosophic heritage teaches that the brain is the master, while the body is nothing more than a tool for the intellect. Yoga’s ancient wisdom teaches what scientist like Cuddy are just now appreciating–that we can harness our autonomic nervous systems by integrating the whole self–body, mind and spirit.  A very East meets West moment to be living, this is. I feel blessed to be witnessing it.

What’s the takeaway here? To pay attention to how you’re positioning your body. Just ask yourself throughout the day, What am I doing with my body? What might that communicate to my nervous system and to others? And is this the physical message I want to be sending into the world and into my own brain?

If you find your body tends to slump into a powerless pose (and most of us do after hours in front of a screen), here are some expansive, powerful yoga postures you can use to shift toward a more positive, powerful body chemistry:

Power Postures in Yoga

  • Warrior Poses – Virabhadrasana 1, 2, & 3
  • Half Moon – Chandrasana
  • Wide-Legged Forward Fold – Prasarita Padotanasana
  • High Lunge – Alanasana
  • Triangle Pose – Trikonasana
  • Horse Pose – Vatayanasana

I would also add that Kundalini Yoga advocates practicing postures in which the arms are held overhead to build prana and improve nervous system functioning. More than any other practice I’ve found, Kundalini anticipates and harnesses the science of mind/body union. I practice Kundalini at Mandala Yoga (mandalayogapdx.com), in case you’re looking for a local class.

 

What Keeps You Grounded? The First Chakra, the Lower Body, and Feeling Steady

By Chung Ho Leung on FlickrStand your ground. Stand on your own two feet. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. As I teach yoga for the knees and calves this week, sayings about the lower body have been traipsing through my thoughts. Such idioms reveal thought patterns in our culture–we use them as shorthand for commonly accepted wisdom. And they also align with with yoga has to teach about the energetic map of the body.

Here’s where I dive into that concept that so many Americans associate with the stereotypical hippie-dippie yogi: Chakras. The chakras are energy centers in the body. Prana (energy) tends to either rush too fast through a chakra, or it might get stuck at a chakra. There are seven chakras in most yoga systems. (Some see only 6 chakras, while Kundalini Yoga teaches 10 light bodies/chakras, I believe.) You can envision the chakras as highway interchanges, where traffic jams tend to occur (a deficient/blocked chakra) or where people tend to speed through too fast (an excessive chakra). Each chakra has its own color, mantra, foods, and developmental theme.

The first chakra, also called the root chakra, is associated with the feet, legs, and elimination organs, particularly the colon). Its color is red, its seed mantra is LAM, and I believe its food is protein. One psychological dilemna this chakra poses is scarcity vs. abundance. Do we trust that the universe will provide what we need to reach our highest potential, or do we constantly worry about having enough?

An additional consideration in this chakra is stability–what helps us feel rooted, stable, and at home in the world? As a sensitive person who has battled depression, I have spent the last decade or so (ah ha, about the amount of time I’ve practiced yoga) practicing letting go of habits that make me feel unstable (smoking, heavy drinking, self-criticism) and inviting in people and actions that bring me self-confidence and strength (training for athletic events, smoothies, positive affirmations). These are the ingredients I need to stay centered, and to have the energy to pursue my dreams.

And so as I teach toward the legs, the roots of the body, I ask you to consider what acts as a strong foundation in your life. Here are my personal practices for feeling grounded:
1) Cardio. Swimming, running, biking, etc. Right now I am training for a triathlon, so I am definitely getting my daily cardio quotient.
2) Sadhana. Sadhana is a personal spiritual practice. For me it often includes yoga, meditation, self-massage, and affirmations.
3) Food. This seems like a big “duh!”–obviously every human needs food. But you can ask my family & friends, I get really hangry without consistent food. I am like a hummingbird (or a cow)–I need to munch almost constantly to feel good.
4) Writing time. This is the newest item on the list, and the most exciting for me. I am committing to a daily creative writing practice.

What do you need to feel steady in this world? Let the answers come to you this week, as you’re washing dishes, driving, or taking a shower–times when your mind is relaxed and uncritical. Then find ways to include these foundational first chakra boosters in your week, and do them every day if you can. It’s not always possible to hit all four of my foundational practices every day. But I do aim toward that goal, knowing that when I give myself what I need for stability, I have more peace and joy to give to others.

<photo: Chung Ho Leung>

 

 

Personal Renewal through the Chakras and Svadyaya. Or: Spring is Coming!

I was raised Catholic. When I was growing up, my family went to church every. Single. Sunday. It did become monotonous at times. I always adored singing during mass, but I struggled against the unquestioned line that I was expected to agree with in my Catholicism classes. (Somehow that didn’t stop me from going through confirmation, the Catholic rite of confirming adulthood in the Church.) For a long time I was extremely cynical about the Church, its interpretation of the bible, and its incessant hierarchy and focus on power. And I am still wary of the Church as an organization–the Christ-esque-ence of the new pope aside, there’s really no way to erase the horrendous, heart-jarring history of child abuse. Still, this time of year, as life begins to emerge in its chartreuse glory, I am drawn back to Portland’s Catholic churches to celebrate the mystery of rebirth.

I don’t see this as an exclusively Catholic story. In fact, as I’ve been absorbing plenty of Joseph Campbell and Ram Dass lately, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the same event–spring!–through multiple myths. God sacrificing his son for his people–it’s an idea that’s rippled down through the millennia. Egyptian myths tell the same story. And the idea of some form of personal death–going into a cave, a mountain, a grave–and emerging back into the light is also universal across our species. Campbell’s work has allowed me to appreciate the common threads tying together all religions, and Ram Dass’ lecture series on the Bhagavad Gita has given me hope that we can start seeing what we all have in common–an inner ability to recreate ourselves, which mirrors the universal human hero story behind all myths. (I’m drawing heavily on J. Campbell here.) This age-old story of spring, of beauty arising from death, is something that we can all marvel at.

During this regenerative time of the year, we also have a chance to renew our relationship with ourselves through Svadyaya. This is one of eight core ethical guidelines in yoga called the Yamas and Niyamas. They are personal and social observances or disciplines that yogis follow in order to live a righteous life. In classical Indian yoga, students were not taught asana (physical yoga postures) until they had mastered the Yamas and Niyamas. The personal discipline of Svadyaya is self-study. The idea is that by understanding ourselves–including the darker parts that we don’t like to look at–we can better understand others and live kinder, fuller, more compassionate lives. And my own experience is that self-study is a sure-fire way to discover personal rebirth, something light from within ourselves taking the place of something dark.

Examining oneself through the lens of the chakras is a great way to practice Svadyaya. I think of the chakras as highway interchanges for energy. Just as traffic tends to get caught up where highways cross, energy tends to get stuck in these zones of the body. Or, in the case of an overactive chakra, energy can flow too fast, akin to the higher incidence of highway accidents at interchanges. In most yogic systems there are seven chakras, each with its own color, location in the body, and pyschological theme. (If you’re as obsessive about knowledge as I am you can go bonkers with the level of detail about the chakras. Each energetic center is associated with its own seed mantra, gemstones, scents, yoga postures… believe me, the list goes on and on.)

To give you a taste of how the system works, the first chakra, often called the root chakra, describes our relationship with stability. In this part of the body–the very bottom of the torso, often specified as the perineum–we tend to store issues around abundance. Do we believe that we will and can get what we need? If so, our first chakra is likely balanced. This is also the part of the body where we eliminate our waste, and so a blocked first chakra can manifest as an inability to let go of the “trash” in our lives– the people, ideas, and mental habits that do not serve us. In the body, the first chakra is associated with the perineum, the large intestine (see: elimination), the teeth, and the bones. Just as we need strong bones to act as a strong foundational structure, we need personal habits that keep us mentally and physically healthy. You begin to appreciate, I hope, what a huge influence this mind/body energetic system that can have on our physical, mental, and emotional experiences.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been teaching mostly chakra-centered classes. My classes at East West Yoga PDX, West Side Athletic Club, and CorePower Yoga SE are going through the chakras, examining each energetic center at a time. I have felt incredible gratitude at the opportunity to examine the chakras in my own life at the same time as I share this powerful tool for self-wisdom with others. (For instance, after teaching one first chakra class at WSAC, I got really sick, a major alert from my own root chakra.) As I’ve been teaching chakra series for several years now, I am able to draw on notes from past series and layer asana (physical yoga practice) with mantra (yogic hand postures) and pranayama (yogic breathing techniques). Altogether, it makes for an abosorbing, focused class to teach–and to take, judging from the shifts I perceive in my students.

If you’re interested in diving deep into the chakras–a challenging and rewarding journey to be sure!–I recommend reading Judith Anodea’s comprehensive book The Wheels of Life. If you just want a taste of the chakras, come to one of my classes in the next week or two. And by the way, I am starting a new chakra series in my Monday night prenatal yoga class at Zenana Spa. If you’re with child, come join me on March 24, the first Monday of spring break, for a free examination of the root chakra, at our regular class time, 5:30-6:45pm. And please do spread the word to your prenatal friends! 🙂 Then continue coming on Mondays, April 1-May 7, for chakras two through seven.

Namaste,

~Colleen