Category Archives: Neurology & Yoga

Compassion: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Photo from Pixabay AutumnsGoddess0A scoff brought the first pain to my heart. I was checking in a student for a yoga class, trying to type her name into the system. Her unusually spelled first name was giving me troubles, and her scoff made it clear she thought I was a complete idiot. The interaction only became more difficult from there. With practically every word I spoke, her response became more critical. Old feelings arose–self-doubt, shame, sadness. They manifested in my body as tightness around the heart, scrunching at my brow, a jangling feeling in my stomach. I rounded my back reflexively, pulling in my belly as if protecting my guts.

I saw all of these things happening from one place within myself. At the same time, I was doing my job–squaring her memory of the classes she had taken with our system, offering to email management to get things figured out, generally trying to be calm and positive.

As a yoga teacher, I recognize that energy is sticky. If I walk into a studio feeling distracted, my students will only multiply that lack of focus. If I take a few minutes to breathe deeply before walking into the room, my students will reflect that groundedness back to me. (I have written on this effect for As neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has said, we are energy beings, absorbing the energy of others. After years of practice, I have seen how one person’s energy can shift a whole room. An honest laugh can lift up a whole group of people. So I try to be very aware of what energy I am putting into the world.

Clearly this student didn’t understand a correlation of this law of energy–that we get back whatever energy we contribute to the universe. Looking at that sentence, I can hear some of my high school classmates marvel, thinking, “Wow, when did she become such a woo-woo hippie?” So let me ground this in neuroscience (a passion of mine). Our brains contain mirror neurons. These are specialized cells that replicate the emotions of others within our brains. Scientists discovered them when studying the brains of monkeys. They were watching to see which areas responsible for movement lit up in monkeys’ brains, when they noticed that the same areas lit up in the brains of monkeys who were simply watching another monkey move.

It turns out that we have these same cells in our frontal lobes–the most evolved portion of the brain, behind the forehead. And while scientists continue to study how mirror neurons work, it is clear that they can immediately convey our emotions to people around us. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It is helpful to be able to quickly read the emotions of your tribe. In our day-to-day lives, our mirror neurons reflect back the emotions of people around us. So we are wired to understand and replicate the emotions of others. In other words, when I smile at you, you feel better. When I scowl at you, you feel worse. We have such power to affect the experiences of people around us!

This student’s negativity threatened to pull me down in the minute or two before class started. I definitely didn’t want to bring that energy into the teaching space. So I reviewed how I felt, took a few breaths to become grounded, and decided to let that energy go. I walked into the room and taught (what I thought was) a good class. I made sure to give the negative student some positive shout-outs during class, pointing out what she was doing well.

In years past, I would have avoided this student. I would have steered clear from her throughout class. This time was different. At the end of class, during savasana, I felt drawn to her. I recognized how difficult it would be to be in her shoes–to have her own negativity reflected back at her all day long. To be simmering in that anger. Also, if she was that critical toward me, she’s probably extremely critical of herself as well. As I rubbed my palms together and walked toward her, I thought, “I wish you happiness. I wish you peace. I wish you a life of ease.” I kept up the mantra and visualized white light coming from my palms into her shoulders, as I gently pressed her shoulders down to open her scalenes. I felt her body relax down into the mat, softening under my hands.

After class, she b-lined for the door. I didn’t have a chance to check in with her. But that’s fine. I was able to recognize my own growth as an instructor and as a human being. My Vipassana meditation practice, my ongoing Svadyaya (self-study) and my yoga practice have helped me cultivate compassion.

It is my dream to bring this same process to my students, to adults and to kids alike. I envision a world where we can feel our own internal response first, before we automatically fire back the anger and sadness of others. It’s a practice. Compassion can’t be instantly taught. It must be something we work on every day, an opus that we compose across our lifetimes. To those who are yearning for peace within themselves and on our planet, I say, “Keep up the good work! Keep the faith!” Your compassion practice will be successful over time. Plant daily seeds of compassion, for yourself and for others. Sooner or later those seeds will grow, bloom, and bear fruit.


Calm Kid, Happy Brain, Happy Learner.

Brain based education discussion whiteboard notes

White board showing our session notes–the triune brain on the left, and participants goals on the right.

This weekend I presented at the Southwest Washington Special Education Conference and Fair, a wonderful Vancouver, WA event for parents and teachers of special education students. This was my second year presenting at the conference, which I find to be chock full of caring, wise parents and teachers, eager to find effective ways to help children learn. Like last year, I presented on Neuro-Parenting and Neuro-Teaching, my buzzwords for using brain-based techniques when working with kids. Based on feedback from last year’s participants, I expanded my session from 1 hour to 2 hours in duration.

In the first hour of the session, we discussed how the brain responds to stress. I hope the participants took away two major points:
1) When the brain goes into stress mode, the most advanced, rational parts of our brain areĀ  deactivated. This means kids (and adults!) literally CANNOT think rationally in the middle of an emotional crisis. Hence: we must first get calm, and feel safe. Then the most human parts of our brain will come back online.
2) The brain and body function aim for homeostasis at all times, balancing between the sympathetic nervous system’s response (AKA, the stress response) and the parasympathetic nervous system’s workings (AKA the relaxation response). We want to spend as much time in the parasympathetic zone as possible. This is when our bodies are able to better digest food, fight off bugs–and often when we learn best.

SPED education exhibitors at the 2014 SW WA SPED Fair

Exhibitors at the 2014 SW WA SPED Fair

By the way, we do need the sympathetic response–there’s even some research that stress hormones such as cortisol can improve learning outcomes, but only up to a certain point. The bottom line is that today’s students are WAY more stressed out than the primitive humans this stress system was designed for. So as educators and teachers, we must first help students feel safe (Maslow wouldn’t disagree here) and then we can move onto teaching content.

Once we had covered the brain research, we took a short break to set up the room as a mini yoga studio. I had brought mats and blocks, and we laid everything out in a circle. (Always my go-to shape for my Portland kids yoga classes; I like the way a circle creates equality among participants.) The following hour was spent learning and personally experiences yoga-based techniques for helping students calm down and release stress. We practiced yoga poses for confidence, calm, and releasing anger/excess energy. Breathwork (pranayama in yoga) exercizes covered in the session included bumblebee breath, three-part breath, and more. And we also practiced singing songs from yoga. (Singing has an incredibly positve effect on the brain–it causes the release of feel-good hormones such as Oxytocin.) The session participants asked me to post one of the songs we practiced, Sa Ta Na Ma. So here it is:

This dynamic mudra is just one of the songs I incorporate in my kids yoga classes around town. If you’re enthusiastic about helping youngsters feel calm and ready to learn, take my upcoming kids yoga teacher training. I am partnering up with Allyson Copacino of Move Yoga to write an extensive curriculum. As we are both kids yoga teachers AND elementary school teachers, our teacher training will be ideal for classroom teachers, parents, and yoga teachers alike. To learn more about our teacher training, please fill out the form below: [contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form] . Thank you and Namaste, ~Colleen

The Power of Thought: Affirmations are All Good, Anytime!

[bandcamp width=350 height=350 track=397380065 size=large bgcol=ffffff linkcol=e99708] My student Amanda shared this Ze Frank song with me today after my weekly downtown Portland 1:05pm yoga class at West Side Athletic Club. She was spurred to do so by my announcement that I’m co-teaching a kids meditation workshop at Mississippi Health Center on October 11th. “Have you heard of Ze Frank?” Amanda asked when I explained that the workshop was all about giving kids the tools to stay calm in the face of big emotions. I am so glad she pointed this song out! Ze Frank wrote it for a web pen pal of his who felt despondent. He wrote the basic chorus, and a whole crew of people sent him their own recordings of the positive message:

Hey. You’re Okay. You’ll be Fine. Just Breathe.

Frank mixed the voices together to create a lovely chorus! It’s such a simple message. Doesn’t listening to it feel like getting wrapped up in a blanket of loving kindness? Listening to it, it really does seem like everything will be just fine.

Why should such a silly little ditty have such a huge impact on mood? Why has this song struck such a chord with so many people?

Because it’s an affirmation.

That word — affirmation — sends many peoples’ eyes rolling, I’m sure. It probably brings to mind “The Secret,” and the idea that we can design our futures through the power of positive thought. Now, I’m not saying that thinking you’re rich will immediately make it so, but I can tell you that from a yogic perspective, thought creates reality. What we think becomes true for us.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes our mental patterns as samskara– mental ruts that are difficult to escape once the pattern is established. And neural science backs up this yoga philosopher. “What fires together, wires together,” the neurologists say, meaning that neurons that fire at the same time once tend to fire together more in the future. So the thoughts that we have over and over again are “ruts;” they’re habitual tracks that can seem almost impossible to escape.

What’s more, we see what we’re looking for. What I mean is this: If you have a certain lens on the world, you’ll see evidence for your own beliefs everywhere. And you’ll be quite likely to ignore, or not even notice, the parts of your experience that don’t fit in with that belief. Psychologists call this inattentional blindness.

Affirmations can help us “rewire” the brain to see more positivity and joy around us. During my last bout with depression, I used affirmations to see my life in a new perspective, and to set goals for what I was looking for in my life. Here are a few of my favorite affirmations–please use them, share them, make art with them!

All is well. The universe is bringing me to my highest good. Out of this situation, only good things will come. I am safe.

I am attracting supportive, positive friends who like me exactly as I am.

I can handle anything that comes my way.

I look and feel terrific.

To this day I continue to use affirmations as a daily prescription for mental happiness. I choose to fill my head with positive thoughts, and (as the neurologists predicted) more happy, positive thoughts come my way! Maybe you’ll think I’m crazy, but I do affirmations while on my bike, in the car, while swimming… anytime I want to add more happiness and joy to my life.

So… if the rain has you feeling down, say an affirmation or two! The keys to make an affirmation effective: a) Phrase it in the present tense. b) Practice it. The brain won’t shift immediately, it takes time and commitment to have the mental space you want. c) Change out the subject. I learned this trick from Louise Hayes. So I would say “I can handle anything that comes my way” the first three times, and then “You can handle anything that comes your way” the second three times, and “Colleen can handle anything that comes her way” the last three times.

Share your favorite affirmations below, and let me know how the practice goes!