Category Archives: Yoga from my Classes

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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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 MoveYoga.com.) 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.

 

2nd Chakra Flow – An Example Vinyasa Yoga Flow

Today I taught a second chakra flow at West Side Athletic Club, a beautiful gym in downtown Portland where I have taught for over three years now. One of my students requested that I share the flow here, so that she could practice again later. So, here’s my flow… Feel free to roll out your mat at home and practice this hip opening second chakra flow.

Integration
Seated rock the baby hip circles– one foot extended forward, bend the other knee & create figure 4 shape to stretch the hip
Easy seated fold — Take a cross-legged seat & fold forward. Put a block under head for extra support, relieve back of neck. Switch seat so other chin is in front & take it on the other side.
Stretch hamstrings by interlacing fingers under one foot, extending to sky, leaning back & lifting heart. Do other side too.
Cat/CowCome to belly, place forearms under shoulders, reach back with one hand and grab foot. Pull heel toward hip to find hip flexor stretch.

Sun Salutation Series
Inhale – Mountain
Exhale – Forward Fold
Inhale – 1/2 way lift
Exhale – Step right foot back to low lunge
Inhale & Exhale – Move right foot out to side & circle hips both directions
Inhale – Step back to plank
Exhale – Step other foot forward, outside of wrist, and make hip circles on this side, both directions.
Next Inhale – High plank
Exhale – High to half pushup (remember to modify here if needed by bringing down knees)
Inhale – Upward Facing Dog
Exhale – Downward Facing Dog
Inhale – Bend knees, lift heels.
Exhale – Step or walk or jump forward, big toes touch.
Inhale – Baby backbend (standing)
Exhale – Hands at the heart, Samastitihi

Warrior Flow
Transition to Downward Facing Dog
Inhale: lift right foot
Exhale: Scorpion Dog (bend top knee & stack hips)
Inhale: right knee to right tricep (rest of body is in plank)
Exhale: Step down to low lunge.
Inhale: Crescent lunge, bring hands high, back knee is down.
Exhale: Hands to earth, back toes tuck.
Inhale: High lunge.
Exhale: Side body stretch, right hand lowers while left hand reaches up and over to the right
Inhale: High lunge
Exhale: Warrior 2
Inhale: Reverse Warrior
Exhale: Extended side angle
Inhale: 5-pointed star, turn all ten toes to the left
Exhale: Wide legged forward fold, Prasarita.
Inhale: Halfway lift
Exhale: Turn to low lunge at top of mat
Inhale: Horizon lunge, turn all ten toes to right while right hand sweeps the horizon & reaches back
Exhale: Back to low lunge
Inhale: High plank
Exhale: High to half pushup/Chatarunga
Inhale: Up Dog
Exhale: Down Dog

That was the main flows for the class, we also focused on pelvic tilts, figure four balancing, half pigeon with torso variations, flowing cobra, bridge, and we ended with a delicious eagle leg twist. I LOVE teaching this class (and all my classes)! If you’re looking for yoga for the second chakra, these poses are great because they open the hips.

<photo: Via Nessman on Flickr Creative Commons>