My trainees and I doing “Xīn" mudra they taught me, it translates as “heart.”
7 Ways to Lead With Your Heart—Both On and Off Your Mat
Most communication and connection, as we all know, in today’s day and age of speed, screens and memes, is done through technology, in so much, that our devices have replaced human interaction. It is getting easier to live mechanical lives and harder to have meaningful connections and relationships. It is no surprise that yoga and mindfulness practices have surged especially in the past 6 years. According to a new government survey, in 2017, more than 14 percent of U.S. adults said they'd practiced yoga in the past year -- up from 9.5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the number of meditation practitioners more than tripled -- from 4 percent to 14 percent.
One of the reasons why I love yoga and why I became a yoga teacher was the opportunity to have meaningful connections, build relationships with like-minded people and to live my life in service. As a student, I love having a place where I can go to connect to myself, while strengthening my body, slowing down my mind and releasing my emotions. As a teacher, I love to be able to share what I know about the practice and the yogic principles in hopes to empower people to feel strong and connected in their lives.
Probably like most of you, I have always “lead with my heart” first, even in pre-yoga days and throughout my life, whether it was in sports, dancing or in relationships. I tend to navigate the world through emotions and live by a - feel and trust now and deal with consequences later - kind of attitude. I have always followed my heart, trusting in my self, even moving 3000 miles at the age of 40 from my community, family and friends to follow my heart for love. And although it hasn’t always ended in a happy ending, I’ve had strong communities and have my yoga and mindfulness practices to get me through tough times.
Until I found myself becoming mechanical, negative, jaded and isolated from the very yoga community that I found solace from so many times before. I had moved around a lot and wasn’t really connecting with my new students in these new studios and I found myself a little displaced and confused as to where my place and purpose was. I was getting burnt out and disheartened regarding the state of yoga - more specifically social media and the effects it was having on students’ idea of the practice, how it was over-focusing on the body and the expectations that it has to be fast, hot and sweaty (even though that’s exactly how I started my yoga journey).
I had been teaching yoga daily since I began 15 years ago and what started off as a couple of weeks off, turned into a 6 month hiatus from teaching group classes. In fact, I was considering quitting teaching yoga altogether until I was asked to facilitate a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training in Shanghai, China, where my heart was in for a jump start and my yoga teacher trainees were the jumper cables!
Although I knew very little about China, other than it being a communist country and the air-pollution, I was a bit hesitant and a little nervous. Because of my small, minimal, Americanized view of China, I expected the students would have strong physical practices and they would be very smart, reserved and strict . Wow! Was I wrong?! I was blown away by the thoughtful actions and words of gratitude by this kind and expressive group that it got me thinking that language barriers, cultural assumptions and even how a burnt out yoga teacher are no match for thoughtful and meaningful forms of connection.
At the time, I was cut off from my own forms of connection, the time difference of 16 hours between LA and Shanghai and China having their own social and on line networks forced me to rely on these present connections.
When the trainees referenced John Lennon songs in their shares and started leaving expressions of love and gratitude for me and each other on our WeChat group, I could feel my heart cracking open and I knew I would forever be changed by this experience.
Now more than ever, thoughtful and authentic connections take more effort but imperative for our health and wellbeing and the rewards are limitless! There is more research proving that when we participate in practices like gratitude, praise, kindness, it has special effects on our brains.
There are four primary neurotransmitters in the brain that effect happiness:
Dopamine (the happiness hormone)
Oxytocin (the love hormone that gets ignited with touch)
Serotonin (which is in anti-depressants)
Endorphins (gets released with physical exercise like yoga)
By measuring through neurotransmitters, it shows the importance of true, authentic, social relationships and how it relates to our sense of happiness, belonging and how it ignites a connection to our emotional center, our hearts.
If you want to get your daily DOSE of happiness, inspired by yoga, meditation, positive psychology and an amazing group of teacher trainees from Shanghai, check out these 7 Ways to Lead with Our Heartsand find more connection in our everyday lives.
Research has shown that cultivating a daily practice of gratitude can make us happier in our lives by training your mind to see the world through different eyes. It only takes a couple of minutes a day but has long-lasting neural effects on our brain, our happiness and our overall well-being.
Writing down what you are grateful for strengthens a part of the brain so you will start to scan the world differently looking for positive instead of negative, judgment or fixing. Notonly does a whole new world open up but you start to recognize what’s important to, what’s valuable to you and what you may be missing in your life. That was definitely the case for me.
I am so grateful to have had that time, space and an amazing experience in Shanghai to recognize what I was missing in my life and what ultimately helped me move forward in my career. And even though the 6 month hiatus was unsettling, I could have gone on complaining about the state of yoga, justified why I was leaving it and I would have missed out on an amazing opportunity to realize that it is time for me to step into a bigger role. It wasn’t until I shifted my awareness on what WAS working did I realize that just because I couldn’t find my place in the yoga world doesn’t mean that there was something wrong with it, it just meant that I was ready for something bigger. I am supposed to create my own space, my own studio, my own community and step into a more powerful leadership role so that I can continue to make a difference in a new community but also hold the integrity of the practice.
A daily gratitude practice has the immense power to do that, to shift awareness and shatter old belief systems and patterns that could be holding us back from our true greatness.
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
A. Think of some thing that happened in the past 24 hours that you are grateful for. It can be something someone did for you or something that you witnessed. It is important in this practice that it is always something recent. According to Shawn Achor, author of many books on happiness, it won’t have the same effect on your brain if you choose something that you don’t have to consistently pay attention to.
B. Send whomever was involved, a little light and energy of thankfulness
C. Why did it make you feel that way?
Write down three new things that you’re grateful for each day.
Include the what, the who and the why.
An unfortunate side effect of social media is that it has created an “All about Me” culture. To me, there’s nothing better than supporting someone, praising someone and telling them how amazing, beautiful, supportive, gifted and awesome they are, with nothing in return.
When Eddie, one of the Shanghai trainees started sharing his experience on our WeChat, he had beautiful things to say about me, the training, the other students in the training and the company that put on the training. His share had a positive chain reaction and inspired the others to share their experience that made us all feel connected, valued and loved.
Think about the last time someone praised you and said something to you about what you are good at? Didn’t it make your heart warm? Didn’t it make you smile? Doesn’t it make you feel good to feel recognized?
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
Take 2 minutes to contact someone in person, by phone, by text or email, whatever form makes you feel most comfortable.
Tell them something that you admire about them, how much you love them or how much they mean to you. Speak from your heart and try to use "you" statements so that you don't make it about you. (wink)
Start a positive chain reaction just by expressing something from your heart. You change your heart frequency and theirs and maybe they'll do the same.
Teacher trainings can be tough on the ego. It brings up a lot of our “stuff” and it makes us face the things we are not good at…yet! One of the things we always do in my Teacher Trainings is a practice called Circle Card Love. Every trainee goes in the middle of the circle and we all write down on index cards all the qualities we love about that person, all the things they are good at and then we tell them! It’s a beautiful sweet love fest that has lots of laughter and happy tears.
Identifying and honoring our strengths rather than focusing on our weaknesses is one of the best ways to practice self-love and build a sense well-being, confidence and trust in turn reducing feelings of jealousy, envy and judgment.
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
Write down 3 Strengths.
Strengths can include positive characteristics or a talent /gift. If you have a hard time with this, then you should do this everyday because you are amazing – I’m sure everyone around you thinks so. So if you get stuck ask them or think about how they would describe you.
FYI - I still have my index cards from my first teacher training at South Boston Yoga in my bedside table so on the days when I forget who I am – I read the cards to remind me.
4. ACTS OF KINDNESS:
Trainees Sara and Claire insisted that I come to dinner with them (even though neither spoke English very well and I don’t speak Mandarin) so they could help me find Chinese food that I liked. Zhang and Dragon, a married couple in the training, found out that I liked tea, so Dragon set out to the streets of Shanghai to look for famous green tea from their hometown of Huangshan. Thoughtful gestures, whether small or out of the way, makes us feel special, thought of and cared for.
It’s in the first limb and the first yama in the Yoga Sutras; ahimsa. When we are being non-violent, we are being kind. Kindness in the way we speak, think and act toward our self and others.
Kindness Studies done at Greater Good Science Center, have reported that the participants felt “calmer, less depressed, stronger and more energetic after helping others with increased feelings of self-worth.”
Acts of kindness produces oxytocin, which, commonly known as the ‘love hormone,’ increases our optimism and self-esteem. In the same way gratitude shifts our negativity and judgment, kindness helps us to live in abundance, giving freely from our heart and increasing our sense of belonging. When you give freely with nothing in return, you elevate the vibration of them, you and the whole universe.
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
Keep your eyes open for ways to practice random acts of kindness. Anonymous giving is so rewarding but also can be tricky so it’s always good to be prepared too. In the winter months, I keep boxes of protein bars, blankets, hats and gloves in my car so when I see homeless people, I have something to give them.
Do whatever feels right to you in whatever way you are willing to give and let it come from your heart.
“We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.” Virginia Satir ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
At the start of yoga class, I would ask my students to close their eyes and measure from 1-10, 10 being the worst, how they were feeling overall. And then I would have them open their eyes and walk around the room and hug each other. It was sooooo awkward at first and then it just felt good and by the time they sat down everyone’s face brightened, their energy was lighter and when I asked what their current numbers were, everyone’s numbers lowered and closer to 1 than 10, every time!
Hugging boosts self-esteem, builds trust, creates a sense of safety and can instantly heal feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s hard to be angry when you are hugging someone. Hugging teaches us how to give and receive and connects us to our heart and to our feelings.
I can give you a million reasons why hugging is so good for you and you’ll probably believe me too especially when you have felt the effects of a really good hug.
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
So stay a little longer when you hug someone or do what I call the Burning Man Hug. Most people hug by leaning to the left but when you both lean to the right, your hearts have to touch. Any hippie, yogi or anyone that’s ever been to Burning Man knows the Heart to Heart Hug. Now you know it so pass it on. Literally! Hug as many people as you can today.
'And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.' Friedrich Nietzsche
Studies have shown that the comforting effects of music can, lower blood pressure, ease stress and help the heart to contract and push blood throughout the body, helping to slow down the nervous system. According to scientist Oliver Sacks, "Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
On our last day of training, the trainees surprised me by bringing me into a candlelit room, they placed me in front of a big heart shaped alter made with multi-colored rose petals and while Eddie played his harmonium, the whole group chanted, The Gayatri Mantra. The chant, which they had no idea, has special significance to me that brought me back to another time when I had another beautiful soul connection. As they sang and I looked down at this beautiful offering, my heart expanded and I rocked, sang and cried happy connecting tears.
That’s what music can do. It crosses language barriers, it invokes feelings, it brings back memories and it connects us to our bodies and our emotions by bypassing the mind and syncing to our innate rhythm.
HEART PRACTICE IN ACTION:
If you want a little spark and energy, put on your favorite song and
Dance your Heart out!
If you want to feel inspired and have a little fun, put on your favorite karaoke song and belt out to the top of your lungs!
Or if you want to calm your nervous system before bed, put on some delta waves or ocean sounds for a deep rest and reset.
However music moves you to experience it, will be perfect for you.
I know it goes without saying writing for a yoga magazine about the benefits of practicing yoga and for those of you who have participated in a teacher training, I’m sure you have had similar heart expanding experiences and formed sacred bonds but just in case you forgot, these contemporary modern day practices have roots in ancient scripture.
From the Yoga Sutras, I.33 from Patanjali says:
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
From the Bhagavad Gita:
“A gift is pure when it is given from the heart to the right person at the right time and at the right place, and when we expect nothing in return. “
From the Spirit of Hanuman:
I shared with the trainees that as yoga teachers, we are like modern-day Hanuman, the monkey god known for his devotion, selfless love and dedication of his life to service. We travel solo everyday bouncing from class to class or client to client, hoping to bump into another fellow Hanuman along the way, we don’t get paid a lot of money that we usually spend on trainings, more learning and yoga pants. And we don’t mind MOST of the time because we love what we do and we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But I think they got it.
QiQi shared on our WeChat group:
“When Amy, eyes filled with love and affection, tells us we are modern-day Hanumen – modern day super heroes, full of selfless love and devotion, even though I don’t understand all the English, I understand.”
One of my biggest takeaways from this experience is that we don’t have to speak the same language, have the same religion —or have any similarities, really—to know, share, or express love and that it can be done through thoughtful actions in our everyday lives.
These Heart In Action practices are best when taken one day at a time. Pick one each day and keep your eyes and hearts open for ways to connect. These are meant as a reminder of, or as a validation for, all the active ways we can feel more love and connection in our lives, and I hope my sharing has given you a jumpstart to your heart! You don’t have to go to China, be a washed-up yoga teacher or a scientist, we can all benefit when we learn to live and lead our lives from a heart-centered place and be a part of the oneness that connects us all.