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Most communication and connection in today’s age of speed, screens, and memes is done through technology. In many ways, our devices have replaced human interaction. As a result, I believe it is getting easier to live mechanical lives and harder to have meaningful connections and relationships.
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 also strengthening my body, slowing 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.
How Teaching Yoga in China Changed Me
I had been teaching yoga daily since I began 15 years ago and what started out 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 it turned out my heart was in for a jumpstart and my yoga teacher trainees were the jumper cables.
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 my kind and expressive group of students that it got me thinking about how a burnt-out yoga teacher is no match for thoughtful and meaningful forms of connection.
What I realized after my experience teaching in China is that now, more than ever, thoughtful and authentic connections may take more effort than their high-tech counterparts, but they are imperative for our health and wellbeing—and the rewards are limitless.
Here are seven ways leading this teacher training in China helped show me how to lead with my heart. Here’s hoping they’ll help you do the same.
1. Focus on gratitude.
Research shows 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 see the world differently, looking for positive instead of negative.
2. Think something nice, say something nice.
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 my Shanghai trainees, started sharing his experience on our group chat boards, 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.
3. Remind yourself of your strengths.
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 share what we’ve all written down. It’s a sweet love-fest that always involves 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—and reduces feelings of jealousy, envy, and judgment.
4. Perform one little act of kindness.
Two of my 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, make us feel special and cared for. So, keep your eyes open for ways to practice random acts of kindness. Do whatever feels right to you in whatever way you are willing to give. Just make sure it comes from your heart.
5. Give someone a hug.
At the start of yoga class, I ask my students to close their eyes and measure from 1-10, 10 being the worst, how they are feeling overall. Then, I have them open their eyes, walk around the room, and hug each other. It is so awkward at first. Then, it just feels good. By the time everyone sits down, their faces are brighter, their energy is lighter, and when asked about their 1-10 numbers again, everyone’s numbers lowered. Hugs just make you feel better. If your yoga teacher doesn’t ask you to do a practice like this, simply try staying a little longer when you hug someone you love. You can also try leaning to the right when you hug someone, so your hearts touch.
6. Play some music.
Studies have found that the comforting effects of music can lower blood pressure, ease stress, and calm the nervous system. On our last day of yoga teacher training, the trainees surprised me by bringing me into a candlelit room, 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, evokes feelings, brings back memories, and connects us to our bodies and to our emotions by bypassing the mind and syncing to our innate rhythm.