Category Archives: Mind/Body

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.

 

Emotional Trauma: It’s Stored in the Body, and Yoga can Help.

by Dreaming in the deep south on Flickr

Last night after my 8:15pm CoreRestore class at CorePower Yoga NW, one of my students approached me with an unusual experience. During a supine half pigeon variation against the wall, she suddenly experienced a rush of anxiety. She described how her breath became shallow and fast, and she felt very worried for no apparent reason. It struck her as especially strange because she had felt so relaxed in the preceding moments. (We had been relaxing in legs up the wall variations for at least ten minutes at this point.) She wondered why this should happen, and whether she should be concerned.

As she told me about her experience, I got a bit excited. It may seem strange that a yoga teacher should feel stoked when one of her students gets anxious during class, but let me explain. Her experience immediately struck me as a release of long-stored emotional trauma. All of her feelings–the speeding heartbeat, the panting, the emotional roller coaster–are classic symptoms of trauma. I was excited because I recognized that, in that moment, she had released old trauma. As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety for my entire adult life, I am continually surprised and delighted at how yoga can help us let go of repressed emotions.

At first blush, the idea that our emotions are stored in the body may seem downright crazy. Mention this idea to most Western doctors and they’ll roll their eyes. However, certain researchers and writers have discovered that our emotions are indeed tightly wound up in our cells–and not just the cells in the brain. Neuroscientist Candace Pert, for instance, spent her career examining how peptite receptors throughout the body adjust to our emotional experiences. If you’ve seen What the Bleep do We Know, you’ve heard Pert discuss how emotions change our cells. She has written extensively on how emotions are stored in the body:

We all have painful memories – failure, disappointments, suffering, loss – hidden away or suppressed- in our BodyMinds, to be retrieved, refomed, and released, or ignored and left to fester, wounds that never heal. What John Upledger called a “somato-emotional cyst”.  A primitive body defense response in which the injury, and the emotions therein encoded, are walled off from the rest of the body, and never truly resolve.

Candace Pert has shown that the peptide receptors are located on every type of cell, and they influence which hormones are released according to a person’s emotional history. Emotions are not solely felt in the brain. They are registered throughout the body, in every type of tissue. Pert’s research suggests that emotional trauma is stored in the tissues, particularly when we are not able to fully experience emotions in the present moment.

Candace’s work on the microbiology of emotions is supported by researchers in psychotherapy, such as Peter A. Levine. In his landmark book, Waking the Tiger, Levine connected how animals experience trauma with how humans trap emotions in their bodies. He points out how animals deal with extreme stress. For instance, if you’ve ever seen a bird fly into a window, you’ll recognize how animals move through trauma. First the bird lies very still. Next, it begins to shake–almost as if it’s shaking off the experience, letting it move through its muscles. Finally, the bird will get up and walk or fly away, almost as if nothing happened! Humans are animals too, and Levine argues that it’s natural for us to shake, cry, freeze, or run in the face of trauma. But we don’t allow ourselves to do that. Most of us are taught from childhood that big emotions are scary, that shaking and crying are not acceptable behaviors, and that we must avoid bothering others with big emotional displays. Perhaps if we allowed trauma to move naturally through the body at the time of impact, we wouldn’t have trapped emotions stored in our body.

But until our society deems it healthy to fully feel and express emotions, it’s inevitable that we will have scary, traumatic experiences stored in our tissues. A particularly relaxing, challenging, or deep yoga practice can allow these emotions to be released, leaving the yogi healed and just a little bit more free. As a yoga teacher, I can’t help but be excited when one of my students reaches this state. Sure, it’s scary. It’s strange. It’s not something you’d want to show to your co-workers. But on your mat, in the safety of a yoga class–that’s the perfect place to allow your emotions to flow, so that they can finally leave your body.

I strive to create an accepting, welcoming environment for my students where they can feel comfortable having whatever experiences arise on their mats. That might be bliss one day, and weepiness the next. As long as you keep showing up, dedicating yourself to the practice, you’ll eventually have the experience of feeling a strong emotion seemingly “out of the blue.” When this happens, let the emotions flow. And then congratulate yourself. It’s a very good sign when you can release these long-held traumas. This is just one more that yoga helps us heal!

<photo: Dreaming in the deep south @Flickr>