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.
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.
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.