How body language can change the brain
by Morgan Webert
We all know the way we think and feel effects our body language, and our body language effects how the world sees and judges us. But, does our body language in turn effect how we think and feel? Or even how we see and judge ourselves?
Harvard professor and sociologist Amy Cuddy has asked just this question and come to some impressive conclusions. Cuddy’s research shows that changing our posture for only two minutes can significantly change our hormone levels, brain chemistry, and as a result our behavior and the outcome of our lives.
Sound familiar? The two thousand year old Yoga Sutras suggest that in all postures we should strive for steadiness (sthira) as well as comfort or ease (sukham) and when we attain this perfect equilibrium in our postures there arises an unimpeded freedom from suffering (2.46-8).
Cuddy focused her question on the body language and physiology of power, analyzing levels of testosterone, statistically higher for confident people or in moments of power, as well as levels of cortisol, statistically lower for confident or low-stress people.
The study essentially asked half the sample group to hold “high power poses” with open chest and arms, tall spine, raised chin and taking up space, while the others held “low power poses” with crossed arms and legs, slouching shoulders and making the body small.
After holding the poses for only two minutes the group underwent a series of stressful tests. In each test she found that all the “high power posers” maintained increased levels of testosterone and decreased levels of cortisol, meaning they were more confident (sthira – steadiness) and less stressed (sukham – at ease), whereas the “low power posers” showed the exact opposite result.
So our postures do indeed change how we think, feel and act! This not doubt is one reason why asanas (Sanskrit for postures) play such a powerful role in our yoga practice. The ancient yogis may not have had access to saliva testing hormones as a means to understand the effects of postures, but what they did have was patients and dedication to observing how these various postures change our thoughts and feelings.
Interestingly, the wisdom passed down to us from these sages does not categorize how each and every asana should or can make us feel. Rather we’ve been given a practice to learn patients and dedication to observation, and discover the effects of the postures for our selves.
Renowned yogi Donna Farhi refers to this aspect of the practice as “embodied awareness” and says that when we practice asanas we try to rediscover the origin of each movement and thus the original meaning of each gesture. She says we cannot do this by simply mimicking or mechanically reproducing the postures, but for the asanas to transform us we must enter the total feeling state of that form.
Cuddy also talked about transformation, saying there’s a lot more to the old adage “fake it ‘till you make it.” Relating her own story of brain injury, told she’d never finish college and then persisting through and acting the part until she became a leading professor at Harvard, she says with conviction that we cannot only fake it until we make it, more importantly we can fake it until we become it.
She emphasized that its not about pretending you’re something you’re not, but rather its about having the confidence to be who you are. In her study she also recorded the group undergoing job interviews and then showed these videos to a panel of judges blind to the hypothesis and even the premiss of the study.
Across the board each of the judges chose to higher individuals from the group who’d done the two minutes of high power poses and non of the ones who’d done the low power poses. The individuals were rated on qualifications, speech and other factors, but Cuddy says the high power posers were bringing their true selves, their presence, and that’s what the judges responded to.
This true self, referred to as our purusa in Sanskrit, is exactly what the Yoga Sutras lead us to uncover. The purusa is the part of us that is unchanging, in other words, steady and that sees clearly.
Each time we roll out our mat or sit on our meditation cushion and find steadiness and ease in these postures, we literally create a chemical and physiological change in our body, until over time we simple become steady and at ease, our purusa, true self shinning through.
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