One day, I showed up to my yoga mat with a broken heart. I’d just gone through a wrenching breakup, and it hurt. My body felt heavy and stiff. I tried to flip over from Downward Dog into Wheel pose, a deep backbend and chest opener that was one of my favourite transitions, and I just... couldn’t. It was like trying to open a rusty hinge. My heart, apparently, had closed.
When you practice yoga over time, you get to observe your body’s reactions to what’s happening in your life. It’s easy to get in a habit of thinking so hard you miss the part where you simply feel. Feelings are things that happen in your body, which is why they are called “feelings” and not “thinkings.” In a yoga practice, you slow down and pay attention to your body as you move through in various shapes. This makes it particularly hard to hide from your feelings.
Just as the yoga poses can tell you something about how you already feel, it makes total sense that the circuit goes the other way, too. Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy explains in her TED talk “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are,” that animals often exhibit “high power poses,” which involve taking up lots of space and exposing the chest, to express confidence and dominance, while “low power poses,” which involve getting smaller, tucking in the arms, and looking down, are signals of submission and fear. She found that while the pose often comes after the feeling, taking the pose first can produce the feeling afterwards.
The people in her experiments who took the high power poses, such as leaning back in a chair with the hands behind the head, or the “Wonder Woman” in which you stand with your feet wide and hands on your hips, had elevated levels of testosterone, a hormone for dominance and confidence, and lowered levels of cortisol, which indicates stress. Those who had taken the low power poses had the inverse effect: lowered testosterone and elevated cortisol. Cuddy’s conclusion was that your body language not only affects how others perceive you, but how you perceive yourself, and using these high powered poses in (or just before) situations where you need a confidence boost is a tiny tweak that could make a big difference.
A rounded yoga practice should move your body through a range of poses from big and open to small and contained. In my experience, the high powered chest openers are easier when I’m already feeling open and confident, and more of struggle on days when I’m feeling small. For me, yoga is in large part about being able to experience a full range of human emotions, not just the happy and extroverted ones. The yoga practice can teach us something about how we already feel, but it can also shake us out of a mood rut and remind us of how fluid these feelings can be, moment to moment.
In our lives, we spend so much of our time hunching down in front of computers or in cars, trying to take up as little space as possible. Yoga is one context where we are encouraged to reach our arms way up over our heads and puff up our chests. After spending an hour power posing, it’s no wonder so many of us leave class feeling stronger, more confident, and more relaxed. Perhaps teacher B.K.S Iyengar was onto something when he famously said, “Open your armpits, and you will never be depressed!”