We are all pretty aware that the mind affects what we do with our body and how we interact with life. However, social scientists such as Amy Caddy and psychologists such as Bo Forbes have been studying how the body affects our mental state and experience of stress vs confidence. There is a whole body of research under the name of psychoneuroimmunology investigating the chemical-hormonal impact breath and body-work has on the nervous system.
The overwhelming results explain why so many of us feel more empowered, more confident, more content with ourselves, calmer and happier after practicing yoga. I recently ran a yoga and meditation retreat themed on restoring, nourishing and revitalizing… and it boils down to how to work with rather than against our basic primitive brain wiring and how to use yoga postures like medicine, to either lift the mood or energy, or calm down and slow down.
How it works is this: the brain takes its information on what is going on in the environment and how to protect us, from the senses, which feed to a cascade of hormones triggered by the nervous system that influences our heart rate, pupil dilation, blood flow, digestive system and muscular body amongst many other functions. As the brain itself has no eyes, it reads from the body if we are or are not in a state of stress. The hormone cortisol is sent around the body, indicating the nervous system is in a hyper-alert state of fight, flight or flee. The effect on the body is the same as if we are being chased by a lion. The pupils dilate, blood goes away from the essential organs and digestive organs (hence IBS, stomach pains etc) to the extremities in case we need to run fast or be agile. The heart rate increases ready for physical activity, our ability to reason and analyse decreases and the more primitive ‘reactive’ function of the brain increases.
That may be all well and good if we were running from a predator… but if it as a response to habitual tension in the posture from sitting at aa computer whilst feeling anxious about an email – will cause chronic exhaustion and mental and physical ill-symptoms. Our nervous system cannot differentiate between mental/emotional stress and a physical threat to our safety. Yet in the case of the former, this ‘stress’ is very hard to shift in the body.
If our posture continually ‘performs’ a lack of energy, lack of confidence – it will feed back to our brain and nervous system we are low energy, exhausted, depressed. We get caught in a cycle of poor posture, shallow breath, low self image, and chemically we get trapped in the stress-reaction (‘sympathetic’) side of the nervous system because the brain takes cues from the body to interpret our environment and give appropriate responses.
So what if we, rather than talking about our stress, changed one thing in our body. Maybe we start by sitting up straighter right now. Rolling back the shoulders, opening the heart. See how we feel now. Maybe then we are able to start breathing deeper. Now what if we stood up and stretched our arms high above our head, splaying open finger tips, feet pressing into the ground. Now, we are in a power pose and this is where you begin to feel amazing.
Power poses can be seen throughout the animal kingdom as instinctual displays of dominance and power and joy. Experiencing confidence, the impulse is to expand your body – raise your arms, kick out the legs, lift your chin etc. As Amy Caddy says, ‘the body can lead the conversation with the mind…’ so if we are lacking energy and lacking joy and confidence… what if we just go ahead and stretch the body out into a power pose: fake it til you make it!
Looking at the above ‘confidence-building' yoga postures we can see why such yoga poses would impact your own sense of power, contentment and self confidence. The nervous system is being brought into a state of calm, connect, nourish (the parasympathetic nervous system response) by slowing and deepening the breath. Then the body is being lifted out of habitual tense and closed postures, and into power poses that physiologically communicate power and dominance and confidence.
Further than that in yoga practice you are continually being invited to challenge your perception as to what you think you can achieve with your body. In meditation you are constantly being asked to look at yourself in a new light. These dramatically rewrites your self esteem. As you face the fear of a headstand, surviving and overcoming inversions and arm balances – like a peacock splaying open its feathers shows you in your most magnificent. Practicing yoga regularly begins to even have an impact on those around you as the open hearted stance, calmer facial muscles, relaxed shoulders and grounded legs communicates directly to others nervous system – relaxation is contagious… By standing strongly and fully in space, and relaxing tension with your breath you are embodying power and presence, in a way that is non-threatening and confidant. Don’t wait to rewrite old scripts in the mind to tell you that you are amazing, express it in your body and watch your experience of yourself shift until it becomes a more permanent state of being.