- Yoga Postures That Change You
I work in embodied training, a field of work which shows how the postures and stances we take build who we are as people, effecting our mood, thinking, what we are capable of and the quality of our relationships. I apply this work to areas such as business leadership training, stress management, change management and team development. My work comes from a variety of traditions such as martial arts, meditation, somatics and dance, and is supported by modern psychology which is just starting to understand the area. By far the most common of the Eastern embodied practices in the West now though is yoga, and I have been exploring this lately in Brighton where we are lucky to have good teachers like Suzy Daw, Pete Blackaby and Gary Carter. I started asking everyone I knew in the yoga world, “what do different postures build in our personalities and psychology?” With a few of noteworthy exceptions (such as Chris Swain and Sal Jeffries who I was kind enough to spend an afternoon playing with this) the responses I got were either:
- Blank stares – for some in yoga physical beauty alone is what matters it seems
- A vague description of how yoga is generally good for you and if I was lucky a few postures for physical health complaints – he most common response
- Told “it’s complicated”…but given no clue as to how
- Obscure esoteric theory that was hard to translate into clear psychological concepts that I (and most others) could understand
Now don’t get me wrong, I have done enough eastern practices to have an open mind to the strange and I also value well defined rigorous logical thinking as well as felt experience and mystical insight. With this in mind I’ve decided to offer some “best guesses” as to how yoga postures relate to psychology as understood in conventional Western terms. There is perhaps much to be gained from chakras, bandas, mudras, “sheaths” and other traditional yogic terms but these are outside my area of expertise and I imagine many others find them as inaccessible as I do. I present here a very simple overview of a big subject, but rather than just say “it’s complicated”, here are some rules of thumb – they could make the basis of empirical research if you’re that way inclined. For a more thorough model of embodiment that influences what I see in yoga take a look at this chapter from my upcoming book on the body and leadership.
How You Do It Matters
The first thing that needs to be stated before we go onto specific postures is that how you do them is critical. How you enter a pose for example could be fast, rigorous and with an emphasis son “doing” (I have seen this in Ashtanga yoga for example), or slow and with feeling, opening and allowing (many Hatha classes). These are both OK, but building very different ways of being. The question for any practitioner is – is the “how” of your practice building the way of being you want? See Laban on different efforts for more on “how”.
Similarly with how long one holds poses for, how one transitions and other internal factors such as one’s intention. Whether you are competing with others, judging or accepting oneself for example are all important. The majority of yoga encourages mindfulness of course – attention here and now – something with a strong evidence base for making you smarter, nicer, happier and healthier. This is worth noting and not the focus of this article.
Individual Differences Matter
One size does not fit all and two people can do the same pose and get very different results. This depends upon such factors as constitutional type, life circumstances and age; so view what comes next with that in mind.
How Different Yoga Postures Alter Psychology
These first two points being made there are some general rules about how certain postures build certain psychological states short term and longer term capacities/ habitual ways of being. It is worth nothing at this point that while some “off the mat” transfer to life happens simply through doing physical movements, adding intention and bringing in a wide context (e.g. asking yourself in warrior stance “what do I need to be strong for in my life now”) makes a big difference. This can add another dimension to yoga practice that takes it beyond mere gymnastics.
Forward bends and Backbends
Forwards bends such as the classic child’s pose are generally relaxing and build the ability to surrender and let go, backbends such as cobra are more stimulating and grow the capacity to strive and extend oneself. They are natural antidotes to the hyper and hypo distress responses respectively. Yin and yang in esoteric terms.
Stability, Relaxation and Alertness
More generally physical, psychological and emotional relaxation happens when the bones are aligned with gravity allowing the muscles to release, this could be lying down (e.g. corpse) or standing (e.g. mountain). All provide a sense of stability and “grounding” as do four legged postures such as downward facing dog. Verticality supports alertness – which is why we lie down to sleep.
Wide, Narrow and Open Postures
Wide standing poses such as warrior build a feeling of strength, confidence and reaching out in the world. Warrior two also uses the eyes to build a sense of direction and vision (as opposed to more diffuse open vision which can build capacities). Warrior 1 I associate with bravery. Narrower postures like standing prayer pose are about containment and reflection. Opening postures – e.g. butterfly – or simply standing with the arms extended, or opening the palms out in other postures, build generosity, emotional availability and the ability to receive and welcome others. Hands and heart have an embodied connection.
Balances – e.g. tree pose – bring balance as one might expect, and focus.
These give new perspectives boosting creativity and playfulness as well as the obvious physiological wake-up function as blood goes to the head.
Twists can combine the allowing of relaxation poses, and the effort of stimulating poses (depending on the twist) and perceptive change again.
“Core” Poses and Arm Lifts
Poses such as boat build a sense of strength and empowerment, other which also involve the arms such as plank and more challenging arm balances can be used to build better boundaries.
Yoga and Virtues
If we were to look at the lists of cross-cultural virtues that have been gathered and grouped in Positive Psychology we see there are postures for all of these: courage (strength and empowerment), justice (balance), humanity (e.g. generosity), temperance (containment), transcendence (includes humour, creativity and reaching out), and wisdom (being relaxed and focused). I would love to see an empirically based modern somatic yoga develop using these.
I invite others, especially those with more experience of yoga than I to contribute to this discussion – this article is just a starting point to be held very lightly. If adding to the debate here I invite you to use everyday language and clear concepts whether possible For me most yoga is missing a trick in not working with more explicitly and clearly with these elements so I hope this sparks some debate.