Integration Training Journal - Mark Walsh's Blog

Brighton (Sussex)/ London UK

Where business training, management & leadership training, time & stress management, coaching and team building meet "alternative" content. For all who integrate BOTH worlds as human business beings - to benefit themselves, their work and the world.

Yoga and Psychology

  • 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 DawPete 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.

Moving Forwards

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.

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13 Responses to Yoga and Psychology
  1. moyra
    May 20, 2011 | 3:00 pm

    Ah, you are just touching the surface! Yoga is an integrated system. And indeed Asana (postures) are just one of the 8 fold path…) Mostly the West we start with the postures and then there are the Yamas and Niyamas – which are, if you like, about the attitude you bring to the postures and your world… I am only just beginning my intensive study of Yoga, but I do know that twists are cleansing to the body, and as in Yoga everything is integrated, the wringing out the cloth metaphor is useful for emtions too. The Chakra system is the clearest way to isolate the psychological states as each Chakra represents different areas (e.g root chakra is about security, basic needs, foundations, stability etc) so anything that activates the root chakra specifically is going to help enhance those states. The aim of Yoga being to get all in balance, of course…

    • Mark Walsh
      May 22, 2011 | 10:54 pm

      Thanks, and as you say just touching the surface of a deep tradition. Disagree about chakra system being clear though!

  2. Jackie Coulson
    May 20, 2011 | 4:01 pm

    Hi Mark,

    I definitely like the idea of more direct intention in poses (e.g. asking yourself in warrior stance “what do I need to be strong for in my life now”). This could be a powerful way to work, however I’d personally only want to use this method at times. For me, one of the things I love about Yoga is the way it seeps through into my psyche without having to get too caught up mentally. Our time on the mat is often a chance to leave behind what’s happening in our life right now. Being able, for example, to build strength for an aspect of life, whilst also having a break from thinking about it can have equal value.

    Here’s a few more psychological aspects of poses to add:
    Back arches – very liberating, overcoming fear, they feel very expressive to me too, perhaps helping us let go creatively.
    Forward bends – yes surrender, acceptance, trust. An extra element is added when there is some containment, eg turtle pose (Kurmasana); here the arms are out to the sides under the legs, so surrendering into the constraint lets us feel how certain boundaries or routines can give us freedom to let go.
    Inversions – also confidence and trust in our own abilities. (I always used to do a headstand before an interview!)
    Stability and relaxation – feeling the bones supporting us in our natural structure when lying down or standing (corpse or mountain), or seated (easy pose) gives a sense of ease and grounding, from which movement becomes more graceful. Helping us find a way to interact with life less forcefully, so our existence too can become more graceful.

    Hope that helps!

    • Mark Walsh
      May 22, 2011 | 10:53 pm

      Awesome thanks Jackie, thanks that really adds something – I recommend your classes to people too :-)

  3. jakke Talmage
    May 20, 2011 | 11:34 pm

    I was very excited to hear about your discoveries with the mindset of Yoga postures. I teach yoga and run courses called ‘The MindBody workout’ which incorporates yoga and how the intention of a posture can effect the mindset and therfore the posture. Also how your every day posture can effect not only the way you think and behave, but how you feel. By changing your body, you can change your mind and by changing your mind, you change your life! That is self empowerment and it can only come from within you!

    Many thanks for letting me share.
    Jakkie. (I have attended one of your workshops Mark- very inspiring!) x

    • Mark Walsh
      May 22, 2011 | 10:51 pm

      Thanks for commenting Jakke- nice to be appreciated :-)

  4. Lucy Lindner
    May 23, 2011 | 1:10 pm

    Hi Mark,

    great to see you opening people up to the way asanas can effect us on a deeper level. One size certainly does not fit all and it seems a shame to me when classes do not encourage self exploration.

    I have been very inspired by Donna Farhi’s approach to yoga. She talks about avoiding the ‘Simon Says’ approach to teaching. She reminded me that a nourishing yoga practice is one that ‘serves you’. Pointing out that in the West the mainstream has become caught in the trap of pushing further and further physically so that how far you can bend has become a sort of status symbol.

    I definitely agree with Jackie in that too much mental analysis can take away from the moment and life is already so cerebrally orientated anyway. But it’s a big step to start being aware of the emotions rather than the muscle groups. I believe yoga provides a space in which our minds are quiet enough to be able to observe whatever is going on on whatever level that day (if you have an ankle injury you’ll perhaps be aware of having to use the other side more as well as noticing feelings of self-pity or inadequacy that arise). Without necessarily knowing why, students often find that certain practices give them the giggles, others make them cry but they are in a safe, protected space without judgement where they know it’s all good!

    The Satyananda approach is to regularly take time between the postures to observe changes that have started to take place/feeling that have arisen, whilst also emphasising the attitude of ‘silent witness’ rather than self judgment. DF recommends coming back to a ‘simplified space’.

    I agree with Moyra in that asanas are just the start (actually have you addressed yamas and niyamas?!) but a healthy, steady body is imperative before we can go much further with the more traditional meditative practices (though we all know you can meditate whilst drinking your coffee or refilling your stapler…but perhaps that’s another matter!)

    Keep up the good work Mark!

    • Mark Walsh
      May 25, 2011 | 9:19 am

      Thanks Lucy or the thoughtful response, have always enjoyed your classes.

  5. gudka
    June 11, 2011 | 10:56 am

    Yoga is good for refreshment of a body as well as mind. After working full day i think there should be a time when could do these sort of activities to refresh your self otherwise your overloaded work gonna to make you a complicated personality.
    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post with us.

    • Mark Walsh
      June 13, 2011 | 11:47 am

      You’re very welcome Gudka, thanks for commenting

  6. Celia Delaney
    December 18, 2011 | 6:47 pm

    Hi Mark,

    I really enjoyed this post. I practise yoga but don’t teach it so this is only an amateur’s perspective but I’ve often noticed what a difference the eye gaze makes in postures – my teacher says there is a prescribed eye gaze position in each asana but it is rarely taught. When i do a twist I always look as far as I can in the direction of the twist and often feel this helps me with peripheral vision. Also in the forward bend you can roll the eyes up to the third eye (a point in the middle of the forehead) and so promote insight while experiencing that rush of blood to the head.

    I have to be constantly living out a strategy and careful in keeping my direction because I run my own business so I do warrior 2 and cobra every night, mainly to get good sleep but also because in warrior 2 I imagine I am looking into the distance and my future is bright!

    I blog about yoga and speaking sometimes too – take a look at the SpeakingSucess blog.

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