I recently watched the TED.com talk by Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy. She is an Associate Professor at Harvard University and her 2012 TED.com talk has been viewed over 17 million times. Her talk, called, “Your Body Language shapes who you are” presents the results of studies she has done on the affect poses have on how people feel about themselves. I will include the link here so you can watch it for yourself and then I’ll progress into a discussion of how these concepts have applicability to yoga practice:
There are some key premises that Amy brings up in her talk:
The way we shape our body communicates non-verbally to others not only how we feel about ourselves but can conjure up different perceptions on their part about who we are;
The way we shape our body can change how we feel about ourselves;
When we do various poses and connect to our own physicality, we are able to present to others in a more authentic way;
There is truth to the idea of “faking it until you make it” because eventually, using this technique can create a shift where you BECOME what you are feel you are pretending to be.
What does this have to do with yoga? The most obvious parallel is that in yoga practice, we are shaping our body in different ways. We may not be “thinking” about how we feel as a result of doing one pose over the other, but it may be a shared experience among practitioners that feelings about oneself can shift as a result of doing different poses.
The second thing that can be said for yoga practice is that some days you come to the mat and you may feel like you are faking your way through the practice. You might be distracted. You might be sad or feeling overwhelmed with life. In these instances, you may feel like you have to “fake it” and go through the motions of the practice. In my own experience, this feeling is usually fleeting and after a few minutes of practice, you often find yourself enveloped in the process and at least getting some temporary relief from whatever has your mind in knots.
I can also say that as a yoga teacher, the concept of “faking it until you make it” can often be applied to teaching. It’s not that you try to “fake,” being someone you’re not, but often, as a new teacher and even beyond, you may struggle with feelings of self-worth and may feel that you have nothing of value to give your students. This may be a running commentary in your head or could be something you feel “on and off” depending on other things going on in your life, your perception of your worth as a teacher compared to other teachers or maybe you’re feeling a bit “off” and lacking self-confidence.
As I watched Amy’s presentation, it got me thinking about creating sequences that are focused on tapping into different emotions or feelings in the practitioner. It’s not that a teacher could control how someone feels but it is possible that using different sequencing might facilitate different feelings in the practitioner. For instance, if we think about a practice that would be designed to bring people into a sense of power and strength, we might do a number of poses that require leg strength and rooting into the ground. These might include Warrior Poses, Chair and balancing poses. If we want to tap into the ability to speak clearly, speak authentically and with confidence, we might do poses where the practitioner is taking up a lot of space and opening through the chest; these would be poses like Triangle, Half Moon, backbends and Upward Dog.
These are just a few examples. We know generally, that as we watch someone who is depressed, their body shape reflects that. I’ve read articles by bodyworkers and yoga teachers who study the affect of the shape of the body on mood and they have found that as body shapes change, the participants can alter their moods. We know from taking a yoga class, that there are changes in the body- subtle or profound- that result in our feeling more connected, steady and present. Amy talks about the decrease in the hormone cortisol in participants in her study and this was as a result of doing just ONE POSE! We know from studies done on yoga students that they have a decrease in cortisol and this is after doing a 60 or 90 minute class. There is no denying that the practice of yoga can shift our mood, our feelings about ourselves and can help us feel more connected, authentic and powerful.
I think the most powerful finding in her work is that, as she says, these changes can happen after only 2 minutes of practice. As we think about this as students of yoga, it means that our yoga practice is really a critical part of not only our overall health but also a key strategy in managing our moods as they shift due to things happening in our life. As yoga teachers, it means that one of the keys to being authentic as we teach is that ability to be connected to our own body. That might mean we practice before we teach. It might mean, as Amy says here, that we take a few poses before class to “come into our body and come into our physicality” so we can shift from that introspective, judgmental person inside us and instead, be open, expressive and real.
As you practice this week, take a mental check before class and then afterwards. See what shifts have occurred. As you teach this week, use the same technique and if you feel like you’re faking it, DO IT ANYWAY. I can speak from my own experience that there are times, even after 12 years of teaching, that I go into the studio, feeling disconnected from my authenticity and I literally am mentally pushing myself to be open and expressive. I can say almost every time, once I get going, I forget the mental effort to DO IT and I just BECOME IT.