Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Oct

Empowering Poses

I’m not big on yoga, as most of you know. Too much idle time for me. I’d rather be playing. But last Sunday (a beautiful, sunny, SUP kinda day), I caved to the pressures of my wife Carrie, who loves yoga, and attended a session. It was to be a multi-hour event (a “workshop”) so we brought pillows and fur blankets to be comfortable. As we’re entering the studio, bedding in tow, I run into Michael Anderson, the owner of CrossFit Malibu sitting in the atrium, sipping on a Starbucks coffee. I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights and he just grinned. Mark Sisson, Mr. Primal, with a furry blanket and just moments from striking a pose and singing some oms. I told him that nothing was going on here, mumbled something about research and that he hadn’t seen anything. We winked and went our separate ways. I kid, of course, but there might be something to this after all.

A few months ago, I wrote about the concept of embodied cognition, a relatively new (or renewed, as is often the case) area of study that focuses on the body’s influence over the mind. Our kinesthetic engagement with our environment, our movements both large and subtle have dramatic sway, embodied cognition suggests, over everything from our emotion experience to our learning ability. Yet, new research (PDF) broadens the picture significantly. The findings, I think, can add a new wrinkle to our wellness endeavors.

Professors from Harvard Business School and Columbia University measured the impact of “expansive” and “constrictive” postures on subjects’ subjective sense of power, their tolerance for risk, and hormonal secretion. The researchers directed half of the 42 participants to pose in two “expansive” positions: one in which they sat on a chair with their feet elevated on a desk and their hands behind their heads, and one in which they leaned over the desk with their hands widely spread and resting on the desk. The other subjects were assigned “constrictive” postures: one in which they sat on a chair with legs together and hands on their thighs, and one in which they stood with legs and arms crossed. Participants didn’t know the real purpose of the study and believed researchers were assessing electrode placement in varying positions.

Following the exercises, researchers took samples to measure testosterone and cortisol levels, which they compared to levels taken before the pose exercises. As the researchers note, higher testosterone levels are associated with dominance in the animal world. Correspondingly, higher cortisol levels reflect increased stress and are associated with lower status in animal groups.) The researchers also directed subjects to fill out a form asking them questions that assessed how powerful they felt. Finally, they gave the subjects two dollars and offered them the opportunity to gamble the money with the chance to win an additional two dollars.

The results? Those who had been placed in the expansive poses reported feeling more powerful and were significantly more likely to participate in the gambling opportunity (86% compared to 60%). Their hormone readings showed (PDF) lower cortisol and higher testosterone levels than those who had assumed the constrictive positions.

The researchers attribute the phenomenon to evolutionary strategies of competition and survival. The bigger an animal can make its body appear (by puffing its chest, standing upright, raising its wings or fanning its feathers), the more intimidated – and hesitant – a predator will be. Expansion of physical appearance prepares the animal to fend off an attack. Likewise, the researchers say, constrictive poses reflect a protective stance, such as prey would take during an attack when instinct directs them to shield essential organs.

Although the study only tested four particular poses, the overall expansive/constrictive principle is key. Those who practice yoga have likely observed these sensations. (Warrior pose and goddess pose – two “expansive” positions – have their commanding names for a reason.) Manipulating our physical posture, embodied cognition suggests, can have a dramatic psychological impact. In the case of yoga therapy, open, expansive poses can help initiate the release of blocked emotion. This particular study offers the first evidence that officially links embodiment to both hormonal changes and “behavioral choice.”

The researchers see extraordinary implications to their findings. Individuals can use these kinds of poses to, in essence, practice empowerment. In the short term, striking a power pose before walking into an interview, for example, can give a quick but very real boost in confidence. Yet, the more significant benefits are likely long-term. As the researchers note, high cortisol impairs immune function, while higher testosterone levels together with lower cortisol readings are associated with positive health outcomes like “disease resistance and leadership abilities.” Over time, this pose training can change both our mindsets and our neuroendocrine profiles in positive ways. The result? Better physical health and mental well-being. What’s not to love here?

In the pursuit of wellness, there’s naturally a lot of focus on maintaining a positive attitude. The mental game we bring to our efforts can obviously make a huge difference in our motivation and staying power. Nonetheless, embodied cognition teaches us that the mind-body connection is a two-way street if not a full-on cycle of physiological and psychological linkages. Our brains can influence our physiology, yes. Conversely, our physical actions and postures have the power to alter our mental state. The cycle continues through the course of attitudes, choices and hormonal responses that stem from this initiated mental state. As the researchers say, “fake it ‘til you make it.” It opens up a whole new angle of thinking about motivation and success, doesn’t it?

How many of us find ourselves identifying here? Yoga buffs, what perspective does your practice add to this research? I’ll be interested to read your thoughts. Have a great afternoon, everybody.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Interesting stuff. I sit hunched over working at a computer for many hours at a time and I always feel stressy afterwards. If I can just find a way to work at my computer while sprawled out. :)

    Also even though yoga may be kind of sucky for a primal person it just goes to show that *any* new experience is good for the mind and leads to happier healthier brain that comes up with interesting ideas.

    We should all be doing something unusual for us on a regular basis.

    JohnC wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Check out the Queen of posture and back pain … Esther Gokahle (Mark has articles about her). See her book in amazon (8 steps to a pain free back). I worked for me big time!

      AtkinsFan wrote on October 15th, 2010
  2. I like yoga. I find it fun, and it’s the only tribal thing I do.

    SuperMike wrote on October 14th, 2010
  3. Great post. Don´t be ashamed of yoga! Even USA Marines are using it today for their training!

    I have done yoga for a long time, and I am a new paleo, thanks to your site.

    Yoga is an excellent complement to paleo workouts.

    I use it in a soft, stretching way but some other days as a full strength paleo excercise. Yoga could be a very demanding strength excercise!

    By the way, I have kept doing “dands” and “bethaks” (hindu squats and pushups). They are in between yoga and body weight. Excellent companions of the excercises described in your bluprint.

    Best regards from Uruguay.


    Jose Zeballos wrote on October 14th, 2010
  4. I actually picked up a yoga book/DVD earlier today. My reasons were two-fold: stress reduction and increased flexibility. I have actually been practicing mindfulness meditation (aka not new-agey chakra stuff) for a few weeks now, and found it extremely helpful with my stress levels and ability to sleep. I think of yoga as the next step from there.

    Macha wrote on October 14th, 2010
  5. Oh yeah, and the feeling of well-being afterwords is unrivaled by any other workouts.

    SuperMike wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Agreed 100%

      AtkinsFan wrote on October 14th, 2010
  6. The things we do for our wives eh? :-)

    I just hope no PETA-vegan yoga disciples saw your fur blanket.

    Interesting column though. I’ll try a few warrior poses before my next presentation and see if it doesn’t boost my confidence.

    Dave Fish wrote on October 14th, 2010
  7. Makes a lot of sense. If you stop to think about it, you’ll recall a whole lot of ways that this idea has manifested itself in our culture.

    Athletes do things to psych themselves up before competition – jump, pound their chests, etc. In entertainment, especially extremely stylized entertainment like video games and anime, the characters very particularly and deliberately strike iconic and “powerful” poses before attacking.

    Plus, there’s all that great dimestore psychology that we can all bring out to talk about the various ways dominance manifests itself physically!

    Kris wrote on October 14th, 2010
  8. Very cool, Mark. I started practicing yoga quite reluctantly a few years ago, and now it’s part of my daily physical practice in some form or another – usually as a cooldown from my strength training, but also as a stand-alone practice, too.

    There are a myriad of benefits to be had from a regular yoga practice, but when speaking in terms of empowerment, I think that empowering poses are only a small part of it.

    A yoga practice that addresses your specific needs will always be empowering because it forces you to actively seek out your weaknesses and overcome them. It forces you to take control over your breathing, structure, and movement in the present – and that is quite empowering. Not to mention the postural benefits from a balanced yoga routine that will naturally translate to feeling more empowered in your day-to-day life.

    John Sifferman wrote on October 14th, 2010
  9. If I ever try it again, it will be with an instructor. I have only tried it at home (with videos) and as soon as I start really getting into it, I end up hurting myself and have to stop. :-(

    Patty wrote on October 14th, 2010
  10. I do the P90X yoga about once a week. I hate it while I’m doing it, but I always feel great after wards.

    kenny wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Me too! I actually look forward to it, and at the same time kind of dread it because it’s such a long video. I have to admit though, I love the way it makes me feel!

      Megan wrote on October 15th, 2010
  11. Yoga integrates body and mind, not through new-age hoohaa, but by strenthening neuronal connections…in the same way that walking barefoot can.
    It can be very athletic, or a simple, gentle way for seniors to regain their sense of balance and prevent falls.
    I think that primal and yoga are a great fit, and I don’t understand why men get embarassed; its great for your golf swing.

    fitmom wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Actually, yoga screwed up my golf swing by making me more flexible and able to rotate too far.

      SuperMike wrote on October 14th, 2010
      • No offense, but your swing must have been dysfunctional prior to the yoga.

        Jay wrote on February 18th, 2014
  12. Sorry, I’m Christian so I don’t do yoga!

    Kidding of course! I just thought it was funny that this post came up now, with all the talk of Yoga being somehow incompatible with Christianity in the news lately.

    I’m actually reading a boook on Yoga at the moment(its free online if anyone is interested – ), trying to get a basic idea of the philosophy before I go into the physical aspect of it. Once I do start that, though, I’ll definitely pay attention to how my body and mind are reacting to the various poses. Thanks!

    anzy wrote on October 14th, 2010
  13. Cool! I can finally enjoy yoga because it has an official study that gives an evolutionary explanation. (rolls eyes)

    Sam wrote on October 14th, 2010
  14. I love yoga! I love how it challenges me, how it strengthens me, how it loosens me up, how it relaxes me…

    Peggy wrote on October 14th, 2010
  15. I feel these same sensations after tai chi class. Tai chi gives so much, especially when you really need it.

    Debra wrote on October 14th, 2010
  16. Mark,
    I read the whole post and you never said if you liked it or not. Would you go back?

    cathyx wrote on October 14th, 2010
  17. Over the last several months, I have almost entirely reshaped my body practicing the warrior poses, triangle poses and sun salutations with heavy focus on the plank position. The warrior pose has greater thinned my thighs which were very thick and heavy. Together with the triangle pose and plank position core poses, my gut is gone, down from a 42 waist to a 38. I like yoga because I frankly could not practice the more aggressive and cardio challenging primal workouts, but now I find that I can and my body is encouraging me to run and practice those Grok moves. I have concluded that these simple but effective yoga practice is a great gateway to more advanced primal exercises.

    Brian White wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Sorry for the terrible grammar, I usually do a better job of checking myself

      Brian White wrote on October 14th, 2010
      • Your post is so inspiring I didn’t even notice!

        Patty wrote on October 14th, 2010
  18. OMG! I am so excited that you are onboard. I have been easing into the primal lifestyle and was disappointed when I read that you were not a fan of yoga. I stopped going and have missed the stress relief that only yoga offers. Thank your wife for me.

    jllums wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • are you serious? MDA has turned into a freaking cult with Mark as the almighty guru.

      Fred wrote on October 15th, 2010
  19. As someone whose primary physical exercise is yoga I can say that it has huge benefits for the primal lifestyle. However it depends on the style of yoga you chose to practice. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga when done carefully and slowly can be extremely invigorating and one hell of a work out. With the emphasis on breathing slowly and deeply and the correct balancing of strength and flexibilty, it can be a great workout in itself. Check out Youtube for some amazing examples of strength, flexiblity and balance.
    Eating primal just enhances the practice for me, I recover faster, I have less inflammation so I feel more flexible, and I still have more than enough energy to play. The best part for me is the flexibility will allow me to play into my later years without a busted back or broken hip.

    erik wrote on October 14th, 2010
  20. I don’t practice as much as I’d like to, but when I’m consistent, it provides huge benefits as far as stress relief, strength and flexibility. It also helps dealing with the “pain” of Crossfit — I handle that better because I breathe through the tough parts.

    Page wrote on October 14th, 2010
  21. Yoga has an unmacho myth associated with it, but checkout, which is to say that yoga is *also* for men.

    The Primal Palette wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • I should have added “here in the west” to that line about yoga being unmacho…

      The Primal Palette wrote on October 14th, 2010
      • Same in the East, but that does not stop me from going to the yoga class (single guy and like 15 ladies!)

        AtkinsFan wrote on October 14th, 2010
  22. Now I’m kinda worried that my yoga practice might make me into a compulsive gambler…

    I started practicing yoga when I had a hip injury that led to back pain, when I was around 40. I couldn’t do the gardening work that I loved, and the pain was really debilitating sometimes. I started with some “gentle yoga” videos and progressed through some more difficult videos. And the back pain went away!

    Now I practice the Bikram yoga series every other day. I find that it’s a good complement to Lifting Heavy Things and walking and gardening.

    shannon wrote on October 14th, 2010
  23. This makes me want to consider giving yoga a try… I just might do so very soon.

    Primal Toad wrote on October 14th, 2010
    • Do it! I think you’ll enjoy it. It adds a whole new dimension to your workout routine – also nice for the “rest” days… try a class. I am fortunate to have a yoga studio across the street. They offer all kinds of different classes along with pilates.

      Peggy wrote on October 14th, 2010
  24. I did yoga for years and loved it, but when I went Primal I gradually began more sprinting and body weight workouts and left yoga behind. At first this was OK, but now after about 6 months I’m losing the flexibility that I guess I had begun to take for granted. I realize now that I never should have stopped, and intend to begin yoga again very soon. It makes sense to me that lifting heavy things and sprinting are very tightening movements and that ideally we stretch to provide balance. And I mean regular yoga, not just a few quick stretches before lifting.

    Primal Onahill wrote on October 14th, 2010
  25. I wasn’t much of a yoga person either until I tried a Les Mills BodyFlow class. It’s a tai chi warm-up with yoga and a short segment of pilates (the CW yuppies have to do crunches to tone up that belly). Crunching aside, I really enjoy it because it’s more focused on yoga as exercise (as opposed to meditation) and thus more challenging and stimulating for me. I’ve become addicted to it because after each session I feel like I’ve just come back from a massage – everything is in its proper place and I am ready to keep rolling. I’m standing taller and straighter, the booty is looking good and it’s helped my dance (I can kick higher and turn out more). I love it! I have also just returned to school (for my PhD) and am feeling more confident and assertive than I did as an MA student. Related to the yoga? Possibly.

    unchatenfrance wrote on October 14th, 2010
  26. That’s an amazing study–what would happen if women stopped putting themselves in “ladylike” poses all day?

    Contessa wrote on October 14th, 2010
  27. As someone who is still checking out the Primal lifestyle (especially the fitness part), I feel empowered by this post…

    I always have a constricted posture, even when standing, and that is going to change today! I notice elevated stress levels and a weaker immune system. I thought it was from working in law enforcement, but having been laid off for 15 months now (and loving working at home) i still notice the stress and weaker immune system… never thought it’d be from how I sit and stand.

    For those that sit at work all day, a yoga ball/balance ball can be a good alternative to your share because it almost requires that you sit up straight… still a little constrictive, but not as much as a standard desk chair.

    R.J. wrote on October 14th, 2010
  28. Yoga for me is indispensable: makes your body supple and after you complete a session you feel like a new person. I have done it by myself for many years and I have the incredible luck to have at work yoga and pilates sessions (given by the same young lady instructor, who is super good). It is a very good complement for the day when you do lift heavy things in the morning, and then you do the yoga session in the afternoon (note: to do it in the other order would be blasphemous!)
    No shame for me with the yoga, I am used to be one of the few guys in sessions at work.

    Yog-On and Grok On


    AtkinsFan wrote on October 14th, 2010
  29. Love it!

    Ahmed Serag wrote on October 14th, 2010
  30. I am entering my 12th year of practicing yoga. there is nothing like it to promote health and positive attitude. it is also my one year anniversary of going primal..! I followed 95% of Marks plan..the result was losing 32 lbs….four inches off my waist,and reclaiming my life. My blood work is remarkable. I regret not having a “before” picture, but I did have to donate a lot of clothing that did not fit anymore..! thanks Mark for the path.
    best internet discovery ever!

    rik wrote on October 14th, 2010
  31. Ha! Have this primal vision of Mark’s wife clubbing him, then dragging him by the hair into the studio LOL
    Yoga Rocks!! I’ve been a Yoga teacher for over six years now, and just started Crossfit about six months ago… luv the combo. Yin & Yang. Great Article! There are soo many different styles of Yoga, so it’s important to find a class that connects with us. Hope you enjoyed it ;0)

    Carrisa wrote on October 14th, 2010
  32. I have only been practicing yoga – regularly – since the beginning of the year (approx. 10 months now);

    I decided to start practicing after some big injuries practicing martial arts which left my core muscles damaged, my pelvis out of alignment and… some issues with regards to fear of injury… technically I took on Pilates once a week and Yoga 3 times a week & I ride (road or off road) about 100km a week roughly.

    Apart from the obvious benefits I have got out of this program – including: increased flexibility, improved balance – even over the peak of my martial arts training career, increased strength…

    Physically I have become aware of parts of my body that I wasn’t previously consciously aware of… by that I mean: for example; due to my injury a few muscles that make up what we consider core muscles would not fire, under no conditions could we (my trainers, teachers, physios, osteopaths etc.) get those muscles to fire – this was one of the reasons I wasn’t able to recover from these injuries or continue my training because of the back problems this caused. Over the last 10 months progressively internal awareness of these muscles (and others that again I wasn’t consciously aware of) has grown to the point that I now have control over them again (i.e. can get them to fire or contract on command) and I have managed to get to the point where I can do everything I used to do and more.

    The emotional & mental journey was something I didn’t truly expect when I started doing yoga but it has been very much an “awakening”; so many things that would put me “over the edge” are now nothing more than an “itch” that can be worked with or ignored… I have lost a lot of my fear of injury… I am better at work and can deal with stressful situations in ways that I never really considered before and to be honest I attribute most – if not all of this – to the practice of yoga.

    Anyway my 2 cents

    Steven Rees wrote on October 14th, 2010
  33. In an average week I do yoga once, run once and do two or three crossfit workouts. I love it! It helps me with my posture and I have improved my flexibility. Plus, I just feel good after an hour of yoga.

    Chris wrote on October 14th, 2010
  34. I love when scientific evidence supports personal anecdotal evidence. I challenge anyone to flow into a good, strong Warrior II and not feel powerful. P90X was my yoga starter drug and with a couple classes, several videos, Inhale on Oxygen, and podcasts (which are helping out here in Afghanistan), yoga is a marvelous component of my personal primal plan. And, hey, Mark, thanks for the six-pack (after 44 years of wondering where it was).

    dogfood wrote on October 14th, 2010
  35. Once again, science has proven what humans (in this case the yogis) have known for centuries.

    I have practiced yoga for a few years now, and for me it is a perfect compliment to my primal lifestyle. I use it to satisfy many elements of Primal exercise from low level cardio to lifting heavy things)as well as play! It is most definitely my “go to” form of exercise both mentally and physically.

    The mental clarity and overall peaceful feeling I feel after a good yoga practice is a huge reason why I continue to make yoga a priority.

    I’m just now delving into the philosophy and am reading content very similar to what you have written today!

    I would also love to hear what you thought of the workshop! Huge kudos to your wife for managing to drag you there, I am still trying to convince my husband he should join me!

    Robin wrote on October 14th, 2010
  36. Very interesting read. I’ve been practicing the 5 RITES for a few months and some pre-workout yoga postures for a few years. I definitely notice a considerable amount of adrenal rush soon after, as this preps me mentally for my HIIT-style cardio and strength xrcises. I mix in some Karate-Kid breathing techniques to complete my mental readiness. BUT Grok on, I’ll look further into yoga. Thanks for the 411.

    runningjay wrote on October 14th, 2010
  37. Yoga is amazing, and I’m so glad to see your post about it. When I practice regularly I notice great benefits in all areas of my life. It makes me more flexible, stronger, and more at peace – in body, mind and spirit. I haven’t been able to practice for the last three months and boy have I noticed the difference! It is my very favorite workout.

    Maggie wrote on October 14th, 2010
  38. Great post! It’s awesome to see research confirm some of the things we have experienced in practice. I have taught yoga for several years and have seen the positive effects in my own life as well as countless others. Although popularity rises and falls, there is a reason this practice is still here after thousands of years!

    Stephanie wrote on October 15th, 2010
  39. Love to see you gave it a shot Mark. What did you think? You never mentioned how that workshop went… 😉

    I adore yoga. My favorite styles (now) are vinyasa flow and/or Ashtanga. (I would recommend newbies start w/ a slow moving Hatha class in general–learning the basics of alignment is VERY important before picking up speed/flowing movements in yoga–too much risk for injury IMO when you don’t have the alignment down.)

    I absolutely get a yoga ‘high’ after going to a class, and often after practicing at home. I personally like to use it as part of my moving slowly–the LHT component of my fitness practice has only enhanced my yoga practice. There is really nothing like it that I’ve experienced though! I LOVE IT! It absolutely was the beginning of my path to health and contentment. Improved my life in every way.

    FairyRae wrote on October 15th, 2010
  40. Just wanted to add that we all are so different. You mentioned,

    I’m not big on yoga, as most of you know. Too much idle time for me. I’d rather be playing.

    Yoga is totally play for me. I’d much rather do that than participate in *any* sport, game, etc… WAY fun!! (And seriously, get to a vinyasa class and tell me about the idle time then!)

    If I want to be certain to have a joy-inducing experience, the best option is ‘get to an awesome yoga class’ for me. (By awesome I mean a class at or around my level with an excellent teacher–I’m kind of picky–it needs to be a challenge but semi attainable for it to be enjoyable for me.) When I go to a great class, I get a blissful feeling every time that I take home with me… (sometimes its hard to find my way home with that ‘yoga brain’! 😉 It’s always a happy drive though, even when its a meandering one!)

    FairyRae wrote on October 15th, 2010

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