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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 14, 2010

Empowering Poses

By Mark Sisson
83 Comments

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.

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83 Comments on "Empowering Poses"

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JohnC
JohnC
5 years 11 months ago

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.

AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago

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!

SuperMike
SuperMike
5 years 11 months ago

I like yoga. I find it fun, and it’s the only tribal thing I do.

Jose Zeballos
Jose Zeballos
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Macha
Macha
5 years 11 months ago

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.

SuperMike
SuperMike
5 years 11 months ago

Oh yeah, and the feeling of well-being afterwords is unrivaled by any other workouts.

AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago

Agreed 100%

Dave Fish
Dave Fish
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Kris
Kris
5 years 11 months ago

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!

John Sifferman
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Patty
5 years 11 months ago

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. 🙁

kenny
kenny
5 years 11 months ago

I do the P90X yoga about once a week. I hate it while I’m doing it, but I always feel great after wards.

Megan
5 years 11 months ago

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!

fitmom
fitmom
5 years 11 months ago

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.

SuperMike
SuperMike
5 years 11 months ago

Actually, yoga screwed up my golf swing by making me more flexible and able to rotate too far.

Jay
Jay
2 years 7 months ago

No offense, but your swing must have been dysfunctional prior to the yoga.

anzy
anzy
5 years 11 months ago

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 – http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/intro/An%20Introduction%20to%20the%20Philosophy%20of%20Yoga%20by%20Swami%20Krishnananda.pdf ), 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!

Sam
Sam
5 years 11 months ago

Cool! I can finally enjoy yoga because it has an official study that gives an evolutionary explanation. (rolls eyes)

Peggy
Peggy
5 years 11 months ago

I love yoga! I love how it challenges me, how it strengthens me, how it loosens me up, how it relaxes me…

Debra
Debra
5 years 11 months ago

I feel these same sensations after tai chi class. Tai chi gives so much, especially when you really need it.

cathyx
cathyx
5 years 11 months ago

Mark,
I read the whole post and you never said if you liked it or not. Would you go back?

Brian White
Brian White
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Brian White
Brian White
5 years 11 months ago

Sorry for the terrible grammar, I usually do a better job of checking myself

Patty
5 years 11 months ago

Your post is so inspiring I didn’t even notice!

jllums
jllums
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Fred
Fred
5 years 11 months ago

are you serious? MDA has turned into a freaking cult with Mark as the almighty guru.

erik
erik
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Page
Page
5 years 11 months ago

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.

The Primal Palette
5 years 11 months ago

Yoga has an unmacho myth associated with it, but checkout yoga-for-men.com, which is to say that yoga is *also* for men.

The Primal Palette
5 years 11 months ago

I should have added “here in the west” to that line about yoga being unmacho…

AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago

Same in the East, but that does not stop me from going to the yoga class (single guy and like 15 ladies!)

shannon
shannon
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Primal Toad
5 years 11 months ago

This makes me want to consider giving yoga a try… I just might do so very soon.

Peggy
Peggy
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Primal Onahill
Primal Onahill
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
unchatenfrance
unchatenfrance
5 years 11 months ago
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.… Read more »
Contessa
Contessa
5 years 11 months ago

That’s an amazing study–what would happen if women stopped putting themselves in “ladylike” poses all day?

R.J.
R.J.
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Ahmed Serag
5 years 11 months ago

Love it!

rik
rik
5 years 11 months ago

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!

Carrisa
5 years 11 months ago

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)

Steven Rees
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Chris
5 years 11 months ago

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.

dogfood
dogfood
5 years 11 months ago

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).

Robin
Robin
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
runningjay
runningjay
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Maggie
5 years 11 months ago

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.

Stephanie
5 years 11 months ago

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!

FairyRae
FairyRae
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
FairyRae
FairyRae
5 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Daniel Merk
5 years 11 months ago

I got beat on here a few times for talking about yoga. For me (us)at home, yoga is play. Now we have a son, we’re going to introduce it to him as well.

I don’t get the spiritual part out of it as much as I get connected with own inner spirit. Mind and body connection and the challenges it brings while doing. Thinking it’s the be-all end-all to youth and enlightenment is a bit much.

DR.BG
5 years 11 months ago

I’m glad you discovered the secret… Yoga is why your wife appears so S*XXXXY HAAAAAWWWT.

*haa ahaa!*

Sarah
Sarah
5 years 11 months ago

I’m always surprised when people think a yoga class isn’t a proper work out – in my class, I regularly practice hand stands, head stands and press up position (chaturanga), all of which are tough upper body work outs, not to mention all the core & leg-strengthening endurance work involved. My yoga teachers are unbelievably strong and athletic.

It’s often those who mostly do weights/running that struggle the most in those classes because they haven’t built up that type of endurance 😉

AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago

I can attest to that: in our yoga class once in a while a weightlifter with arms like my thigh tries and it is funny to see him sweating all over, while all the regulars (including ladies in her sixties) do not miss a breath. The weightlifter never comes back …

AtkinsFan
AtkinsFan
5 years 11 months ago

Hi Mark:

peer pressure is mounting …
your wife … the grok crowd here …
everybody wants to know how you fared in the yoga …
I think that you discovered a lot of yogines and maharishis (meat eating ones, of course) …
just say it aloud, no shame on it: I love yoga, I have seen the light (you can use it as a mantra)

Val
Val
5 years 11 months ago
I also LOVE Yoga and do a class/session at least once weekly- it’s the one essential (to me) addition to my PB workouts. I enjoy my sprints, walking, and bodyweight workouts, but Yoga is the one that leaves me feeling the most… powerful, peaceful, balanced, centered- I continue to do Yoga simply because I just feel fabulous afterward. And it lasts- Yoga has been an important part of naturally and successfully managing anxiety and stress for me. I’ve loved that my PB workouts have increased my strength and now I am able to do moe in my Yoga classes- better… Read more »
Michael King
5 years 11 months ago

I have done a little vinyasa myself so far but for a Primal compatable yoga routine you could look into the “5 Tibetan Rites” This a very rigourous routine that can be done in 10 minutes, there are a few youtube videos and free info out there!

lojasmo
lojasmo
5 years 11 months ago

Yoga is great. Very primal, as far as I am concerned. There is a lot of evidence that yoga gives a multitude of physiologic and psychological benifits. From a purely anecdotal perspective, my practice gives me stellar hip, thoracic, and ankle mobility.

dylan201
dylan201
5 years 11 months ago

great Job My friend i respect what u did realy it’s a great job

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[…] I was reading another blog post at one of my favorite sites http://www.marksdailyapple.com.  The author was relating a recent study to […]

JuzzieD
JuzzieD
5 years 11 months ago

I do bikram yoga and although the class is the same each time it really is different too.
I practice a balance of yoga, cardio and weights I like to call strength fitness and relaxation.
I feel like I am prepared for anything with this balance.
Really appreciate your site Mark.
Thanks
JuzzieD

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