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. 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.

    Daniel Merk wrote on October 15th, 2010
  2. I’m glad you discovered the secret… Yoga is why your wife appears so S*XXXXY HAAAAAWWWT.

    *haa ahaa!*

    DR.BG wrote on October 15th, 2010
  3. 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 😉

    Sarah wrote on October 15th, 2010
    • 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 wrote on October 15th, 2010
  4. 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)

    AtkinsFan wrote on October 15th, 2010
  5. 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 stability in my poses, better form, etc.

    Val wrote on October 15th, 2010
  6. 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!

    Michael King wrote on October 15th, 2010
  7. 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.

    lojasmo wrote on October 15th, 2010
  8. great Job My friend i respect what u did realy it’s a great job

    dylan201 wrote on October 15th, 2010
  9. 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.

    JuzzieD wrote on October 16th, 2010
  10. PS I have tried Iyengar yoga but Bikram is the ultimate for your mental health and physical health for me.
    I have heard of these blankie classes where you spend half the class lying down chanting and it just doesn’t have the physical challenge for me, no disrepect to anyone.
    Do yourselves a favour everyone and give it a crack! Need to stick it out for a short while and see if you can complete a class fully without feeling overcome. When you get o that stage you leave every class feeling twice the person you were when yo went in.
    Imagine what that does for your mental health.
    Good health everyone.

    JuzzieD wrote on October 16th, 2010
  11. Yoga just isn’t masculine enough for me, I put it in the same class as Pilates i.e., “chick stuff.”

    rob wrote on October 16th, 2010
    • lol. We have a triathlete/Army guy who comes to our Ashtanga classes. In the beginning he couldn’t believe it, looking around at all us middle aged women moving through the practice while he had to take breaks. I sweat like a horse doing it, more than when I’m running. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried Ashtanga or Bikram. It’s not all sitting around getting in touch with the universe, though there’s nothing wrong with that either.

      suechef wrote on November 1st, 2010
  12. I hated yoga until I had the pleasure of doing it in person with Susan Powter. I learned to modify and got a kickass workout. I had to stop going when she moved the class to her home studio (she has a beloved dog and I have horrible allergies). I need to get back into it but I have NEVER stopped doing the “hang”. I do it at work whenever I get up (and my job does require me to run around a little bit) and sometimes when I’m waiting at the printer. I showed some co-workers and they were impresed that I could place my hands easily on the ground! I said if they did the stretches everytime they got up they’d be able to, too!

    So, anyway, am glad you liked it, Mark!

    MilesHedgehog wrote on October 16th, 2010
  13. I just now got around to reading this post. My experience of yoga really supports this- backbending and chest expanding poses as well as wide-stance standing poses give me a feeling of energy and power, and I often use them to wake up my body and brain. On the other hand, forward bending poses are very calming and can quiet the mind and counteract stress. Although a healthy yoga sequence should include poses of both types, it makes sense to put the emphasis where you need the most help at the time. Thanks for the yoga shout-out, Mark!
    greenkatie, primal newbie

    greenkatie wrote on October 18th, 2010
  14. I found some of the more challenging yoga poses to be very beneficial, though it took me time to get into them.

    Forward poses help relieve anxiety and tension for me, and the wheel pose ( clears any nasal congestion if I have a cold… head stands are just, fun!

    Stephen wrote on October 19th, 2010
  15. I love Yoga. But our love wasn’t “at first sight”. I tried it a few years ago and thought it was just too stationary for me.

    I think I enjoy it now because I can see exactly how I progress with my strength and flexibility. But it’s also excellent for cleansing and meditation. Ha! Just about everythign they say Yoga should do — hahaha.

    Great article though.

    Anita wrote on October 20th, 2010
  16. OH boy Mark. I just introduced my Mom to our site last week (Friday), and she is a yoga teacher (35 years and she practiced it when it wasn’t so cool). So the first thing we see when we log on is about yoga and how you consider it idle time. I tried to click around as fast as possible so she couldn’t read that part. Needless to say she is going to recommend you to a lot of her students, lol=). I know you weren’t dissing yoga so all is good, but it was just a strange coincidence for sure. And it is really good that she is not a computer person and won’t be able to read up on anything I tried to shield her from.

    PrimalStyle wrote on October 22nd, 2010
    • oops I put “our” site and of course I mean “yours”

      PrimalStyle wrote on October 22nd, 2010
  17. I’m always telling my guy friends to give yoga a shot because it’s awesome. It hasn’t worked yet…

    Jeff wrote on November 11th, 2010
  18. I love yoga – and for someone who is just coming out of fifteen years of being a workaholic, carb addict, it’s been a real help to get balance again in my life and slow down a bit. I’ve just discovered this site and ordered Mark’s book. When I get back from my two week yoga retreat in Goa at the end of January I shall be going primal. I can’t wait!

    SophieLovesPink wrote on January 10th, 2011
  19. I meant to highlight my yoga retreat post on my blog too.


    SophieLovesPink wrote on January 10th, 2011
  20. Where does Bikram yoga fit into the work out pyramid? I tried tooking in the forum and past blogs, but I can’t seem to find a true answer…

    Moe Crocker wrote on November 9th, 2011
  21. I have done yoga on and off. It does leaves you feeling balancled, more centered. I think the meditative part is the main reason, but I do think stretching is key. If you have pets what is the first thing they do when they have been seditary for even 20 minutes? Instinctively they stretch. If you watch animals they instinctively move primarily. They like to walk around. They have the all out 100% sprint moments. And they do little stretches and poses.
    I am not an expert, but certain poses and stretches are a good for the body and mind. They feel good Even if they don’t become full on yoga routine.

    Ryan Allie wrote on February 1st, 2012

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