At the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, we have been working for the last year to find ways to help our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Through the army, these men and women have undergone intense physical practices designed to create warriors. They are athletically skilled, experts in handling weapons, and have learned to endure harsh climates, toxic environments, and harrowing situations. Some have been wounded. Some have lost colleagues or friends. Not surprisingly, many have difficulty with returning home. Post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and rage are signs of nervous systems trained to be hyper-alert to the point of preventing them from engaging normally in mundane situations.
The difficulties facing these men and women are enormous. Many try to talk themselves out of hyper-vigilance by reciting practical mantras, such as “I am just walking into a shopping mall; there is no danger there; I don’t have to brace myself and be afraid,” or “I’m just driving along the highway; there won’t be any IEDs; no need to sweat bullets.” But such efforts rarely work by themselves. Many self medicate with alcohol or drugs. Some are given powerful prescription drugs that can create other problems.
In partnership with a program called Project Welcome Home Troops, we have been researching a spiritual approach to combat stress that uses yoga postures and yogic breathing to ease the minds of these veterans. Although our formal data is still pending, participants in our pilot programs say they are sleeping better, feel more relaxed, have less anxiety, and feel more positive emotions. If these practices can help alleviate the suffering of our veterans, imagine what they might do for the overall population.
Lessons from Manhattan
I began thinking about the benefits of yoga as a graduate student at Columbia University in Manhattan. No matter how anxious or exhausted I felt when I plopped down on my mat at the beginning of a class, I always walked out of the studio feeling elated, calm, and energized. Unlike so many ways of coping in which the pleasure is fleeting and the side effects long-lasting (think hangovers and love-handles), the bliss I experienced from yoga seemed to build. My après-yoga glow left me more likely to amble at a slow and peaceful pace and to hold doors for other Manhattanites to rush through. I began to wonder about the role of the many physical postures and practices developed by spiritual traditions and how they might impact the mind.
What I have learned is that our body’s postures exert a great amount of influence on how we feel and even think, often without our own awareness. While much of the Western world still pooh-poohs the notion that anything but our brain cells and intellect impact our mind, this will change as science catches up with ancient wisdom.
Whether we realize it or not, posture alone can predict how we feel and act. For example, your mother’s instructions to sit up straight may reflect an intuitive understanding — supported by recent research — that an upright spine leads to increased confidence, while a slumped posture leads to more helpless behaviors. Indeed, experimental participants who had been sitting with a rounded back tended to feel and act more powerless and to give up more quickly in the face of challenge than those with straight backs. The hunched group also felt more stressed compared to participants who had been placed in an expansive, upright posture.
Body position can also impact the intensity of feelings such as anger. For example, a recent brain-imaging study at Texas A&M University found that anger and hostility may be reduced by simply lying down — suggesting that there is much more to the yoga corpse pose, or shavasana, than simple relaxation. Adopting shavasana in a time of heightened anger may be a therapeutic way to calm hostile impulses. There is real wisdom to the suggestion that people sit down or lie down to receive bad news.
Physical movements also can impact how we think and feel about others. In a recent study using speed-dating, for example, participants who moved from table to table liked their partners more than those who sat and waited for a new partner. Why? Unbeknownst to us, our mind interprets our bodily states as signals for how we feel, so moving toward a person typically indicates openness, friendliness, and liking of that person. You can try this for yourself at a party — notice how you feel about a new person when you choose to walk toward him or her versus when you hang back, waiting to be introduced.
An analogous study found that holding a hot coffee cup (versus a cold beverage) made people feel closer to strangers because the sensation of warmth on the body impacts our feeling of social connectedness. So watch your heart as you exit Starbucks!
Even clean smells can lead to more virtuous behavior. Katie Liljenquist and colleagues from Brigham Young University found that the smell of Windex promoted greater fairness and more generous behavior, such as a desire to volunteer and donate. In contrast, acting in a morally devious way increases the urge to wash one’s hands!
Shaping Both Body and Mind
Over the last decade there has been a steady stream of research showing that meditation can literally reshape the brain’s function and structure. For example, Dr. Richie Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin – Madison has found that meditation strengthens people’s ability to regulate their emotions and may develop empathy and compassion. Meanwhile, Dr. Sara Lazar’s work at Harvard Medical School shows that continued meditation can physically alter the insula cortex of the brain. Now we’re learning that when body postures are included in a meditative practice, the effects may be even more powerful on mind and body. For example, the daily practice of lying on the floor in shavasana, a surrendered state of rest, may be training both the body and the mind to remain still and composed in the face of whatever emotions arise. Indeed, Patanjali, the father of the yoga tradition and the famous Yoga Sutras, explains that to attain a state of stable tranquility (abhyasa) the practice of yoga (physical postures, breathing practices, meditation, and the study of wisdom) should be done “for a long time, without a break” (Yoga Sutras 1, 14); in effect, training the body and mind.
Postures of Compassion and Joy
The Buddha famously pressed a begging bowl for food into the hands of his followers, and this beautiful act of compassion allowed them to drop their egos and to live in a posture of surrender and humility. Similarly, a bowed position of prayer and devotion, with the palms joined at the heart, may lead to an attitude of greater humility, compassion, and tolerance. If you adopt the posture regularly, you may, in a real sense, become it.
By the same token, physical movements and postures of hatha yoga train the body to be open, flexible, strong, steadfast, disciplined, centered, and relaxed. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras call them steeram sukham asanam — steady and joyful postures — the ultimate goal being steadiness of the mind. Indeed, the basic cross-legged seated position in yoga, the one found in the seated Buddha images, is called sukhasana — sukh means joy; asana means posture: The posture of joy!
One need only meet such beloved teachers as His Holinesses the Dalai Lama or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to experience the contagious quality of their bliss. Every cell of their bodies seems to be smiling. Sri Sri often encourages people to smile, even saying “Fake it ’til you make it,” and there is wisdom behind his words. Research shows that bringing a smile to one’s face, even if it is fake, can induce the positive physiological benefits of a smile and make us feel better. Moreover, the sight of another person smiling can activate your zygomatic facial muscles (or “smile muscles”) and make you feel happier. This may be due to what have been called “mirror neurons” in the brain, which get activated both when we do an action and when we see someone else do that same action. Incidentally, this is a great reason not to feel embarrassed when you smile at someone and he doesn’t smile back! Chances are, you are activating his micro-muscles, making his day better, and he will smile at the next person he meets!
Even reading the printed word “smile” or “frown” activates the corresponding facial muscles. Having read the word “smile” so many times in these last two sentences may have exerted this influence on you already. In fact, our body actually seems prewired to recognize smiles above and beyond any other facial expression. In an experimental procedure in which participants had to recognize facial expressions, they were quicker to recognize prosocial facial expressions, such as happiness, than any other facial expression of emotion. In an analogous way to facial feedback, the breath can also impact the way we feel by directly influencing our nervous system. When the mind is racing, more thoughts will not slow it down nearly as fast as concentrating on a few deep breaths.
Just as returning soldiers must retrain their bodies and minds to restore a sense of tranquility and ease, we can all benefit from conscious body practices that bring more calmness and steadiness in a world that seems to be going faster all the time. In future issues, we’ll report more on what works and what doesn’t. Meanwhile, sit up straight, breathe deep, and smile.