We all intuitively understand that our mental state has an effect on our body. When you're angry, you tense up. When you're scared, you shrink into yourself. Your breathing changes. But I think we tend to underestimate the magnitude of these effect. We don't notice how gradually, over time, our mental states are imprinted onto our bodies. I love the way Mabel Todd expresses this in the first pages of "The Thinking Body." The first lines of the book say, "We sit and walk as we think. Watch any man as he walks down the avenue, and you can determine his status in life." She goes on to say:
"Living, the whole body carries its meaning and tells its own story, standing, sitting, walking, awake, or asleep. It pulls all the life up into the face of the philosopher, and sends it all down into the legs of the dancer. ..... Behavior is rarely rational; it is habitually emotional. We may speak wise words as the result of reasoning, but the entire being reacts to feeling. For every thought supported by feeling, there is a muscle change... man's whole body records his emotional thinking. The explorer and the pioneer stand up; the prisoner and the slave crouch; the saint leans forward, the overseer and the magistrate lean back. The marshal rides, Hamlet walks, Shylock extends the hands, Carmen requires the weight on one foot, hands on hips, eyes over the shoulder. ... Personality goes into structure - by denial or affirmation into person again. It is an aspect of life in evolution."In essence, the human body is an open book to the trained eye. If you're not convinced of this, just trying standing in front of one of those trained eyes for a class or two! I've heard Emmy quoted as saying, "If you ever what to know what a person is like, take them with you to yoga class. By the end of half moon, you'll know everything that you'll ever need to know about them." I believe her!
What about the other direction? Now, that's where things get REALLY interesting, because it's been well documented that this process goes in both directions. When people clench their fists, they are more inclined to feel anger. When they speed up their breathing, they feel inexplicably anxious. There was a neat study done in 2000 (Davis and Palladino) where participants were asked to watch cartoons while holding a pencil in their mouth. Half the participants were told to hold the pencil in their lips, which prevented them from smiling, and the other half held it in their teeth, which allowed them to smile. The people who had the pencil in their lips rated the cartoons as funnier than the non-smiling group did. This is a great little study, and it shows that this "happy smiling face" business is NOT just a throw-away joke! Your facial expression has a real and powerful impact on your mental state. If you've never smiled during yoga class, try it. Relax your face. Relax the spot between your eyebrows, move the corners of your mouth closer to your ears, and see what changes.
And that's just the face! What happens when you improve the state of your whole body? Well... that's what yoga does. And that's why it works. That's why we actually feel different after we practice for a while. We feel unmistakably better. Because even though we can fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we do not exist "from the neck up." Just as your experiences have shaped your body, now your body is impacting your day-to-day emotional experience. No question... it works!!