I’ve been thinking recently, it’s interesting how the human body reflects mental and emotional states. Given that the majority of what we think and feel is communicated non-verbally – through our body language – the idea that we hold onto emotion and mental tensions on a physical level is not a mind-blowing revelation. If we’re having a bad day, we might not hold our head up as high; our chest might cave inward in an attitude of defeat, or of protection; our posture retreats. On days we’re feeling glorious and impenetrable, we might puff out our chests; walk taller; take greater strides.
Walk with me.
When I was training as a yoga student, I unmasked a previously-hidden fact. I have always been aware, in a peripheral kind of way, that my posture isn’t fantastic. But it wasn’t until one of my fellow students photographed my body from the side for a postural appraisal assignment that the reality hit home: I have the posture of a buzzard.
Imagine: head juts forward quite a bit more than is anatomically necessary for a standard human being; the shoulders slump forward, melancholy, as if somebody kicked their puppy. I look like some forlorn creature slouching around the place with nothing much to live for. Oh hello Gollum, how are you today?
If I’m honest, my body is an emotional inventory of my life; a snapshot of my mental self-image. It says, among other things, ‘I am afraid’.
I’m reminded of another phenomenon I experienced during my yoga studies. Whenever I did shoulder rolls, I felt angry and wanted to stop. Weird!!?? I’d understand if I was frothing at the mouth during some kind of challenging upside-down- pretzel pose but shoulder rolls? Gimme a break. Rolling the shoulders is about as innocuous as taking a breath (unless you’re asthmatic… or have emphysema… bad analogy, forget that one). But there it was, every time, rage bubbling up from under the surface.
A scientific mind searches for scientific explanations. But I didn’t have a completely water-tight one, so I blended a little bit of science with a little bit of yoga knowledge, with a little bit of intuition and a chunk of life experience, and came up with a hypothesis.
There are three types of reactions to danger in the human body – one is to fight, one is to flee, and one is to freeze. I’m a freezer. I lack the faith in my own strength to either fight or flee; perhaps I lack the self-worth. Maybe if I stand still enough and squeeze my eyes shut tightly, the cave lion will simply not see me and continue on his way. Make the body look small, yes! Now there’s an idea! Roll the shoulders down, huddle in! I’m adapting!!
When in danger, in any mode, the muscles in the human body tense up – this is how the muscles prepare to either fight back or to run away. When you fight or when you run, this fear energy moves, it propels the body into action. When you freeze, this energy freezes with you.
This is how I hold it. I hunch the shoulders up and forward, for protection. I have made a habit of holding my fear this way, mostly unconsciously. I am always looking out for the cave lion (head jutting forward buzzard-style – is he behind THAT rock?). This anxiety is temperamental; it was there when I came into the world (hypotheses around this one pending).
When I attempt to roll the tension out of the shoulders, the emotions release. In the development of human emotion, fear gives rise to many strong secondary emotions, including anger (others include jealousy…hate… sorrow… ). Shoulder rolls = Jen aka Cujo. The upside is that this releasing is not a bad thing. It feels ghastly in the moment but as it finds expression, the tension eventually subsides. And I don’t even have to punch a cave lion in the face! Hooray!
So, thank you yoga. You are my release. You are my mirror. You may have shown me that I am a buzzard but you give me hope yet – that by watching the body, by gently working with it, I can change my mind.
Copyright © The Yoga Experiment, 2012