In Chinese philosophy there is a principle of balance and mutual transformation, called Yin and Yang. It is a very common concept, and most have heard of it, and all of Oriental Medicine believes one hundred percent, completely in it. This elegantly simplistic ideology states that cause and effect are self-perpetuating, and even reversible. That is, given enough time, an action or ‘effect’ can actually begin to mimic, and in some cases even ‘create,’ the type of environment most suited to fostering its own, natural, self-development. In simple words, “Fake it till you make it,” seems to actually work!
What, if anything, does Yin and Yang, cause and effect, and ‘faking it’ have to do with posture and mood?
It should be self-evident that behavior is an expression of mood. People stomp around a little more loudly when they’re mad, or drag their feet a bit more sluggishly when they’re upset… even intoxication with love can mimic a sort of pleasant disorientation. So our mood, in a million different ways, seems to ‘flavor’ the physical expressions, or behaviors, we exhibit in our every day, myriad routines. Isn’t posture then, just a snapshot of this physical expression, or better yet… “a behavior standing still.”
Notice how people who are typically sullen and morose ‘choose’ to stand with slumped shoulders and a slightly downward tilted head, gazing toward the ground. Their backs are usually soft and appearing weak, as if ‘broken’ from the weight of depression on their shoulders. Most obviously, their speed is typically slow and phlegmatic. In contrast, when observing people who are overly-excited or ecstatic, we can see that their speed is faster than normal and their muscle tone tenser, as if walking over fire. Like a hot air balloon rises, so does their posture. It is more erect with a stiffer, straightened spine, and a head jutting forward better to engage their environment with ‘hot’ blazing eyes. Both the ‘phlegmatic’ and the ‘inflamed’ postures are used to illustrate end points away from an ideal, but also clearly evidence how mindset easily affects a person’s daily poise.
Can poise, or how one chooses to stand, exhibit the reciprocal effect, that is, actually create in one’s mind a certain, distinctive mood? Can faking your posture change how you think about yourself?
There is a fascinating concept in modern psychology called "embodied cognition," which empirically studies how people will subconsciously alter their behavior in response to their body's alignment. In fact, our mere observation of someone else's downtrodden posture (or even our own reflection in the mirror) can adversely affect our mood, as the brain subconsciously attempts to "justify" internally what our eyes are witnessing. This mind/body, self-perception, feedback system is so strong, for example, that even the constriction of blood flow to the face during certain headaches can actually be reduced when simply pretending to smile -- check out the Facial Feedback Hypothesis.
For those who are a little resistant to such a simplistic and elementary proposition, to those who feel their mental state is far more complex than just pulling their shoulders back for bigger confidence -- that their body is simply a physical animal upright -- I propose this experiment… Walk around like an animal walks. Just do it, and see how it feels. Walk around on all fours and feel the coldness of the earth under your palms and knees. See how the top of your head is pulled away from the bright, warmth of the sun and your eyes and mouth become fixated on the moisture of the dark ground. How do you feel? What is your mood? If 1-2 minutes of this doesn’t convince you of the ridiculous obviousness of this experiment, trying eating your next meal in this position… try talking with your friends or co-workers at 3-4 feet below their chin!
In Chinese Medicine there is an expression that the eyes contain the essence of a person, the soul, or the burning quality of who he or she really is when feeling truly alive. What one looks at ultimately decides the direction to which one desires to go. Looking down drags us to the ground; looking up floats our head to the clouds; but looking at the horizon gives a sense of balance to the natural extremes of life and a harmony between the highs and lows. From the mid-point of neutral any direction looked is now halfway there.
So, how do you set your gaze? In which direction does your soul’s mood gravitate toward? How do you choose to stand?