Sit Tall!! How many times have you heard this in a lesson or warm-up? It’s better for you and your horse – you already knew that, but there’s much more to it. As Mark Rashid once said to me, “It’s not about how you ride your horse, but about how you lead your life,.” Before we begin, let’s please take a little inventory.

As you begin to read this, what is your environment? Are you sitting at your desk, or perhaps in a coffee shop or living room? Possibly standing over a counter? Are you reading the printed copy or using a phone, tablet or desktop computer? (More about this later.) Please don’t change anything, but let’s take a quick inventory. Just notice, don’t criticize.

What are the position of your feet and legs? Are they flat on the floor or crossed at the ankles or knees? What about your hips? Are you leaning forward? How is your back shaped? Is it straight or in a C curve? If in a curve, where is the center of that curve – the lower back, mid-back or upper back? Are your shoulders hunched forward and how is your head positioned over your body?

Now try Sally Swift’s “building blocks” – hips above heels, ribcage above hips, shoulders above ribcage and head above shoulders – all lifted as though you were a puppet with a string attached to the top of your head..

Take a few deep breaths. You’ll probably find it easier to breathe in this new alignment. Count while inhaling, allowing your exhale to be one count longer; i.e., inhale 1-2-3, exhale 1-2-3-4.

Notice how you feel and add one more thing, please – smile, the kind of smile that creates crow’s feet. Did you know the same chemicals are produced in the brain when you create that smile as when it is induced by something which truly sparks it?

Research by Amy Cuddy, Harvard Business School Professor and social psychologist, has shown how our body, specifically our posture, affects our mind. In her book, Presence, Dr. Cuddy documents her findings in the animal kingdom, especially with humans.

Amy’s TED Talks began with her first in 2012, which was the second most viewed in TED’s history. If you haven’t seen it, take a search on You Tube for her short talk. You’ll also find many other presentations with Amy and her colleagues on the subject, as well as stories from people whose lives have been changed by their work.

It all boils down to power, but please don’t misunderstand. This is power to NOT power over. There are many examples of this in nature – the fearsome Silverback gorilla proudly beating his chest; the peacock strutting his colorful tail; the wild stallion prancing with head high, showing his prowess for the mares. Then, there are the powerless – the dog slinking away, crouched with his tail between his legs; the low ranking Chimpanzee wrapped in a fetal position; a submissive colt with his head lowered.

Note: If you’re interested in more horse stories, Amy’s home page, www.amycuddy.com, features Kathy, an equine trainer, who uses power posing to rehabilitate Icelandic horses.

Powerful positions are erect, occupying more space; powerless positions are about being smaller, trying not to be seen. What Amy has shown is that we can assume body positions of power and change our minds. Seems counter-intuitive, but she has the data to prove it.

Powerless Poses

Powerless Poses from Amy Cuddy.

Powerful Poses

Powerful poses from Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence.

In Dr. Cuddy’s research, she and her colleagues asked people to assume different postures before various forms of testing. The subjects were not told what the test was about – in fact, in most cases, they were given other objectives, totally separate from the real experiment. They were then asked to perform everything from job interviews to mock presentations for venture capital investments. Regardless of all other factors, including culture, those who had previously taken the high power postures fared consistently above those in the lower power postures. This research led to her development of the concept of presence. But what is presence?

 

 

 

From her book, Presence:

The way you carry yourself is a source of personal power – the kind of power that is the key to presence. It’s the key that allows you to unlock yourself – your abilities, your creativity, your courage, and even your generosity. It doesn’t give you skills or talents you don’t have; it helps you to share the ones you do have. It doesn’t make you smarter or better informed; it makes you more resilient and open. It doesn’t change who you are; it allows you to be who you are.

In addition to the performance experiments, Dr. Cuddy and her teams delved into the physiology, by measuring two hormones – testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone, produced in both males and females, is referred to as the “dominance or assertiveness hormone, which tracks dominant behavior in humans….High-status individuals tend to have high levels of basal testosterone.”I Cortisol, deemed the stress hormone, is especially prevalent in situations of social judgment. High cortisol equals high anxiety. As expected, their studies showed that high power postures produced high testosterone and low cortisol and the lower postures the opposite. This high testosterone/low cortisol profile is the “ideal combination for facilitating presence in challenging moments.”

But when do you use these postures? Definitely not in your next job interview or major board meeting. Research shows this overt body language in these situations actually turns people off; they instantly recognize and are offended by its incongruence.

Instead, try one or two of the postures before your next challenging moments, in a place of privacy. This may induce a giggle, but how about the bathroom stall? Or perhaps your office, if you can be alone, or even in the stairwell or an elevator. Two minutes is the recommended time; research shows that longer exercise may be detrimental. If there is no room for privacy, you can even imagine yourself in the pose.

In your everyday life, notice when your posture declines – around what situations and people. Remember your “building blocks” and sit up straight, as someone in your childhood probably once told you. See if you can improve your overall posture and notice how that feels. I predict better.

But this is not an instant fix; it takes time and practice, maybe even a lifetime of practice. In George Leonard’s Mastery, he describes practice for the sake of practice, the “Journey”. He warns that whenever we attempt a change, whether in our body or our mind, it will object. It’s called homeostasis and is the body’s way of keeping us safe and alive. Have you or someone you knew ever tried to begin a running program? After the first few yards, as you’re gasping for air, your mind shouts, “Stop! You’re dying!”

Your body, and your mind, have no idea whether the change you are striving for is good or bad. It only believes it needs to stop, now. So, how do you handle this? Amy writes about small nudges, little changes, which are so much easier to accept. You can’t drastically change your posture or your mindset overnight, but you can do it for this moment, or even this second. Then, the next time you catch yourself slumping, simply correct it again.

Are you reading this on your phone? If not, take a second to do something with your phone and observe your posture. Dr. Cuddy calls it the iHunch. She researched postures and performance outcomes after using various devices, with phones, tablets and desktop computers. Their findings were that the larger the device we use, the better our posture and our performance afterward.

The take home message – we can actually improve our sense of well-being and our performance with our posture. Even if we don’t get the job, the promotion, the blue ribbon or the venture capital funds, we can leave feeling like we did our very best, rather than wishing we could have done better. We have less of those “what I would give for a do-over” moments.

Have a challenge looming in your future? Don’t we all! Start your morning with a few of your favorite power poses. Then, before your event, go in the bathroom, lock the door, and stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes – give it a go ☺ I’ve even done this sitting on my horse before an exercise that I find a little daunting. The results were wonderfully surprising.

I would love to hear about your experiences! And, as Amy concludes in her TED talk, “Share the science”.

References:

Presence, Amy Cuddy. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, NY 2015
Mastery, George Leonard, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 1992


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