I invite you to answer the following question:

Do you frown because you feel sad? Or do you feel sad because you frown?

If you’re like most people, you’d likely say that you frown because you’re sad. 

Most of us think that our emotions create our expressions and postures. But just as often, it’s the other way around.

In the 1970s, Paul Eckman, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, was studying emotion recognition across cultures. One day, Eckman and his colleague were making sad faces, trying to locate which muscles created which expressions. By the end of the day, they both discovered they felt terrible. Their emotions mirrored the expressions they’d been making.

Eckman wrote, “When this first occurred, we were stunned. We weren’t expecting this at all. And it happened to both of us. We felt terrible. What we were generating was sadness, anguish. And when I lower my brows, which is (position) four, and raise the upper eyelid, which is (position) five, and narrow the eyelids, which is (position) seven, and press the lips together, which is (position) twenty-four, I’m generating anger. My heartbeat will go up ten to twelve beats. My hands will get hot. As I do it, I can’t disconnect from the system. It’s very unpleasant, very unpleasant.”

Eckman’s research has been repeated many times over the past several decades, generating very similar results. The research is conclusive. Our bodies are continuously sending messages to our brains about how to feel and how to act. 

Our expressions and postures greatly influence our emotions and our worldviews.

As we move throughout our days, we habitually return to certain shapes. Tight. Relaxed. Hunched. Straight. Leaning back. Leaning in. Our shapes, in turn, influence how we see the world and how the world sees us. 

For example, if you hunch your shoulders and hang your head, your view literally becomes limited. You’re unable to breathe as deeply. You’re likely to feel physical discomfort, which makes it harder to think clearly or creatively. You’re apt to feel down about yourself, and other people are likely to treat you with less respect, which is likely to make you feel even worse. 

On the other hand, imagine how you feel when you stand tall, your belly, heart, and head in alignment and in harmony with gravity. When you stand with your head held high, you are likely to have an easier time taking a stand for what matters, facing the challenges ahead, and being taken seriously by others and yourself. 

To get unstuck, change your shape.

One of the most powerful ways to let go of old habits and develop new ones is through “somatic practice.” Soma is a Greek word which means “the living body in its wholeness.” Somatic practice generates a new way of being by simultaneously engaging your whole self: body, mind, and spirit. 

I encourage my clients to have a somatic practice in which they put themself in the shape of the person they want to embody. 

I first learned about somatic practice from Doug Silsbee, the founder of Presence-Based Coaching. Doug shared stories about two clients who were high-powered executives and needed to learn a less demanding, more collaborative way of leading. Doug instructed one of his clients to take ballroom dancing lessons with his wife so he could learn to lead in a way that she could easily follow. The other was a competitive tennis player. Doug invited him to go to the tennis court together, and for two hours, the client served Doug balls in a way that Doug could easily receive. Largely as a result of these somatic practices, both men learned to embody a new way of leading.

Breath is another excellent example of how physical changes can change your energy, mood, and perspective. 

I invite you to check this out right now. 

Breathe through your nose, counting to four as you inhale and eight as you exhale. 

Do this a few times, and notice how you feel. 

Slowing your exhalation stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, and you are likely to feel more relaxed. Hundreds of studies demonstrate the benefits of relaxation-focused breathing, including improved impulse control, optimism, and performance. 

Your Turn: Somatic Practice

I invite you to think about what somatic practice might help you get into the shape of the person you want to embody. 

Which somatic practice might support you? 

Here are a few practices that my clients engage in:

  • Improv comedy classes. I often encourage clients who struggle with self-judgment or creative thinking to take improv comedy classes. By getting silly and thinking on their feet in a safe community space, they learn to quiet the voice of the inner Judge, speak their truth, and enjoy themselves. I’m a huge fan of our local improv comedy organization in Western Mass: Happier Valley Comedy.
  • Yoga. Yoga can help you to develop flexibility, strength, balance, presence, and the ability to breathe deeply, even in a tight spot. I personally engage in an almost-daily yoga practice, and my favorite online teachers are Jill Miller of Yoga Tune-Up and Heidi Sormaz of Fresh Yoga.
  • Public speaking groups. Many of my clients come to me wanting to become better public speakers. There’s nothing better than taking the plunge and practicing. I’ve had clients get particular benefit from Sister Speakerhood, speaking groups that help women learn to speak from the heart and share their stories.
  • Art classes and maker-space time. Getting messy with art materials can help you learn to be in the messiness of the unknown and think outside the box.
  • Time in nature. Spending time in nature can help you step outside of the stories you tell yourself, witness the natural ebb and flow of life, feel connected to that which is greater than yourself.
  • What’s already working for you. If you already enjoy a movement practice, you can also adapt it by bringing new meaning to it, intending to embody the person you want to be. 

I invite you to try out a somatic practice in the next week or so. Keep in mind that the practice is not just about going through the motions. You will receive the full benefit of the practice by engaging with intention and focusing your attention on what you want to embody. The more you practice with intention, the more it will shape who you are. 

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,

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