Yoga, Depression, and Posture: Assume the Alpha Chimp Pose!

The posture Avalon students jokingly refer to as "the Alpha Chimp pose."

The posture Avalon Teacher Training students jokingly call “the Alpha Chimp pose.”

Experiments going back to the 19th century have repeatedly shown that emotions can be manipulated simply by changing postures — a fact that is of obvious importance to the physical sides of yoga practice.  In neurobiology, postural-emotional links are known as “embodied emotion,” referring to the fact that emotions are not just expressed by but can be altered by bodily states.

On the first day of our Teacher Training Program we distribute to our students a classic 2007 paper on embodied emotion (you can download that paper here) and introduce them to what our students jokingly refer to as the Mother-of-All-Asanas, or “The Alpha Chimp Pose” (see on left). All this is part of a broad introduction to the sweeping revolution going on in modern yoga, which in its most progressive circles, is rapidly outgrowing its prescientific and New Age roots and is turning into a serious branch of behavioral medicine.

The paper illustrates embodied emotion using a simple example, showing that standard tests of depression can be affected by something as simple as positioning a chopstick in different ways in the mouth. If a chopstick is held between the teeth horizontally, forcing a crude smile, the depression scores will be consistently lower than if the chopstick is used to force a frown, which occurs when the chopstick is held outwards between pierced lips (see illustrations below). The result is that what appears to be a trivial change in mouth positions can cause reliable mood changes!chopstick

In class, we discuss how students can sense such changes through intense practice in developing body awareness, or “proprioception.” We also discuss how they can pass that knowledge on to students in their own yoga classes.

In biological terms, what explains the tight bonds between postural changes and emotions? In the last century and a half, researchers have worked out the details in evolutionary and neurobiological levels.

The evolutionary roots behind those bonds were first discussed by Darwin in his 1871 masterpiece, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In social animals, as Darwin noticed, during struggles for dominance differences in status are typically signaled by exaggerated changes in postural state (see the pictures below from Darwin’s book). As all dog lovers know, animals at the top of a social hierarchy (“alphas”) communicate their status with exaggerated upright postures, while subordinates signal their positions by crouching of slouching.

Illustration of the evolutionary links between posture and emotion in Darwin (1871)

Illustration of the evolutionary links between posture and emotion in Darwin (1871)

Later studies, including this famous article published by Price and his coworkers in 1994, expanded on Darwin’s ideas by tying those shifts to how conflict is resolved in social animals. Normally changes in posture in social animals prevents costly intraspecies conflict, which is avoided unless subordinates intend to challenge the positions of the dominant animals.

In the 1990s, a wide range animal studies further showed that these postural social displays are further tied to neurohormonal changes, one of several neurobiological mechanisms that mediate the links between posture and emotions. (There are others, including the types of analogical “mapping” that link diverse parts of the brain, also discussed on the first day of Teacher Training.)

While there are many complexities involved here, there is no doubt that the links between posture, emotion, and social status are preserved in modern human behavior. This was demonstrated in a famous paper published in 2010 by a group at Harvard and Columbia that you can download here. The paper was the first to demonstrate that levels of two neurohormones closely associated with social status as well as confidence, aggression, and anxiety in lower primates — testosterone and cortisol – change in minutes in human subjects when postural states are forced into exaggerated “open” (dominant) or “closed” (subordinate) positions.

The therapeutic implications of these findings are  stressed by one of the study’s authors, Amy Cuddy of Harvard, in a famous Ted Talk (How Your Body Language Defines Who You Are). Cuddy argues — without mentioning yoga, but in line with its principles — for actively manipulating posture to reap the advantages of the links between posture and neurohormones.

Other more recent papers, including those noting major changes in emotion involving small changes in sitting postures, have consistently replicated these results. Slumping goes with depression. Sitting upright, as your grandmother wisely told you, is associated with confidence and self-esteem.

One of the ironies in this is familiar to those of us who study the neurobiological consequences of cultural change over vast periods: Many of the causes of mood disorders in the modern world may have less to do with signaling social status -— although bowing to kings or kissing the feet of would-be gurus suggests we haven’t entirely outgrown our evolutionary roots —  than with maladaptive postural changes associated with modern work conditions (see the famous cartoon below).

cartoon

Is assuming an “open” upright posture an effective treatment for anxiety and depression? That’s what recent biological research suggests. The result is that manipulating postures provides a potent tool in treating mood disorders without the need for drugs or even talk therapy.

One of the key principles we teach our students is that the most important things in yoga are not complex but simple: learning to stand correctly, enhance balance (on this issue and anxiety disorders, see our further article here),  and understanding the ability of all sides of yoga — systematic stretching, controlled breathing, meditation, and nutrition — to downregulate chronic inflammatory processes, which are known now to lie at the roots of virtually all so-called diseases of  civilization (on that issue, go here.)

Today we still know only the basics about how specific changes in postures affect emotions. At Avalon we are currently running experiments in our Graduate Studio/Laboratory in collaboration with David Furman, Ph.D., a world-known research immunologist at Stanford Medical School and an Avalon Faculty Member (for many of David’s published scientific papers, see here) that further investigates those issues in relation to the up-regulation and down-regulation of chronic inflammation, which is also tied to emotional issues.

More on this in future articles. But in the meantime, bring the “Alpha Chimp Pose” into your life daily and observe the effects! Gaining control over something as simple as how you stand and walk day-to-day can radically change your life — and that is “yoga” at its best.