“Planking is a powerful pose.”
This is the sort of thing my yoga teacher proclaims to exhort me to sweat out another minute. Surely there is some power involved here, but who knew it was the same kind of power that you might witness in a persuasive meeting, a TED talk, or a board meeting?
I trust my yoga teacher implicitly, and as it turns out, it happens that she knows a thing or two about what it takes to have that commanding presence recognized everywhere as power. When she conjures me into those warrior poses, she is teaching me something more than how to twist myself like a pretzel.
Everyone recognizes power when they see it, but it’s hard to explain exactly how to get it. That’s because we perceive power unconsciously, through ancient perception systems dating back to early evolutionary days when survival was, in part, related to how well you could figure out who’s in charge and respond appropriately.
Thanks to modern researchers like Amy Cuddy, Nick Morgan, and others, the je ne sais quois of power has become more accessible. This research can help us translate our intuitive sense of power into concrete practices for daily life. Lately, I’ve been reviewing some of this research, and I can’t help but notice that they are saying everything my yoga teacher says.
While twisting like a pretzel and planking are not recommended for office meetings, there is a lot that yoga teaches about how to create presence and power that is useful in other areas of your life. Much of it is backed up now by current research and science. Here are 6 no-stretch-pants-required yoga lessons you can use safely in a public setting to help you command more power.
- Breathe from Your Belly
In yoga, breathing is central and connected to movement. Yoga explores various ways to breathe, but there is almost always a moment when the teacher will say something like: “Breathe in through your nose all the way to your belly and let it out through your mouth.” When you are in a difficult sequence, this kind of breathing helps you through it, just like Lamaze breathing can help you through labor.
It turns out that belly breathing has documented effects that go far beyond helping you hold down-dog for five full breaths. First, as documented through studies on meditation, bio-feedback, and other stress studies, full belly breathing can reduce stress by slowing down your heart rate, lowering blood pressure, reducing adrenaline, all of which can restore your ability to think more clearly.
Belly breathing also creates more command and resonance in your voice, a clue to your power in a group. When you want to have more command in a conversation or when you are presenting, belly breathing will add undertones to your voice that will make it more compelling. Think about your belly as the round belly of a guitar, the place where sound reverberates and becomes richer, more interesting. Watch great actors or singers, they all breathe from deep down and it’s partly the timbre created by larger breath chambers that make them compelling. It takes a little practice but it’s something everyone can do to improve the power of your voice.
- Cultivate Mindfulness
The ability to focus entirely on the present moment is a powerful social tool. We hear over and over how distracted we are. We check our phones on average 43 times a day, and that’s just one distraction. The ability to focus your attention and emotions completely on another person or on a room full of people is becoming a rare skill and is a key component of what we call charisma.
I can’t say it better than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Charisma is largely what makes Gatsby great. His smile “concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Focusing on people with the intention to understand them as fully as possible is a power move. It requires mindfulness, the ability to detach your mind from your own daily preoccupations and direct your attention purposefully to another. Mindfulness gives you presence and power that you can’t have if you are distracted and your thoughts are somewhere else.
Don’t worry if you are as distracted as the rest of us. There is practically a whole industry devoted to mindfulness so there’s plenty of help out there if you want it. To start, try one of the many apps devoted to mindfulness. The one I like is Headspace. Three minutes a day is a small price to pay for a better attention span and the ability to concentrate when needed.
- Chant Mantras
OK, I’m not advocating that you chant om as you walk down the office hallway or greet your co-workers with namaste. However, affirmations that resonate with you personally can be powerful agents of change. The science of neuro-linguistic programming is a whole branch of science devoted to using affirmational statements to re-program how we think, how we act, and how we overcome our worst fears.
If you know your fears, you can turn your worst nightmare into an affirmative mantra to overcome what is blocking you. If you know your truly highest hopes, you can take your aspiration and turn it into a vision that becomes reality. Take three days to identify your deepest fear or highest hope by writing it down. Set it aside for a day or two, then make sure that it still gives you that quiver in your stomach and is not a decoy fear or hope but a true one. Then write an affirmative statement that envisions what you would be like without that fear or when you achieve your hope.
For example, let’s say you feel afraid to speak up in meetings. An affirmation would be something like: “I naturally and easily speak up in meetings whenever I have thoughts to contribute.” Write it on a small piece of paper or index card, and put it where you will see it often, like in your wallet or on your desk. Say it to yourself every time you see it, at least 5 times a day and make sure you say it to yourself at least three times before you go to sleep. Within a few weeks, you’ll find yourself less afraid of exactly what was blocking you or finding ways to move toward your highest hope.
This kind of reprogramming can unblock a lot of fears, including insecurities, feelings that you don’t deserve more, and many other fears that block us. It works for our highest aspirations like wanting more responsibility, wanting to express our ideas more fully, wanting a promotion or new job. But it only works if the fear or hope is really one that is deeply within you, so choose your mantra carefully. Here’s one more hint: affirmations that express gratitude are most powerful. When you are writing your affirmation, be thankful for the vision of the person you want to be and see how you can realize your dreams.
4. Stand Tall
Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses went viral when it first posted on line. It was essential viewing. Her point that standing in a powerful pose increases the your power presence in a group has been borne out by other research.
While there are some questions about whether these poses induce hormones like testosterone, there is no question that strong, open body language is a power cue. People comfortable in a strong, open standing position signal trust and confidence to others.
In yoga, the basic standing pose is tadasana, or Mountain Pose. We might think we know how to stand, but tadasana requires a bit of effort. My yoga teacher describes it like this: “Stand with your feet apart, arms by your side with palms open to the front. Align ankles, hips, and head vertically, and elongate the spine. Your chest should be softly open, heart forward.” This takes the simple act of standing to a whole new level.
In a meeting or presentation, you wouldn’t want your arms frozen in a palms-forward position, but consider alignment, an open chest, long spine, open palms as much as possible when you talk. Watch others to see how your body language helps you command the trust and attention of your audience.
5. Use Mirroring
It’s amazing: my yoga teacher stands at the front and shows the whole class how to move. The room moves in unison a fraction of a second behind her. I’ve seen Annie Carpenter move 100 or more yogis at once. A slight adjustment to the angle of her arm or change in her breath, and suddenly, the entire room makes the same adjustment. Now, that’s power.
Scientifically, our mirror neuron system is responsible. We are innately wired to mirror other people. It’s how children learn, it’s how groupthink happens. It’s why emotions are amplified in a movie theatre or concert when others feel what we feel, and we feel what they feel.
Mirroring is an essential tool for inspirational leaders. If you are trying to get your team energized for a tough project, or excited about a new direction, feel the energy and feel the excitement. You can’t fake it, you really have to feel what you want them to feel. A little something gets lost in transmission, especially the farther away someone is from you. If you are meeting one-on-one or in a small group, be sure to keep emotions within bounds. A small emotion will affect those near you. If you are on a stage or in a larger setting, bring the emotion up a notch. With screens and microphones, you won’t need to bring it up much, but check the audience and see if they feel what you feel. You’ll see it on their faces. They will subtly mirror you back and you’ll know you have their attention.
6. Get Proper Rest
Shavasana, also known as Corpse Pose, closes nearly every yoga class everywhere. If you go to enough yoga classes, you’ll know that shavasana is the most important pose of the class and you might also have found that it’s the hardest. In shavasana, you lie on your back, eyes closed, arms at your side with palms upward—and here’s the hard part—with your thoughts detached from the world, focused on the awareness of your body and the rise and fall of your breath.
It’s tempting to fidget. It’s even more tempting to let your mind return to the world outside. If you chase after your thoughts, the class is over before it’s over. But if you can detach your thoughts from your life for a moment, you might get lucky and feel that Zen moment of bliss or elation as you cede consciousness and float.
Yup, here too, science and yoga agree. Rest is essential. Deep sleep clears away the detritus left in the mind by thinking and is linked to improved memory, longer life spans, more creativity, and lower stress. Recent research has also indicated that rest may be important for reducing risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other degenerative diseases.
Besides, it feels so good! You’ll naturally bring a positive air into the office every day after a good night’s rest. If you have trouble sleeping, be sure to get off screens at least half an hour or more before bed and set up a bedtime routine that is calming. Before you sleep is a good time to listen to your meditation app if you need extra help in turning off your thoughts and tuning into your body’s need for rest.
No need to break a sweat improving the power of your presence at work or at a presentation. Try one or all of these tips and watch how others perceive you and tune in to your newfound power.
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