Triangle, bow pose, cat & cow, eagle, crow, etc. On the mat, our bodies flex and extend to take on many different shapes. Each pose is done in a specific order (krama), placed in a special way (vinyasa), to help us experience a certain feeling or sensation. As our bodies move into these shapes, I believe we take on the flavour or energy of the pose; We take on it's personality. It's exactly like body language. For example, when our arms are crossed it makes us feel protected and it might warn others to keep their distance. If you're arms are relaxed at your side while interacting with another, it offers an inviting and relaxed energy. Hands on the hips might exude confidence inside and out.
Social psychologist, Amy Cuddy says that our bodies can change our minds, and our minds can change our behaviour, therefore our behaviour can change our outcomes. She's studied that if you bring the body into a power pose- like standing with your arms overhead or your hands on your hips- testosterone levels (the dominance hormone) raise and cortisol levels (the stress hormone) fall. This simple exercise can replace feelings of fear and nervousness with strength and confidence. Power posing for 2 minutes before a stressful evaluative situation (like a presentation or interview) help you to approach your circumstance with presence, passion and enthusiasm.
In Yoga, self-assurance can be experienced in the stronger postures like the warriors & handstand (adho mukha vrksasana). With the focused gaze and the big open stance of warrior 2 (virabhadrasana II) the pose can make you feel like a fearsome fighter. This character is especially important to explore if off the mat you feel timid, powerless and/or shy. On the other hand, child's pose (balasana) comforts our bodies. This posture makes us feel held and supported. In this shape, the heartbeat slows as our breath deepens and our vessel grounds. Forward folds automatically can shift us into a state of reflection. We literally are looking inward, turning our face and senses towards our own bodies.
I like to go further with this notion. While in meditation, I often ask my students to note how they're feeling in the moment. Then I'll ask them to pick a shape that goes along with their mood. In other words, if you could be a shape what would you be? You might be a perfect triangle, a complete circle, a messy ball of squiggly lines, or maybe you're formless and without boundaries. Does your shape have a colour? Is it hollow or filled in with an element, temperature or texture? Are the lines thick or thin?
When class comes to a close, I instruct the yogis to reflect on an internal shape once again. It is astonishing to hear how different their shape is from when they first walked in. I think this symbolizes the transformation and metamorphosis that can happen on the mat.
After the body has explored space around itself and it's tried on multiple characters and personalities derived from the many yoga postures, one is bound to walk out in a different state with a different shape. We might even leave with a better understanding of how our bodies communicate and what they're saying. If anything this new concept may have put a new spin on the phrase "in shape"!