Once, while I was washing my hands in an airport restroom, the woman at the sink next to me turned and said, “I’m really sorry, but are you...” She paused, and rather than finish the question, she stretched her arms out and up. I said, “I think so, yes.” (I’ve become more accustomed to “Are you...” followed by hands on the hips.) Her name was Shannon, and she told me that not only had she incorporated power posing into her own life, she also continues to share it with coworkers, friends, and family. In fact, she and her husband and their four kids have their own name for it: “Starfish up!” When her kids are nervous, she reminds them to “starfish up!”
What I loved was that Shannon and her family had made the practice their own. And it worked. To convince me how much it had affected her, she showed me her favorite piece of jewelry — a delicate diamond starfish ring that her husband had given her for her birthday to remind her of the personal power that she always has access to.
The activist Maggie Kuhn said (and I think most of us would agree), “Power should not be concentrated in the hands of so few and powerlessness in the hands of so many.” This is true of personal power as well as social power. Too many of us suffer from pervasive feelings of personal powerlessness. We have a terrible habit of obstructing our own paths forward, especially at the worst possible moments. Too often we acquiesce to feelings of powerlessness. We consent to them, which does nothing but reinforce them and take us away from the reality of our lives.
But we can use our bodies to get to personal power. A mountain of evidence shows that our bodies are pushing, shaping, even leading our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That the body affects the mind is, it’s fair to say, incontestable. And it’s doing so in ways that either facilitate or impede our ability to bring our authentic best selves to our biggest challenges.
Does this mean that “starfish up!” or standing like Wonder Woman will be effective for every person in every situation? Of course not, as I’m sure you know; there is no intervention that will work for every person in every situation. What I most want you to understand is that your body is continuously and convincingly sending messages to your brain, and you get to control the content of those messages. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of studies have examined the body mind connection, using many different methods — from breathing, to yoga, to lowering vocal pitch, to having people imagine themselves holding an expansive pose, to simply getting people to sit up straight. There are countless ways for us to expand our bodies. And whether the body mind effect is operating through our vagal tone, our blood pressure, our hormones, or some other mechanism we haven’t yet discovered, the outcome is clear: expanding our bodies changes the way we feel about ourselves, creating a virtuous cycle. So what matters to me is that you find the techniques that best suit you. If you don’t, you’re squandering a precious opportunity.
Ultimately, expanding your body brings you to the present and improves your performance. Although our body language governs the way other people perceive us, our body language also governs how we perceive ourselves and how those perceptions become reinforced through our own behavior, our interactions, and even our physiology.
Why should we not carry ourselves with pride and personal power? When we do, we are able to be present in our most challenging moments. How you carry your body shapes how you carry out your life.
Your body shapes your mind. Your mind shapes your behavior. And your behavior shapes your future. Let your body tell you that you’re powerful and deserving, and you become more present, enthusiastic, and authentically yourself. So find your own way to starfish up!