Today, let’s try a little experiment – as you’re sitting here, clench your fists very tightly. Really experience what that feels like – in your body, but also in your mind. Hold it for about 30 seconds.
Next, open your hands palms up and have them resting on your lap. Again, take a few moments to tune into the sensations this gesture evokes in you.
Then, bring the palms together in front of your chest, in the gesture of prayer or greeting. Maybe do a little bow. How does this feel?
It’s likely that the three hand positions led to quite different responses in your body and mind. Another good exercise is to walk around the room a few times with your head bowed, upper back slumped forward, and then a few times with your head and back upright, looking around. Again, the difference between the two can be remarkable. We know about the mind/body connection – how our thoughts and emotions can directly impact our bodies. Yet, as our little experiment showed, this also works the other way – our bodies can have quite a profound effect on our minds. We’re constantly putting substances into our bodies to try and regulate our moods – a cup of coffee to perk us up, a glass of wine to relax us, a chocolate bar for comfort, not to mention the many other legal and illegal drugs people consume on a regular basis. ‘We are what we eat’ is certainly true, but is it also true that ‘we are how we hold our bodies’?
It’s fascinating sometimes to sit in a café and watch people going past. Some walk with a great sense of dignity; others seem to have almost no awareness their bodies even exist. Over the years, we get used to certain ways of holding and using our bodies, and we can become quite limited in our range of movements. You might walk with a slight slump, or unconsciously clench your jaw, or grip the pen much harder than needed. Your shoulders might be tight, or your forehead creased in an habitual frown you don’t even notice anymore. It’s difficult to feel happy and relaxed if you’re slumped forward, with your jaw tight, and frowning. This is one reason why the mindful movement practices, such as Tai Chi and yoga, are so effective – while practising them we extend our range of movements, stretch tight muscles, and develop a better posture. They open up new ways of being in our bodies, and, by extension, of being in our lives.
The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful practice he calls the gentle half smile. We don’t want to walk around with a bright, fake smile all day, but the gentle half smile feels very different. It softens our gaze, evokes feelings of warmth, and lifts the spirit. It is a simple practice we can do throughout the day, by ourselves and with others. It’s also a very nice practice to teach to children, who often respond to it really well.
Weekly practice idea:
This week, experiment with different ways of holding and using your body. Start to notice the connection between your posture and your mood. Also, from time to time, try the gentle half-smile, again noticing its effect.