Contrary to everything you’ve heard in the press, in my teaching studio the average American is getting smaller. I’m not talking about belt size or average caloric intake. I’m talking about how anxiety, stress, and poor ergonomic conditions all contribute to excess muscle tension that, like a tightly wound instrument, shortens and narrows us. What I often see are students with shoulders which remain bunched up, ribs and stomach fixed, and the lower back compressed onto the pelvis. These all lead to poor breathing and a general feeling of dis-ease.
How could it not? Essentially what a person is doing in this position is replicating the evolutionary startle position. For the last couple million years, a human being, upon encountering a threat, pulls their limbs and head into their torso so that they might spring out to fight, flight, or remain frozen. For most of us nowadays, we may entertain fantasies of fight or flight, but in our stressed out days of being overloaded with emails and not enough time, we remain frozen in a posture of stress and contraction. We are not able to defuse the seemingly endless array of threats and challenges ranging from emotional entanglements to rising rents.
One of my students put it to me this way: “I am trying to be the smallest person in the universe. I’m trying to take up the least amount of room possible.” Think of all the situations in our life as New Yorkers and elsewhere where we notice ourselves shortening and pulling our shoulders and arms into us, sort of like a turtle in its shell: riding the subway, navigating a crowded store, even just sitting at your own desk racing to finish a project before deadline. How rare is it to have a sense of expansion?
What happens in the brain, at least, is that these patterns start to wear deeper grooves into our brain and become our resting place, rather than a temporary state during times of extreme stress. We start to function in a general state of contraction and low-grade stress. We hardly notice it’s there after a while.
In a society where being thin (and beyond thin) is so prized and reinforced in magazines, commercials and movies etc., it can be quite strange to tell someone to take up their full width. What I actually find though after working with a student is not that they look like they’ve gained a couple pounds, but rather that they look at ease and poised. There are physiological compromises that occur when we stress our bodies with prolonged tension. What’s also interesting are the other compromises we make when we think we need to be the smallest person in the universe.