On Airplanes and Presence

I once faced flying with paralyzing fear. One of my least favorite moments? Barely suppressing the urge to unbuckle my seatbelt and run off the plane as boarding was being completed, convinced that I was having a premonition of an impending crash like in those movies about people with psychic tendencies (what I was actually experiencing was a run-of-the-mill panic attack). Luckily, I squashed my fear long enough to stay seated. After all, a crazed rush from the plane would have been difficult to explain to the coworkers who were accompanying me on that business trip.

Air travel has become more palatable over the years, partially because I do it a lot more often since relocating to the west coast, but also for the uninterrupted reading and writing time it gives me. This week, I devoured Amy Cuddy’s Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges while traveling to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday.

Cuddy’s work on the psychological effects of posture came to national attention after her 2012 TED talk. I recommend you check it out, but to give you a recap, she reviews research from her team and others showing that the way we hold our bodies has a lot to do with what goes on in our minds. Adopting powerful, expansive body positions helps us feel stronger and more in control. The opposite is also true: contracting our body makes us both physically and mentally smaller (picture your position as you hunch over your phone).

The research presented in Presence drew me in because of its application to my own life—I’ve been working a lot with the idea of owning my physical space and the personal power that comes with such presence. I also immediately saw the connection it has with my work in yoga and in therapeutic horseback riding for people with special needs.

Anyone who’s taken even just one class has experienced how yoga joins breathing, body awareness, and physical postures to create an effect that’s greater than the sum of its parts. After a well-designed class, we leave a little taller, breathing a little more freely, our energy a little more settled. Similarly, a large part of the therapeutic effect of adaptive riding comes from the act of simply putting a person astride a horse, tall and proud. Regardless of the participant’s specific disability or individualized therapeutic goals, assuming the posture of a rider can change their physical and emotional outlook. It’s fascinating stuff.

Try it for yourself: Stand with your feet squarely at shoulder width so you feel expansive, balanced, and stable. Draw your spine tall, reaching through the crown of your head. Place your hands on your hips and comfortably expand your chest—Take. Up. Some. Space.—Breathe, smoothly and evenly with a relaxed ribcage, in and out through your nose. Soften your face. Smile. According to the research, spending as little as 2 minutes in this posture before a challenging situation can change not only your outlook and behavior, but how others perceive you.

As for me, I’m working on taking up space even as I write this…until I am expansive enough to energetically win the armrest from the fellow in seat 29E.