What Message Is Your Body Language Sending?

A math class miscommunication

I’m always surprised by the random moments from my childhood that I’ve never forgotten. An absolutely perfect day playing with the kids in my neighborhood when I was 6 or 7 years old. Ronnie Marney, the boy who sat across from me in fourth grade, kicking me in the shins under the table. The terrible pit in my stomach every time my PE teacher announced with gusto that today we’d be playing Bombardament (a game just as awful as the name makes it seem).

But none compare to the moment when silence fell over my high school geometry class. When I looked up from my lap to see what was going on, Mr. Poetl was standing in front of me, exaggerated prissy look on his face, miming a girl filing her nails. (Just writing that made my gut clench.)

Long before my freshman year of high school I decided math wasn’t my thing, so let’s just say that I did not enter Mr. Poetl’s classroom with a great deal of confidence. The fact that my assigned seat placed me toward the front of the class – in full view of the (male!) teacher – made me even less comfortable. With so much angst going on, it’s no surprise to me that I’d be looking down, messing around with a hang nail, as I studiously tried to avoid being noticed or (a fate worse than death in a math class) called on.

Not only is this moment one of my most vivid memories, but it continues to teach me a critical life lesson. You see, my extreme discomfort looked to Mr. Poetl like extreme indifference. As a teacher myself, I suspect that my body language did not make my math teacher feel especially valued or respected.

Practicing yoga is a way to develop physical self-awareness on and off the mat

Practicing yoga asana (the physical positions we take on our yoga mats) helps us to develop our awareness of our bodies. Even simple movements like stepping our right foot between our hands asks us to move mindfully. Over time our movements become more efficient. We develop technique which brings a sense of ease to movements that once seemed difficult. We begin to move with lightness and grace.

This physical awareness is not confined to the brief time that we spend on our yoga mat. We might notice that we habitually stand, one hip jutting out, with most of our weight on one foot. We might find ourselves correcting the height of our keyboard because we notice that our upper back is rounded as we sit at our desk. We might notice that our shoulders creep up toward our ears when we get worried. Or that we’re way more comfortable sitting with our right leg crossed over our left than vice versa.

This heightened awareness expands even further as we start to notice ourselves and others responding to our changing body language. How we feel more powerful when we’re standing or sitting up straight. How listening is easier when we feel physically at ease – shoulders, arms, and even facial muscles relaxed. How people listen more attentively to us when we appear open and approachable – facing them, making eye contact, and generally being engaged with their responses.

Awareness of the power of body-language also helps us as listeners

This self-awareness doesn’t just benefit us when it is our body language “speaking.” It can help us to notice our responses to unspoken messages that others are (perhaps unknowingly) sending. It can help us to respond with curiosity rather than certainty when we see someone walk into a room with her nose in the air; or slouched against a wall with his hands shoved in his pockets; or slumped in their seat looking half-asleep. This curiosity can defuse our reaction giving us the space to wonder if something unseen or unexpected might be going on.

Self-awareness vs. self-consciousness

I’d like to emphasize that I’m talking about self-awareness, not self-consciousness. Self-awareness is the understanding that we communicate in more ways than by what we say. Self-consciousness is what created the body-language-miscommunication mess that I found myself in with Mr. Poetl. While self-consciousness feels powerless, self-awareness feels powerful because we are mindful that our body language can positively or negatively affect those around us.

Mindful body language is a way to convey how much you value the people in your life

This painful, pivotal moment was my first (and far from my last) realization that body language can send messages I would never (ever!) choose to send. Somehow, my angsty, adolescent self managed to dredge up the courage to apologize to Mr. Poetl after class. In the months that followed, he went from being my most terrifying teacher to my favorite teacher. And, thanks to him, geometry remains the one math subject in which I had I success.

Thanks in small part to him and in great part to my yoga practice, I continue to develop my self-awareness so that my body language helps me convey to those around me that they are welcome, interesting, and valued. I invite you to join me in regularly checking in with your body language throughout the day. You might be surprised at what you’re “saying” when you don’t think you’re saying anything!

A membership with Yoga With Spirit offers access to an ever-growing library of recorded yoga asana classes which can, among other things, help you develop better awareness of your body language.