Poses for Poise

Boost your confidence through the practice of Viniyoga.
By Jennifer Derryberry Mann

Whether you’re giving a speech, interviewing for your dream job, or having coffee face-to-face with your eHarmony find, being on the spot has a way of draining your self-confidence. Suddenly your mind goes blank and your palms start to sweat. You can hear yourself rambling on, voice quivering, never quite making your point, but terrified of stopping.

Yoga, done with the right intent, can help manage the emotional snafus we sometimes find ourselves in when we’re the center of someone else’s attention. With conscious breathing and focused movement, your innate confidence, grace, and poise will always shine through—no matter what kind of situation you’re in.

But don’t think of yoga as a quick fix that will end your jitters forever. “Yoga is an entire healing methodology,” says Bija Bennett, author of Emotional Yoga: How the Body Can Heal the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2002). “Our body and our minds are intimately intertwined. When we alter our thinking about emotion, we alter our physical state. When we change our physical state, we change our emotional state.”

The sustained practice of yoga poses (asanas) and breath work (pranayama) puts you in touch with an ideal emotional state, one where you’re calm, present, alert, and nonreactive, says Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute. “The more you know that as your natural state,” he says, “the more you’ll recognize when you’re not there.”

Viniyoga draws on the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya and his son T.K.V. Desikachar of Madras, India. Krishnamacharya, often considered the inspiration for modern yoga, presented yoga as something beneficial for the general public, not just for an elite few. In the 1930s and ’40s, this was radical, as yoga was previously thought of as a practice appropriate just for male spiritual renunciants. Bennett, a student of Desikachar’s and Kraftsow’s, integrates their philosophy of an individual-specific practice into her work as a Viniyoga therapist. She explains, “If someone comes to me for yoga therapy and she is out of breath and all hyped up, I’m not putting her in meditation right away. She may need to run around the block first” to burn off some of that excess energy. She uses the tools of yoga to match her students’ energetic state before helping them change it.

The Viniyoga practice of letting the breath initiate each movement allows a student to notice the connection between her mind and her body. “Our emotions are so honest. Sometimes you just have to sit with the feelings in your body, even if they’re painful,” says Bennett. “I call it profound attunement. You realize it’s not ‘I feel bad because’, but just ‘I feel bad.’”

To help you become aware of what you’re feeling and then transition into the emotional state you’d prefer to be in, Bennett offers a short sequence of poses. Set an intention for each pose by using a mantra—a word or two you can synchronize with your breath and your movements to help you stay in the present moment. Do as many poses as time allows or combine them all for a powerful sequence that will allow your natural self-confidence and grace to unfold.

Find relaxed awareness: Pranayama (Conscious Breathing)
Begin by spending three to five minutes with your eyes closed, connecting to the mantra “Poise” with the in breath and the out breath. Notice the count of your inhales and exhales. Every second breath, extend the duration of your breath by a count of two, until you’ve reached a comfortably big breath. Breathe six to eight times, and gradually work your way back down to your original count. Finally, let go of the counting. Just sit, breathe, and feel your body and the effects of the breath, enjoying a state of relaxed, alert awareness.

Stay in balance: Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
A deep sense of balance comes from the connection between awareness, breath, and movement. Bennett calls it “three-in-one resonance.” We often move—and act and think and speak—out of habit, she says, without being conscious of our breath. When that happens, we struggle to keep our outer balance, and we fall far short of achieving inner balance. To practice both, spend some time in a breath-focused Tadasana.

1. Stand tall, feet close together and parallel, arms relaxed at your sides. Lengthen your spine from the tip of your tailbone up through the crown of your head.

2. As you inhale, slowly rise onto the balls of your feet, lifting your arms toward the sky. Pause, holding the breath for a moment. Say to yourself, “Balance.” On your exhale, fl oat the arms down by your sides as you slowly lower your heels. Repeat six times.

Increase your clarity: Dvipada Pitham (Two-Footed Pose)
Present-moment awareness comes from paying attention in simple ways. For Bennett, being clear about who she is and what she’s talking about helps her overcome the butterflies she feels when she takes the stage for public speaking. Lying on your back with your arms alongside your body, bend your knees and step your feet hip-distance apart, toes pointing straight ahead. Call to mind the mantra “Clarity,” then pay attention to your breath and your body as you move through this somewhat complex series:

1. Inhale as you lift your hips and begin to raise your arms. Point left fingertips toward the ceiling, and let your right arm continue to the floor, extending it overhead. Exhale as you lower your hips, and bring the right arm to meet the left. Then lower both arms to the floor alongside your body. Repeat with the right fingertips pointing toward the ceiling.

2. Inhale, lift hips and arms, bringing the left arm halfway up, right arm all the way overhead. Exhale, and lower your hips and your right arm. Lower the left arm last. Repeat with left arm.

3. Inhale, lift hips and arms, bringing the right arm all the way overhead, left arm halfway up. Exhale, lower hips and arms. Switch arms, and repeat.

4. Inhale, lift hips, and reach right arm overhead. Exhale, lower hips and arm. Switch arms and repeat.

Build your confidence: Vajrasana Series (Kneeling Pose)
Consider for a moment a bird leaning to fly. It must build confidence in its little wings and in its ability to stay suspended, safely, in mid-air. “It starts to fly, and it can’t. It starts again, and it can’t. But it keeps trying,” says Bennett, who likens the graceful, expansive arm movements of Vajrasana to the wings of that soon-to-be-soaring bird.

1. Begin upright on your knees, with your legs hip-width apart and your arms resting at your sides. Inhale, and raise your arms overhead. Pause for two counts, then say—and feel—“Confidence.”

2. Exhale, and bend forward into Child’s Pose, lowering your chest to your thighs as your arms sweep behind your back and come to rest on your sacrum. Repeat six to eight times.

Exude calm: Apanasana (Downward-Moving Vital Energy Pose)
“Without rest, we start spinning into this other cycle,” Bennett says. “Stop. Notice the difference between stopping for a moment versus continuing to be busy. Turn your mind inward, and allow the tension to leave.” By progressively turning your intention inward, you’ll create a state of deep calm in your body and be able to shift your emotional energy.

A mild, simple forward bend like Apanasana can help transport you into calm. On your back, inhale as you bend your knees and lightly place a hand on the front of each knee, shoulders relaxed. Keeping your legs parallel and slightly separated, exhale and bring the knees toward the chest, contracting your belly and lowering your chin slightly. Pause, and say to yourself, “Calm.” Inhale, allowing the arms to straighten as your knees move a short distance away from your chest. Continue the movements, and with each breath, lengthen the exhale and the pause that follows. Repeat six to eight times. Lengthening the respiratory cycles and the ratio between inhales and exhales, Bennett says, has a profound effect on gradually settling the body and calming the nervous system.

Jennifer Derryberry Mann is a Minneapolis freelance writer.