Photo by Jason Bowman
[ID: Shown at a distance, a person wearing a wetsuit is bent over with a curved spine and their hands almost touching the sand of Ocean Beach in San Francisco. A mound of sand slopes down towards where the person is standing and the beach appears to fade away into fog in the background.]
I took a social intelligence test on the internet recently. The test consisted of a few dozen pictures of eyes, and alongside each were four choices to describe the emotion portrayed in the picture—surprise, pensiveness, suspicion, anger; flirtation, alertness, joy, amusement. Everything but the eyes was cropped out, so I couldn’t rely on foreheads or mouths to differentiate between emotions. The eyes are the window to the soul, they say, which makes a certain kind of sense, but nevertheless, I was surprised by what happened. In trying to arrive at the correct answer, the first thing I did was mimic the pictures. It was a thoughtless instinct. Even before reading the multiple choice options, my eyes tried to take the shape of the ones I was witnessing on my screen. If I could mirror what I was seeing, I could identify the essence of the emotion, inside of myself, and that helped me to answer correctly. The implication of this is simple, but profound: I answered the questions not with my mind, but with my body.
I learned about the test in Barbara Tversky’s book, The Mind in Motion, a book, I admit, I haven’t finished because the first fifty pages offered so much to think about. Tversky begins with an exploration of motor resonance—it’s an uncanny thing: when you watch someone move, the brain’s motor neurons light up as if you were making the same movement, sometimes even triggering the associated muscles to come to life. So it’s not just in the eyes; we’re constantly trying on other people’s gestures, with our whole body. And in turn, our bodies broadcast whatever happens within them. It’s a type of dance, really. Even—especially—in conversation, we rely on a high-resolution perception of each other’s physicality. We subconsciously coordinate our movements with those of our interlocutor; we alter the speed and intonation of our speech, our eye contact and hand gestures, our posture and level of energy, all in order to better connect with the people with whom we interact.
One of the hardest truths is that we don’t have access to the interiority of anyone but ourselves. We flail for decades to understand even the people closest to us, and at times language seems wholly inadequate to convey the depth of feeling in our own experience. But perhaps the greatest boon in understanding motor resonance is the way it orients us to a different quality of communication. If it’s true that we perceive the states of others by feeling their gestures in our own bodies, then it stands to reason that the detail of our own personal embodiment correlates to our ability to empathize with other people. The better we can feel inside ourselves, the clearer we can sense the state changes of the people around us, the better we relate to them.
I’ve thought about this often within the context of my job as a yoga teacher. Yoga is, of course, a series of refined gestures undertaken with the entire body, gestures that stack on each other to ostensibly clean a diversity of the body’s structures. And motor resonance is a vital part of practicing yoga in a room full of other bodies. When dozens of people synchronize, making the same shapes at the same time, it creates a shared attention that’s literally mind altering. It’s this that makes walking into a yoga room so different than, say, walking into a grocery store. Focus is palpable, and contagious.
I’ve found a natural motivation over the years to investigate what makes a yoga class good, and while a large portion of that has to do with me—my mood, my lucidity, my momentary ability to observe and react—there’s also a mysterious and emergent essence that depends only on the way we exist, collectively, in the physical space. Sometimes it simply feels like we’re all there together, sharing each other’s space rather than bumping into each other’s space. In part, this comes through proprioception, through an ability to hold awareness of the room as if it were a part of the body. I often instruct this in something like the triangle pose: imagine what it’s like to wave at your friend across the way, but now instead of the gesture of waving, undertake the gesture of the triangle pose, and instead of directing it at your friend, direct it at the whole room. It’s certainly abstract, maybe even imaginary, but something special happens when we succeed at expressing the poses in a gestural way. The boundary of self widens to include more; we add to and find support in each other’s awakeness.
As a teacher I have a unique perspective on the unfolding of this phenomenon. I’ve seen thousands of people do the triangle pose in yoga rooms on several continents. Over the years my eyes have become highly sensitive to the way my words have millimeters of impact on other people’s bodies, and my perception of those movements can sometimes help me speak to what’s actually happening in the moment, instead of just regurgitating memorized sentences, which, honestly, I also do a lot. But if I attune to motor resonance, I can actually feel myself doing the triangle pose just by paying close attention to other people doing it, and in that way the act of teaching becomes surprisingly conversational, even though I’m just sitting there delivering a monolog.
One night I looked at a woman’s pose and was able to see—feel—a vivid correlation between her neck and waist; both needed to lengthen and turn. My observation of her experience combined with an understanding of the mechanics of the position, combined with a felt familiarity in my own body. And then the best possible thing happened: I spontaneously said something I’d never said before— “If you lengthen and turn the neck, the waist will follow.” It was a simple statement, but it became like a lightning bolt that surged through the room, and everyone made the same adjustment at the same time. I’ve used the same instruction ever since.
In classical yoga there’s a fundamental axiom: the mind and body only move in relationship to each other. This is why we get hangry—angry when we’re hungry. The physical state defines the mental state. The opposite is also true, and this is why we fidget around when thinking about something we don’t want to think about. The mental state defines the physical state. This is especially fascinating during the few minutes at the beginning and ending of a yoga class, minutes in which, every day, I ask people to sit still. Sitting still is one of the hardest things you can do with a body. From my perch at the front of the room, I’ve found one thing to be true: there’s never only one person who itches their face, or reaches for their water bottle, and the ones that do so are always in proximity to each other. Someone thinks about something uncomfortable, fidgets, and because of motor resonance, the people around them absorb and express the same state, and movement. Most often it’s not because they have an itch or are thirsty.
While this highlights the precious fickleness of our humanity, it also opens a wholehearted opportunity to truly be there for others. As we move around physical spaces, picking up on and mirroring each other’s internal state, the simplest gift we can offer each other is a sort of personal, gestural poise. With practice, we can observe agitation in others, and instead of being immediately swayed by it, hence perpetuating its spread across space, we can instead, on lucky days, maintain our own sovereign composure as a gesture to the people in our vicinity. We broadcast the peace we learn to create. This is what we mean when we talk about holding space. Gestures can be far more accurate than words, and when we learn to refine our own internal clarity, we can feel the people around us, within us—we communicate with them, without language, through our minds, through our eyes, through our bodies, and maybe that’s the true measure of social intelligence.