Yoga at the Ballot Box

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 11: Prime Minister Julia Gillard listens to a question from a swinging voter on August 11, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. The undecided voters, mainly from western Sydney, were chosen by a market research company and were given the opportunity to ask the candidates questions about their national and local policies. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 17: Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott speaks at a press conference at the Conrad Treasury Hotel on July 17, 2010 in Brisbane, Australia. Abbott responded to Prime Minister Julia Gillard's earlier announcement of a federal election set for August 21. (Photo by David Hardenberg/Getty Images)

Regular readers of these articles know that I’m not in the habit of casting my weight around on affairs of state – some places, after all, should be havens from the mudslinging, fearmongering and spin that accompany political campaigns.

In fact, I try to keep myself away from the news as much as possible when there’s an election looming. It’s not that I don’t care about who’s running the country, or where they plan to lead us. It’s simply that for the most part, the analysis you hear and read is almost as shallow as the vapid, vote-courting utterances of the politicians themselves.

But whenever I watch the party leaders on the hustings, ranting away about refugees or stimulus packages, I can’t help zoning in on the things a yoga teacher instinctively looks for, and a media strategy doesn’t take into account:  their posture, the way they hold themselves and use their bodies.

These ingrained and largely unconscious habits can clue us in to the type of person they really are – and what kind of leader we can expect them to be.

So I’ve lined up the two main candidates, to give you my analysis of what their bodies reveal. Will Tony’s action man physique win out over Julia’s well-concealed femininity? Who’s looking after themselves? Who’s got the composure, the calm, the sense of perspective to lead the country for the next four years. And because I’m not here to mudsling, I’ve also given a few prescriptions, should Tony or Julia Stumble or Tweet their way here, of simple asana they could use to work on those problems and change their lives for the better.

Ladies first, then…

Julia Gillard

Whenever I think of Julia Gillard now, I always visualise the footage of her marching back and forth across the corridor in Parliament House the night she unseated Kevin Rudd. Backside thrust out, a huge arch in her lower back, neck craned out in front of her, she seems to me the very picture of back pain: in fact, it’s agonising to watch.

Having studied quite a bit of video footage of Julia over the last week, I realise I’ve been judging her somewhat harshly. Since becoming Prime Minister she seems to have straightened out some of those kinks – though the lumbar arch is still there. It suggests to me that she’s got relatively weak abdominal muscles; lower back pain for the Labor leader is a distinct possibility.

I also see clear evidence of stiffness down in Julia’s lower spine, stretching up almost to the beginning of her ribs. This would compromises her ability to twist, which in yoga terms would affect her ability to think laterally: the people who have the hardest time with spinal twists are often the same ones who like to hold tight to their point of view and argue it to the bitter end.

She also seems to hold some tension in her hip flexors (the front of your thighs where the hips meet the pelvis) – a factor which some schools of yoga link to compromised fertility.

However, it’s not all bad news. Julia’s instinct to give her butt a bit of jut is a sign of excellent forward-bending flexibility. Forward bends are a great way to bring your awareness inward, and in yoga terms, Julia’s ability here suggests she has a good capacity for reflective and introspective thinking – a handy asset in someone whose headspace is going to be under constant assault from party bosses, lobbyists and the media.

The other significant problem I see for Julia is with her shoulders and neck, which, in line with her campaign slogan, are clearly moving forward.

Julia’s shoulders by nature are quite slopy, but she accentuates the effect by dropping them forwards, bringing the collarbones closer together in front of the spine. This has the effect of closing her throat down, throttling off the air and producing that signature raspy voice.

This forced forward position of the shoulders does a fair job of disguising just how far Julia sticks her neck out. A straining neck denotes potential thyroid problems in the future, and is likely to cause the Labor leader headaches, as the tension in her neck works its way up through the muscles surrounding the top of the spine.

A yogic interpretation might add that this gives Julia a tendency to strain toward her goals, rather than accepting that things will come to her when the time is right. And Kevin Rudd might add that this information comes two months too late.

My program for Julia

  1. Before we go any further, it’s time to ditch the high heels in favour of flatter footwear. Julia’s lower spine will love her for it.
  2. My next move is to begin realigning her spine. I’d begin this with some gentle supine twists and abdominal stengtheners such as Ardha Halasana.
    Ardha Halasana

    Supine Twist
  3. Thirdly, I’d get her to try my latest favourite relaxation pose. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, place a bolster behind you and slowly lower yourself backwards onto it. This is a wonderfully restful posture that also serves to open up through the front of the chest and the heart – allowing Julia to access that soft and loving side that her  political life keeps hidden.

    Bolster Relax

Tony Abbott

If there’s one thing Tony Abbott doesn’t suffer from, it’s weak abdominal muscles. Or, indeed, weak anything. Sporty to the core, Tony’s tough and competitive nature means he won’t take defeat lightly. So it stands to reason that he’ll come out on top in the yoga run-off, right?

Well, no actually. Sportiness is one thing; flexibility is quite another. And the ability to deal with life’s slings and arrows with calm and equanimity is another still. And in at least one of these departments, Tony has issues.

To my eye, he has the classic problem, shared by many sportsmen, of being unable to bend forward. Tony’s biggest flexibility issues are with his hamstrings and inner thighs: he’s unlikely to match Julia’s ability to fold herself in half from the hips, and therefore, in contrast to his opponent, he’s unlikely to be much of an introspective thinker. This also makes him more inclined to seek approval from others, rather than finding contentment within himself.

I also notice that he’s carrying a rounded upper spine. In my experience, this is often a sign of introversion. Behind Tony’s extroverted, jocular facade might lie a privately insecure individual who really just wants to be liked.

The biggest issue I can see for Tony, though, is to do with his breathing. Take a look at the way he rounds his shoulders forward, and the way his elbows poke out when he walks. Both of these have the same effect: to prevent him from breathing with the top third of his lungs.

Tony could disguise this problem quite effectively if he used those highly-toned abs as they’re intended. They should be moving constantly, allowing the diaphragm to move freely and bring the breath right down to the bottom of the lungs; this is what I mean by good natural breathing. But Tony holds his stomach taut. So as well as missing out on that oxygen from the upper lungs, he’s also got the bottom part locked in tension and unable to take in air. To compensate, his chest has to do a lot of what some physiotherapists call “sideways breathing” – his ribs move sideways, away from his lungs, to compensate for the lack of movement in his diaphragm and upper chest. This extra energy he’s expending will naturally change the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in his breath – a factor which could well leave him feeling fuzzy and lethargic, and prone to possible foot-in-mouth moments on the campaign trail.

From a long-term point of view Tony is likely to suffer from creeping stiffness in his lower back and pelvis, as well as deep-seated tension in his shoulders and neck. These two factors combine to produce the soldier-at-attention rigidity that I’ve noticed in many photos of Tony: he looks permanently tense. And in yoga terms, physical rigidity serves as a metaphor for patterns of mental rigidity – unwavering attachment to beliefs, difficulty seeing other people’s opinions, and holding grudges.

The strain on his abs also means Tony is likely to have problems with digestion. And as the ancient yogis linked physical digestion with the ability to digest information, I’d be a little concerned about his ability to process complex ideas.

My program for Tony

  1. Tony needs to stop treating life like a contact sport. My first prescription for him is to learn how to relax, with good nose-belly breathing and a little shavasana every day.

  2. Next, I’d like to see him work on his hamstring and adductor flexibility. Focusing the work here is like adjusting the foundations of the building: get these bits right and the rest of the body will begin to adjust itself. To start with, I’d recommend a long slow practice of Pawanmuktasana, spiced up with a little Ananda Balasana (aka Happy Baby Pose). From here Tony can work towards other, more hamstring-centred forward bends.

    Ananda Balasana

Want to know how your unconscious body habits affect your health and well being? Send in some pictures or video of yourself, and every month I’ll personally run a free yoga body analysis, just like this, for one of my readers. Subscribe now to make sure you catch your big moment.


  1. Kathleen

    August 16, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Yeah! Great analysis! Amusing and good yoga food for thought.

  2. Adrian

    August 16, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Tempting…really tempting.

  3. Sharon

    August 16, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    5 Stars 🙂

  4. Helen

    August 16, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Thanks Kathleen. People have been suggesting I do Bob Brown as well.

  5. Jenni

    August 16, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    Do Bob Brown!

  6. Anjeanette

    August 17, 2010 at 5:35 am

    Sounds like a great program for both. Forward bends are not always the easiest for me. Thanks for mentioning the two routines. I found that Leeann Carey has a great free yoga video on modified forward bends.

  7. Peter

    August 17, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    +1 for Bob. Surely he’s the only party leader who measures up to yoga’s ethics of non-violence.

  8. Cheeky Monkey

    August 17, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    YEAH – DO BOB!!

    Great article Helen, thanks.

  9. Helen

    August 18, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Thanks Anjeanette. Forward bends can be a challenge for many people. The safest way to approach bending forward is lying on the ground. In this position you are giving adequate support to your back.

  10. Sharon

    August 18, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    I suggest Bob may begin by adopting a vata reducing diet, filled with warm, root vege soups?

  11. Lisa

    August 19, 2010 at 8:01 am

    Brilliant, Helen! On to Obama, Cameron and Clegg next? Go international!

  12. Helen

    August 19, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks Sharon and Lisa. The Bob Brown analysis is in progress. Obama? Well, yes, I suppose we can!

  13. Sharon

    August 20, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Can you see evidence in Obama’s posture that he can convert his ‘can’ to a – yes he will?

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