When I took my first intensive yoga teacher training, a classmate asked if I felt like yoga was changing me. I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment, but I remember saying “I feel like I am starting to appreciate my body for what it can DO rather than the way it LOOKS.”
That answer kind of took me by surprise. Years later, in Exercise Psychology class, I learned that it’s typical for women to view their bodies as ‘objects’ - but hadn’t realized I saw myself that way until the moment I put it into words. I also learned that yoga is especially effective at shifting people out of objectified body consciousness and that yoga people tend to be more satisfied with their bodies, with fewer body shape concerns. What I would learn over the next 15+ years of dedicated study and practice is that:
Seismic shifts in self-perception happen when you learn to pay attention to your body.
And yoga is really, really good at getting you to pay attention to your body.
The Buddha said developing awareness of physical sensations is the foundation of mindfulness training. And for good reason. You have to have a body to have any kind of experience at all! Your body, and the sensations moving through your body, are always taking place in the present moment. When you focus your attention on sensations, you aren’t feeling what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. You can only feel what is happening RIGHT NOW - which makes sensory awareness the perfect foundation for anchoring your mindfulness practice. If you’re focused on how you feel, you are present in the moment.
When you shine your ‘attentional spotlight’ on any of your 5 senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell), you are using a form of sensory awareness called exteroception. In yoga, you use this type of awareness when you feel your body in contact with the ground, consciously focus your gaze (drishti) or focus on the sound of a gong in meditation. These types of awareness practices can enrich your relationship with the world around you by enhancing your sense of connectedness to your environment.
Try this Meditation on the 5 Senses
What you may not know is that you have more than 5 senses!
Your 6th and 7th senses are called proprioception and interoception.
PROPRIOCEPTION – YOUR 6TH SENSE
This is your ability to sense your body position without any visual feedback. When you’re driving and you move your foot between the brake and gas pedals without having to look at your feet, that’s the magic of proprioception at work. A well-known proprioceptive test is the ‘sobriety test’ where you close your eyes and touch the tip of your nose with your index finger (or not). Try it.
You have probably noticed that there aren't any mirrors in a yoga studio. When you’re in Warrior II, for example, and you’re learning to sense whether your shoulders are elevated or relaxed … or if your wrists are in line with your shoulders … without the help of a mirror or any other visual feedback, you are honing your proprioceptive sense.
This process of observing and refining your body’s positional sense - without thinking about your body in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’; ‘attractive’ or ‘unattractive’ - gets you to see yourself through a lens of non-judgmental self-awareness. The more you practice seeing yourself this way, the more natural it becomes to view yourself with curiosity and objectivity rather than through a lens of criticism, judgment or social comparison. As you train your proprioceptive sense and become more coordinated, balanced and confident your sense of appreciation for your body grows too.
INTEROCEPTION: YOUR 7TH SENSE
Interoception is your ability to sense signals and rhythms that originate from deep inside your own body. It allows you to feel your heartbeat and sense muscle tension. It also lets you know when you’re hungry or thirsty; if you’re tired or have low blood sugar.
Interoception can also help you to regulate your emotions. You need to be able to correctly sense the physiological changes that go along with different emotions so that you can interpret what you’re feeling. For example, the experience of ‘fear’ feels like shallow breathing, a racing heart and increased muscle tension. Your ability to be aware of and identify different kinds of body sensations translates into your ability to notice feelings like stress, anxiety or tension and deal with them in the early stages.
This is essential to your well-being. Many modern diseases are believed to be ‘diseases of dissociation’ from the body. Anxiety, depression, gut disorders and eating disorders are some of the ailments that fall into this category. In these illnesses, awareness is skewed. If you aren’t able to correctly monitor internal processes - if you can’t tell in the early stages that something is off - it’s hard to take the right steps to restore your body’s delicate balance. Training interoception teaches you to hear your body’s ‘whispers’ now, so you don’t have to hear it ‘scream’ later on!
Norman Farb, a researcher that studies the relationship between interoception and health, suggests that as you get better at this type of sensing, you learn:
Developing presence and agency means that you practice listening to your body and giving it what it needs.
Many of us have been desk-bound for the majority of our lives, and have had to learn to live ‘from the neck up’ in a job that demands you pay attention to deadlines and schedules rather than your body’s biological urges to eat, rest, use the bathroom or move. A mindful movement practice can put you back in touch with your senses. As you get better at reading your body’s signals you can get better at giving yourself what you need to keep yourself in balance.
Here's one of my very favourite interoception practices. The Heart Rhythm Meditation
Our brains have two distinct ways of operating:
Mindfulness practice develops your ability to be in the ‘direct experience’ state. Focusing on direct sensory experience filters out your relentless ‘default mode’ mental chatter. When you catch yourself telling stories about yourself like: “I don’t have the body to wear that” or “I’m too old”, you are operating in ‘default mode’.
Mindfully focusing on sensations helps you develop your ability to tell the difference between what is objectively true (present moment sensation) and what is story-telling and judgment (your thoughts about what is happening). When you focus on bodily sensations, you give your mind a break from ‘thoughts gone wild.’ Once you’ve trained yourself to notice the difference between thoughts about reality and reality itself, you can decide which thoughts are worth paying attention to and which ones to ignore.
Your brain is a random thought generator. It is going to spin stories because that is what brains do.
You don’t have to believe or listen to every story your mind conjures up.
Practice sticking to the facts about your experiences. Focus on body sensations and functions. Statements like “I just held plank pose for 30 seconds. I am getting stronger.” or “I really let go in savasana today. I feel so relaxed.” are good examples of ways to think about your body that foster appreciation for your body by putting you in touch with objective truth and direct experience.
Learning to draw your attention inward and ‘sense yourself’ with curiosity, accuracy and objectivity - leads to greater understanding, respect and love for your body. While this isn’t the purpose of practicing yoga, it is a wonderful side effect😊
Farb, Norman et al. “Interoception, contemplative practice, and health.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 6 763. 9 Jun. 2015, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763
LIBERATED BEING PODCAST - Interoception, Contemplative Practice and Health with Norm Farb
LIBERATED BEING PODCAST - Interoception in Practice with Bo Forbes
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Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions