Next time you are sitting on a sofa, in a comfortable position, close your eyes and try to feel your heart beating in your chest. Can you, without moving your hands to take your pulse, feel each movement and count its rhythm? Or do you struggle to detect anything at all?
This is one of the simple tests on how you can assess your “interoception”- it is your brain’s perception of your body’s state, transmitted from neural receptors on all your internal organs. It is the ability to accurately sense internal signals from your body, such as hunger, thirst, heart rate, temperature, and breathing patterns.
You might ask ‘why do I need it’?
It is a valid question. As we grow into adulthood, we usually stop trying to sense our bodies. We live more in our minds and habits. When we were in school, we were told to sit still and not move until we went to break. We were taught to ignore our body’s signals to move from a young age. Now as adults, we get into our car or bus in the morning and travel to work, we take our bodies to the activities we need to do because we have to. We don’t ask how this makes us feel, or what our body needs. In our culture, we have other people/machines to tell us how our body is working – doctors, blood pressure monitors, mirrors, social media, etc. We often define our body image from the outside, from how we might look compared to others, rather than how we feel. Even the phrase ‘do you see?’, meaning, 'do you understand?', shows us that seeing to us, is believing, as our culture is very visually informed.
Interoception – the awareness of the internal state of the body is for sure less well known than our 5 main ‘external’ senses such as sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, but is not less important. Scientists have shown that our sensitivity to interoceptive signals can determine our capacity to regulate our emotions and our subsequent vulnerability to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. For example, a poorer ability to feel bodily signals may lie behind the sense of lethargy and emotional numbness -“feeling nothing” at all. In contrast, people with anxiety do report being attentive to their interoceptive signals – but they don’t necessarily read them accurately. They may misinterpret a small change in heart rate as being much bigger than it really is, for example, which can lead them to “catastrophise” their feelings and intensify their sense of panic.
When we start yoga asana practice, we become deliberately aware of our body, maybe for the first time in years. It is relatively easy to start noticing the body because it is obvious – you can see it and point to it. Some sensations of the body are relatively easy to perceive, such as those of stretch, tension, contraction or joint position (and that is termed proprioception or kinaesthesia). But there are many indistinct, deeper sensations from inside our bodies. We just don’t give them our deliberate attention. We notice them only when they force their presence on us (e.g., in form of pain). For many people, slowing down and tuning into their breath sensation is hard and feels alien. But it is the first, basic step in connecting to deeper self-awareness.
This is a difficult skill to learn, and it’s hard to unlearn the teachings from an ingrained culture, as often our body’s feelings are very unimportant to us. But when we learn to become more sensitive to what our body is telling us, we can learn to work with our bodies with a much greater sense of self-acceptance and self-compassion. It will give you the feeling of freedom from the grasp of our culture.
So how to do it? How can one activate and strengthen interoception?
In my experience, the best way is to go slowly, when we breathe and move. There is so much information in the body it can be confusing and overwhelming. So going slowly is the first key. The second is to start with a small area of the body. And the third key is to pay close attention to how it feels when you move that specific area. Learning to read the body is like learning to read in school: We start slowly with “big letters”, “simple words” and “short sentences”. With practice, we’re gradually getting better and suddenly we just know how to do it. This opens the doors to a whole new world – the sense of ourselves from within.
photo credit: Maria Geo https://www.marialgeophotography.com/