Tuning in — Going deeper into interoception.
Welcome to 2022 – Hoping for a more calm year? Me too! It begins with us, the calmer we can keep our mind the more we will have calm this year! We do these practices to strengthen our nervous system – specifically the parasympathetic nervous system so it can calm down the stress out sympathetic nervous system. Even if stress does come our way, with a calm mind and strong nervous system we will handle it.
We have over 50,000 thoughts per day and only 10,000 of them are positive in the average person, this adds stress to your day just by thinking. Meditation helps us balance out and choose your thoughts. By choosing our thoughts wisely you will have more brain power toward what you want to think and be creative about.
Think of your brain as a computer, simultaneously keeping many windows and programs going. Meditation helps you close out the unnecessary windows so you can focus on what’s essential. Many of those windows the mind has open are external thoughts. When you re-focus to more internal thoughts, you enjoy life more and perform at a higher level. Stress relief is the most-studied benefit of meditation, but it has also been found to help relieve anxiety, and boost immunity.
There are many different ways to meditate, I’d like to bring in interoception to our meditations, interoception is feeling what is happening inside your body and your body’s systems and organs.
If we don’t take time to pause and tune inward, we’re missing out on whole-body healing. Interoception combined with meditation will will bring our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in our bodies and minds that is usually under the level of our normal consciousness.
Cognition, thinking is a process by which sensory input is transformed, reduced or elaborated, stored, recovered, and used. We are all conscious beings, and it is through the power of the mind that cognition can occur.
However, most of our habitual cognition is external, and external cognition is colored by the immense limitations of our sense organs. It is not the only type of cognition that the mind is capable of: we are also capable of internal cognition, yoga and meditation is one of the many practices that teach us how to sense, feel, and listen within, and to experience a deep sense of being that is not limited by the perceptions of senses — what we can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. This is where interoception intersects with yoga.
Sometimes described as ‘the hidden sense’, or the 8th sense, interoception is all about the sensory signals inside our own body, from our own organs and systems. On a very basic level this is knowing when you need to go to the bathroom or when you are hungry.
If interoception is the 8th sense, what is the 6th and 7th? The last three senses are getting more attention lately:
The 6th sense is our proprioceptive sense, knowing where our body, muscles and joints are in space. Yoga works on this sense too, for example when we are holding our big toe whether balanced or supine and moving our arm, leg and head in opposite directions, the awareness of where your arm and leg is improves your proprioceptive sense.
The 7th sense is our vestibular sense of movement and balance. Yoga likes to work with this sense too, think about inversions and all the balance poses.
And then our 8th sense; interoception, it is the newest sense on the block but was largely ignored by the scientific community until recently, it has gotten some press because those on the spectrum are largely missing this sense and interoception has become a part of treating autism.
Once we start to realize we can learn to listen to more of what our body is saying we can we can tap into any bodily functions that need tending to; from pain, to breathing rate, heart rate, and even sensing signals happening within the body, such as changes in excitability or the calming of sensory neurons that influence stress control — how our autonomic balance (fight or flight vs. rest and digest) affect our body’s functioning. This is also being studied in how we can use this 8th sense to help control our own cardiovascular function, breathing, and metabolism.
Our interoceptive system can also help us regulate our emotions — and levels of excitement or anger.
The biggest job interoception has is helping us to be more in our bodies than in our heads, most people are so into their thoughts they are oblivious to what is happening in their body. Noticing our inner body signals like tense muscles, can help you correct your posture before you develop neck or back pain.
Many times, people don’t notice subtle signals from their body, for example you notice your heart rate is slightly racing. Tune in, why? Am I anxious about something, is my blood sugar dropping, or maybe I’m dehydrated? These are all reasons why your heart rate speeds up. Taking care of what made your heart rare increase will feel better in your body — too many people ignore the sign until they are in a interoceptive melt down with a blood sugar crash, or “hangriness”, or end up with a headache from being dehydrated.
Tuning into our body signals provide us with important clues to our emotional experience. What are we feeling in our body at that moment? It helps us become more intuitive and to have better control of our moods; how can we adjust what we are feeling emotionally, physically, psychologically to better reflect what is truly going on — or what we are feeling but don’t want to show.
Our society looks at it as a weakness if we slow down and listen to what our body is telling us. We are encouraged and conditioned to push through, take care of other people’s needs before our own, or have successful careers at no stop.
Here’s an example of someone tuning in; he was told to “take a moment and notice one thought”. He said “Traffic” (he heard traffic outside his office window). He was asked “as you are noticing that thought what emotion do you connect to it?” He said “anger”, remembering in the past how traffic had angered him. He was further asked, can you feel the anger in your body? The client felt heat creeping into his cheeks and some tension in his shoulders. Except now he is where he needs to be and the traffic is not effecting him, yet he was not aware of how just hearing traffic outside his window still angered him and set off the stress response in his body. This is a good example of how interoception can clue people in to subconscious happenings.
Tune in to your interoceptive signals, if you’re thinking about something at work that didn’t make you happy, you can catch yourself “wait!” why am I having sensations of anger when there is nothing in this moment making me angry?” This is how you catch it and change it.
After 3 decades of teaching yoga, I can instantly notice when someone does not have a sense of what’s happening in their body, both on a proprioceptive level and an interoceptive level. So instead of just giving them the same cue I give them every week I now try to help them feel in their body what adjustment needs made; for example in parvakonasana (extended side angle pose) instead of saying “extend your back leg further and bend your front knee deeper” I’ll say “tune in to how your head is lower than your hips and its making this pose feel like an inversion when its not”. We have to approach this in a gentle manner though; trauma and abuse is one reason many people tune out their bodily sensations, they don’t feel safe in their own body.
If we’re not living in a body, where are we living? People need to live more in their bodies and less in their heads. Your body can only reflect truth, while the mind is more likely to flit around to untrue thoughts.
This is how disease develops, your body gives you clues that something is out of whack long before the disease rears its head. How many people push through until they have a serious medical condition? If they reflect back, many people report, “I had some clues coming from my body and I ignored them.” Many times it’s looked at as a weakness to listen and honor what your body’s saying.
Pushing through and ignoring signals resonates on a lot of levels, but let’s put that into some real-life situations since we are starting a new year and many people are making their resolutions. If someone decides to change their diet in a healthy way, but they start experiencing hunger or craving, do people you push through and ignore gastrointestinal sensations of hunger? That’s not interoception at its best.
Inter-o-ception is not just saying “I’m hungry” it’s saying “what am I hungry for?” Imagine a food and feel it out in your imagination, how would it feel in your stomach? Or how would it make you feel when you finish eating it?? Then satisfy your hunger with that.
Inter-o-ception is stopping to taste the tea and see how it feels in your body.
There’s a field called intuitive eating, it’s tuning in and noticing how your body feels. The message that is coming from your body is it an actual hunger and the need for fuel? Is it boredom? Is it something else? Getting fine-tuned with what and how your body is feeling is interoception at its best.
When we talk about embodied cognition, the idea is that my thoughts are embodied. The thoughts I have, have a sensation in my body and I respond to those.
It starts with mindfulness.
Mindfulness is approached as a chin up exercise, body-based work is essential even before taking on a meditation practice, many times people are escaping their bodies with meditation. The body is where we need to start. If we’re working chin-up, which where most therapists start you’re missing 90% of the body.
There are many forms of mindfulness, you can be mindfully aware of something in your environment, but that’s not necessarily helping you tune into your body. In fact, it’s helping you tune out of your body even more.
There’s outer and inner mindfulness, the outer mindfulness is mindfully paying attention to something outside of your body, whether it’s being present and aware of the noises or scent in your environment, or thoughts that are outside of your body. Close down some of those external thoughts and go into the body—Include the head and body in your meditations, interoception is globally in the entire body.
It’s having the knowledge and skill on how to change your thoughts or beliefs — we’re not just the head, we’re not just the brain, we are one contiguous whole body mind system. If we are working just chin up, we’re missing the source — the body.
As you practice mindfulness start with your environment, take a couple breaths and notice your environment, it’s important to feel safe in your environment. Next check in with your thoughts, do you have a lot of “windows” open in your computer mind? Can you close a few down and focus your mind power? Then drop into your body, what sensations are you feeling in your body?
Now take it to your yoga practice; when you are in your yoga poses, are you judging the pose with your mind — thinking because someone says this is how the pose is “done” your body has to resemble that? Drop that. Try feeling the pose in your body, if you are feeling the pose you are not going to hurt yourself or push too far.
And don’t just mindlessly do a series, especially if you have been practicing yoga for a long enough period of time, and you have the knowledge of the practice; tune in to which practices you need today. Feel in your body if you need forward bends or back bends today. Do you feel sluggish? Put more energy in your practice today. Do need nurtured today? Practice a nice easy half primary, make it feel like you’re coming home to Mama and your practice is there to soothe and nurture you. These are all ways we can start to employ our interoceptive system.
Everything with this work in regard to interoception, whether it’s to heal a current condition or just become more aware, is helping people to feel safe in their body and safe with their own personal experiences. And I’m not just speaking to having trauma, if you’re worrying about what someone else is thinking, you’re not safe being you. Interoception helps us feel safe in our own bodies and in being ourselves.
Next time you lie down for rest after a practice take a little time to settle into some of the systems of your body, here is a little map for you to follow:
- Settle in and align yourself for a lying body meditation, get comfortable on your back; put a pillow under your knees if necessary, roll your shoulders open, lengthen the back of your neck, take a nice deep inhale through your nose and a long sigh through your mouth. Now connect with your deep slow nasal breathing with jaw relaxed, lips closed, teeth parted.
- Are you fairly symmetrical? Check your hip bones, heel bones, shoulders, are your bones spaced evenly? After arranging your superficial structure of your bones and muscles, sink a bit deeper.
- Settle in to respiratory system. Feel the air enter your nostrils, go down your esophagus, feel the air enter your lungs. Feel your lungs expand and press on your ribs, feel your rib cage expand with the inhale. Exhale and feel your diaphragm go back up under your ribs, inhale again and feel your diaphragm push down on your liver and stomach. Feel the diaphragm move off your liver and stomach as you exhale and relax.
- Enter into your heart, feel blood moving in and out of your heart. Feel your left ventricle give a strong pump and feel the blood move into your arteries and the vast network of rivers, creeks, and little streams that make up your circulatory system.
- Now enter your nervous system, maybe check in with your stomach first. We hold worry in our stomach, do you feel any worry there? How about your hands, are they steady or shaky? How about your palms, any sweat? Take a deeper inhale and long slower exhale, can you release and nervousness, tension, or unrest from your nervous system?
- Now can you feel your immune system? Feel sluggishness or a little swollen anywhere in your fingers or your abdomen? Any place feel inflamed? Take note if something needs your attention when you get up, perhaps give yourself a little mini massage and help to circulate.
- Drop into your digestive system now, can you feel anything in your stomach? Can you feel food moving through your digestive tract? Pay attention to your intestines, they can bring you years of joy or misery — its up to what you put in your mouth. This is a most beneficial way to tune in, when you eat pay attention to how your body feels with that food in at. That will guide you to nourish your body with what it needs.