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Going in on it: Yoga and the internal

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

Practicing yoga can hone your sixth sense!

Ok, I don't mean psychic powers (unless you go deep on some more esoteric yogic practices and begin to notice psychic abilities...). I mean your internal sensory network.

Woman sits in contemplation whilst practicing yoga
Internal focus on the sensations in the body can be a useful part of anyone’s yoga practice

We tend to think of our senses as five outward capabilities: Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.

It's less often that we think about internal senses, which let us know what's happening with the body. Technically there are two of these: proprioception, which lets us know the location, movement and action of parts of the body; and interoception which refers to the signals that let us know what's going on inside the body.

In western culture, the majority of experiences in life are focussed outwardly. As long as we have five outward senses intact, what we can see, hear, touch, taste and smell usually dominates our world.

Think about watching TV or going to a show. These are both feasts for the eyes and ears. You may enjoy a nice glass of wine or your favourite snacks whilst doing either, in which case all your outward senses are actively engaged at once.

The internal senses will also be engaged, but you may not pay them much attention until they are literally shouting at you. The person in the next seat at the theatre really is a bit too close; all those sweets are now making you feel rather sick.

Diagram using images of dancing woman to explain interoception and proprioception
Proprioception and interoception briefly explained

Training internal senses can be pretty handy.

For example, proprioception is key to balance and stability. The brain must receive and interpret information correctly from sensors (mechanoreceptors) throughout the body in order to stabilise correctly, especially on rough or unfamiliar terrain. Signals are then sent out to the muscles to control the body as safely as possible. As we get older, the ability of muscle fibres to respond to signals from the brain may decline, making it more important to receive the proprioception information that triggers them as efficiently as possible in the first place.

Interoception is more subtle. To know when we've eaten enough, we must have the sensation of satiety. In order to recognise what makes us feel safe, we must have an understanding of what being safe feels like in the body. Even when we feel anxious, if we have a strong sense of the feeling of calm, we can find ways to move towards it.

So what does this have to do with yoga?

People often come to yoga because they want to develop their internal senses, although they'd rarely phrase it in that way. "I need to work on my balance" or "I'd like to feel more calm" are common things to see written on a new student's sign up sheet.

In a yoga class I try to encourage students to really notice how different postures and practices are in their bodies. For hypermobile students I might start by actively adjusting their postures (e.g. asking them to broaden the shoulders in a downward dog, or even see what it's like to deliberately bend the elbows outwards) to find how variations feel. For the hypermobile, proprioception can be blurred by the large range of movement of the joints, so inspecting sensations of stability at decreasing joint angles can be key to finding what works best without having to engage the external senses.

For years I risked injury because I never thought my hypermobile elbows were a potential issue, until I saw photos of them next to those of other people. Attention to proprioception can begin the work from the inside, with less need for external stimulus or clarification.

Interoception helps us solidly experience who we are in the present moment. By noticing our breath, heartbeat, where we feel a stretch or sensation in the body during a yoga pose, we begin to know that we are right here and now, rather than focussing on external perceptions or ideas.

In a yoga class, I always invite students to notice the sensation of the ground beneath them, which draws them closer to the physicality of their being. We 'look' within the body for areas of tension that are not associated with holding the current posture. The holding of muscular tension can be an unconscious reaction in the body to emotions that we may or may not have acknowledged. By noticing tension in the shoulders, for example, we may realise that we're carrying our stressful day at the office on into the evening. Or we may simply be able to release the shoulder tension, and feel a sense of relief as the stressful day leaves with it.

Going inwards to develop the internal senses is a part of the most ancient tradition of yoga and meditation, where withdrawal of the external senses is encouraged so that we can develop a deeper and more nuanced sense of who we really are. On an immediately practical level, it can also give us clues about how the way we live is affecting our physical, mental and emotional state.

Curious about how to start exploring this in your yoga practice?

Sign up for one of our Leeds yoga classes this week or book a 1-1 session with Emmalene to experience it for yourself.

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