Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Proprioception and interoception in yoga

Credit: coredynamicspilates.com

Interoception, defined here as the sense of the physiological condition of the body, is a ubiquitous informatin channel used to represent one's body from within.

Proprioception is a process by which the body can vary muscle contraction in immediate response to incoming information regarding external forces, by utilizing stretch receptors in the muscles to keep track of the joint position in the body.

Yoga: A system of disciplines and exercises aimed at liberation of the self. A discipline involving controlled breathing, prescribed body positions and meditation with the aim of attaining a state of deep spiritual insight and tranquility.

I start this post with some definitions. I didn't make them up, I googled the terms and took what came up. To me, both proprioception and interoception are important in yoga.

The word interoception is a new one to me but the practice of it is not. In somatics we call it the soma, the felt sense of the body, from the inside. It is tuning into sensation and becoming sensitised to the messages of sensation. In iRest we practice Body Sensing, both during Yoga Nidra and in movement.

The word proprioception is more familiar to me. I have always understood it as the way we sense our body's place in space. Thus when we are standing we know where our head is in relation to our torso, our pelvis and our feet.

Children must develp proprioception in order to learn to walk, pick things up and place them where they want to place them. It is fascinating watching this unfold when you watch a baby grow.

Both are important to yoga.

Proprioception is important to the physical discipline of yoga, to alignment, and to the ability to maintain good posture in sitting.

It is not a given.

Most people starting out in yoga, unless they are coming into yoga from another finely tuned physical discipline such as dance or gymnastics, find it difficult to find good alignment and this is due to a deficiency in proprioception. Even though we have learnt to stand up, walk around, pick up a cup of coffee and get it to our mouth, at a finer level we still do not have a clear sense of the position of our body in space. Hatha Yoga is fantastic to help to develop it and this will have great benefits in our coordination, our posture and as a falls preventative as we age.

Have you ever received an adjustment in which the teacher has suggested a new way to do a pose, but the next time you come into it you still cannot find that position and the teacher adjusts you again? Somehow we must develop an internal way of feeling our way into that spatial relationship that is good alignment, we need to fine tune our proprioception.

Interoception is a pathway to proprioception. By sensitizing to the body as sensation we become more aware of the signals that can feed our proprioception.

Even more that that, interoception is like another sense that is a portal right into the present, directly to the goal of yoga, into awareness of who we really are.

But lets drop the complicated word. A simpler term is body-sensing.

We train our ability to body sense as the teacher invites us, in relaxation, to note what is present, to open the senses, to note the feel of the breath in the body, to bring different parts of the body into focus. As we do this thoughts become defocused. they may quieten completely or they may just cease to be as interesting as we sense the body, thoughts simply come and go without distracting us. We enter the present moment and we may well find that in that state we open to spacious awareness and begin to recognise our true nature.

As we open into body-sensing we also begin to experience the body as vibratory energy, a kind of radiance. The sense of being a physical entity begins to dissolve, the sense of the body's edges may become fuzzy. We know from physics that everything is really energy but in the normal everyday state we do not usually sense that. In body-sensing this becomes a reality to us.

The practices of body-sensing arise from the yoga practices of Kashmir Shaivism. A hallmark of Kashmir Shaivism is its focus on practices that the ordinary person can do to achieve awareness of their true nature in this lifetime. No need to be an aesetic and meditate in a cave. This is a path to enlightenment anyone can do. It's perfect for us in our modern world.

The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a text of 112 meditations designed for the householder, framed as a conversation between Shiva and his goddess consort Parvati, or Shakti. the lovely modern translation by Lorin Roche, The Radiance Sutras, makes these meditations very accessible and from time to time we try them out in the Sunday morning class. Here is a taste.
"The senses declare an outrageous world -
Sounds and scents, ravishing colors and surfaces
Decorating vibrant emptiness."
Body-sensing is also practised as we move. Again in the words of the Radiance Sutras, 'the soul reveals itself to itself through movement, energy infused undulations and gestures of hand, foot, spine, face and form". In hatha yoga form and movement become the meditation, ever inviting a heightened awareness of the body as sensation.

Follow sensation. It might be the path to wholeness.

I am grateful to the many teachers who have taught me to practice yoga as body-sensing, especially Dr Richard Miller, Jennifer Carbanero, Fuyuko Toyota, Anne Douglas and Kirsten Guest.

Anne Douglas is visiting Australia in June to teach a retreat "Embodied Awakening". Find out more here.

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