How the perception of bodily sensations and a focused effort to tune into them can improve your life
“Freedom in the physical body is more important than material wealth. To feel or be fragile in your bones and joints is to live inside a shaky home. For some, tripping over in the garden would have dire consequences. For others, it can even hurt to breathe deeply. Limitation in the body accumulates very slowly most of the time, and it often tracks along with chronological age, so it is often wrongly assumed that tightness is a result of age. But it is not; tightness is a result of particular behaviours and lack of activity. Those who make healthy physicality a core part of their entire lives experience a continual increase of bodily capacity and enjoyment as they age.”
In his book The Spirit of the Matter, Josh Pryor seeks to expand his readers understanding of the value of interoception and how to incorporate it into daily life, with benefits that will last a lifetime and fundamentally change your perception of what it is to be alive.
What does interoception mean?
There are a number of definitions that can be found to describe interoception, but at its most basic it’s the word used to describe the perception of physical sensations inside the body including but not limited to:
- Heart beat
- Hunger or satiety
- Muscle pain or discomfort
- Pleasant pressure
Interoception also refers to being aware of the autonomic nervous system activity related to emotion. While the word refers to the perception of internal physical sensations, these can often be triggered by emotion and our ability to recognise this is essential to being able to regulate the emotional self too.
An excerpt from The Spirit of the Matter describes it beautifully:
‘It is sensory perception — the same kind that we use to detect objects on the outside of our bodies — but directed within our bodies. People can perceive sensations in parts of their body such as heart-rate, movements in the intestines, even subtleties in reproductive system flows.
There is growing evidence showing that interoception plays an important role in a healthy mental existence. The attitudes and feelings people have about their body appears contingent on interoceptive ability. Major depression and poor decision-making ability are linked to deficits in interoception. Accurate and balanced perception of internal bodily signals seems to improve emotional regulation and awareness, and therefore reduces stress.’
What does interoception do, and why is interoception important?
Being more aware of your bodily sensations has a number of unintended benefits including:
- Being able to tell the difference between discomfort you can remedy, and an illness or injury that needs immediate attention
- Becoming more present – when you are aware of your bodily sensations, you are mentally present and aware of what is happening in the now
- Knowing what your physical limits are, when it’s safe to push them and when you should pull back and take a gentler course
- The ability to fully enjoy the huge spectrum of feeling your body is communicating to you every moment
Interoception allows you to properly observe and respond to the sensations your body is feeling, and when it is practised with purpose you can start to use this as a way to ask yourself why you might feel that sensation. Is it because your body needs to move or stretch? Is it because you’re feeling anxious or angry?
Knowing the answers to these questions can only happen once you observe the feeling in the first place. While meditation is useful as a way to examine thoughts and feelings, it doesn’t deliver the same scope of benefit that examining and responding to physical sensations does. Interoception is an important practice to pair with meditation for the best results, and Mysore style Ashtanga yoga is one of the best ways to combine the two.
When does interoception develop and how does interoception work?
Interoception can develop naturally for people who have an inclination towards physical movement and activity. It can also develop as a response to trauma – having a heightened awareness of your body is a survival mechanism triggered by the ‘fight or flight’ response in the body. Interoception and trauma can be closely tied, and learning to identify and manage unhelpful sensations can be a healing experience for sufferers.
Interoception is also more commonly heightened in those diagnosed with autism, ADHD and psychological conditions that make affected individuals more sensitive to bodily sensation. A predisposition to having sensory sensitivities can develop into a situation where interoception needs to be managed and quieted, rather than developed further.
Whether your aim is to develop better interoception skills or to learn how to better manage sensory sensitivities associated with it, making the wilful decision to engage with yourself in this way is important. Mysore style Ashtanga yoga allows a combination of reflection and intuitive movement that teaches students how to interpret interoception and turn it to their benefit.
How to develop interoception into a habit that improves your life
Learning how to tune into your body’s physical sensations can start small, and the benefits are limitless. While of course practicing Mysore style yoga will teach you those skills, there are other small moments in your day that you can take the chance to tune in like:
- Taking a full, deep breath and paying close attentions to how it feels as the air fills your lungs and your rib cage expands. Is there tightness or a pinch there? Does it feel free or restricted?
- Walking barefoot and feeling the surface pressing into your soles. The human footpad is extremely sensitive because it enables us to balance ourselves, so in this case you get two benefits: physical sensation and balance improvement!
- Upon waking, take a moment to mentally scan your body from head to toe, taking note of the way it feels before moving and as you start to stretch out.
Interoception is an important inclusion in many fields such as psychology, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and countless health professions that deal with the human mind and body.
Mysore style Ashtanga yoga is the perfect vehicle to engaging with interoception, proprioception and meditation simultaneously. This is partly because Mysore style yoga is self-led and engaging in it must be actively chosen by the participant – the first step in choosing to fully engage with the Self. The other contributing factor is the nature of the physical act of Mysore yoga; a self-paced stretching, lengthening and expansion of the body through movement and breathing.
Learning more about interoception and how to take control of your life
‘There is an old saying that the best way to remove a thorn is to use a thorn. Here we use the problematic trigger of physical tightness and limitation — the thorn — to remove the false notion of limitation altogether.’ – Josh Pryor
The physical practices of yoga establish a clear vision of the body, and Mysore style yoga is particularly effective for this. The road to recovery and self-discovery through interoception is not to shy away from movement as the stressor, but embrace it as the solution.
Mysore style Ashtanga yoga allows the individual to set the pace and content of their practice, not only to suit them more broadly, but to suit them on that day, in that moment. Sometimes you feel capable of pushing boundaries, other times it’s about comfort and care – Mysore yoga accommodates the whole spectrum human emotion and need in its practice.
Josh Pryor explores this concept in great depth in his book, The Spirit of the Matter, which you can order here. A teacher and avid practitioner of Mysore style Ashtanga yoga, he provides insight into a world where movement, awareness and the Self are one. If you’re looking for the inspiration to move well and with purpose, do yourself two favours: read the book and take a yoga class, Mysore style.