December 15, 2023

Interoception in the Yoga Practice: A Way to Be in Your Body

By Kiera Penpeci


“Drop in”, “release tension”, “let go” are terms we often hear in yoga classes to encourage students to become mentally aware of their bodies, and be ready for the practice at hand. How students receive, interpret and respond to these cues is varied, however, because understanding interoception is difficult to access in a society plagued with “grind” culture and codependency with technology, among other issues that cause dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system. When our attention is caught up in ruminating thoughts induced by stress, or diverted with drugs or the normalization of numbness, we lose the ability to regulate. Like the other five senses, and outside of some chronic disabilities, interoception, or “body sense” can sometimes be restored with practice.


In class, we certainly benefit from the offer of options, modifications, and slow progressions that create the conditions for students to “drop into the body”. We might even use that exact cue, which on its own may lead some students to draw their attention to their sense of their bodies, but imagine the student who arrives at class just as it begins. They haven’t had time to change context from commuting to being present on the mat. They usually hold stress in their shoulders and their breath gets caught there, they’re rolling them forward while rounding the spine and collapsing at the core. They lay down on their mat, but their body stays tense, and their mind is swirling about their iffy parking spot, the heavy breathing in the room, and concerns about their energy level for the class. Interoception is “the body’s ability to receive sense information from receptors that respond to internal body states and then use that information to help regulate all of the functional systems of the body” (Fogel, 2009). It’s also the same function that polyvagal theory suggests keeps us tuned in to the extent to which our autonomic nervous system is sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) or parasympathetic (rest and digest) relative to homeostasis (or the balance of mental and physical health). In other words, we have the mechanism to understand for ourselves how the body and mind is fairing; Our effort is what’s needed to develop awareness, identification, and regulation practice. 


Considering the many types of interoceptive sensations we have access to, we have a compelling opportunity to facilitate new types of awareness during our classes. We can speak to the sense of the state of the organs like the pace of heartbeat, state of the gut, and the urge to release waste. In the soft tissues, we can guide students to sense pain, temperature, tension, tenderness, and inflammation. The force of our limbs against surfaces creates muscle tension letting us know the range to which a muscle group is in a neutral state or activated, or if the bones and joints are damaged. Yoga instructors have the opportunity to create the container for interoception by getting more specific on just how to “drop in”, and students have a vast inner-world to explore! For example, what if we took that cue forward and guided students to “Drop into the body by feeling the weight of the back of the head and upper back melt into the mat underneath you”. That phrase might trigger our case from above to consider the position of their neck and lower back, helping them to better align their trunk. We might continue by saying “Notice where your breath has landed – perhaps you noticed the pace begin to shift”, which triggers that person to notice that their alignment has improved the capacity of the diaphragm, and an ease to the breath. Perhaps the class spends a few moments here, so this student is able to get tuned-in to their body sense.


If we frame interoceptive awareness from the traditions from which we draw the movement practice of yoga, like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we can consider that the intent of Asana (or the postures) is to lead us to “steadiness” or “comfort”, freeing us to spend more time in conscious awareness. Bringing the science of interoception to the practice can be harmonious if the conditions are intentionally contained. At Threes Physiyoga Method, we consider the bio-psycho-socio-spiritual (BPSS) approach to our practice so that we are supporting the longevity of the whole person. Using creative and practical language about the physiological experiences that may be happening in the bodies of those in class can help them better engage in the mindfulness component of the practice.


The benefits don’t stop at the awareness of breath and the ability to regulate the nervous system. Through conscious awareness, we can also reduce the mental chatter that may overrun our attention, and that attention might reveal opportunities to optimize alignment and movement patterns. This is when we begin to make choices to regulate the system. So when the student in our case moves on, they might notice that their knee feels tender in Tadasana, and because their body sense has increased, they notice that their breath has also shifted again, leading them to check in on and correct the position of their trunk. This choice improves the alignment of the hip and knee, that improves the breath, that sustains the posture. There are countless cues that could inspire safer and more effective movement, or simply the attention that leads us to the meditative state we might find in Savasana. 


As we consider exploring interoception more deeply, let’s recognize that yoga isn’t always thought of as an accessible form of movement, so body sense as a benefit is something we should talk more about as we encourage diversity of body types, abilities, racial identities, and life experiences. Let’s consider that most people have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, and traumatic events sometimes leave people with the memory of what the senses interpreted during the event or series of experiences. There is a growing movement toward instruction that is considered trauma-informed as a way to hold space for any mental and physical state that arrives to class and some of those approaches, such as offering the ability to make choices about what to engage in during the practice, offers empowerment to learn how to feel safe in the body when the body has normalized the stress response. As those who find it difficult to find calm in the stillness practice interoception, one cue that can support the normalization of homeostasis is to “feel the absence of…” – we can fill in the blank here. There is the absence of pain, gripping where there once was, or reframing pain from a deficit to a neutral sensation. The awareness of this lack of sensation can help us enjoy the results of our practice, but also help us recognize what balance feels like, and normalize the ebbs and flows of our internal states. Let’s remember that vitality doesn’t equal perfection. Interoception offers practitioners a means for appreciating the journey of healing because it empowers us to heal, learn how to protect ourselves from injury, and experience ease in the mind and body more often.



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