interoception and yoga

Interoception and Yoga – What is Interoception?

Learn what interoception is and how yoga can influence it. Awareness of and practice with feeling your feelings.

What is interoception?

Visceral sensations in muscles and organs are soaked up by free nerve endings mostly in the fascial tissues, travel through the spinal cord, and enter the insular cortex in the brain. Once these body sensations arrive upstairs, we can begin to interpret what they mean and determine the impact they might have on our next move. Is this feeling significant? How does it help me understand myself? Do I act on it?

My next move might be something simple, like uncrossing my legs because my low back feels tweaky. It might be something life saving, like walking quickly away from a group of people who are beginning to shout obscenities at each other. Or, it might be something a bit more esoteric, like choosing to take the job that “just feels right,” even if it seems on paper to be a worse option than the one I’ve already got. We’re talking about the wisdom within our bodies. Hearing the wisdom within.

Why should you care about interoception?

  • Better awareness and understanding of your feelings
  • More confidence and certainty in who you are and what you want
  • Connection to your intuition and inner knowing 
interoception and yoga

Interoception and Yoga

It’s said in yoga that your greatest teacher is within you. Practicing brings you closer to hearing and acting from that source of wisdom all your own. This wisdom is not just a product of your mind. This wisdom begins in your body. It is a felt sense of what is going on inside of you- the sensations that arise in your clenched gut or fluttering heart, your tight leg muscles or pangs of hunger.

Are there butterflies in your stomach that have you nervous to speak up, or do you just have gas? Is more bending on that bad knee about to take you out of commission for a few days? Are you hungry or are you just bored? Do you feel hollow or empty? What about hot or tense?

These are examples of feelings that arise in the body and travel up to the brain for interpretation and perhaps action. This process is called interoception. Interoception is a felt sense of what’s going on inside of you, and the ability to properly determine what those feelings mean.

Trouble with Feeling

It can, for many of us, be difficult to distinguish what messages we are getting from our bodies. For some it may feel like so many sensations it’s impossible to understand anything through the noise and there’s just a sense of being overwhelmed. For others, it may seem completely silent; we may be numb to our bodies and only feel one or two feelings (like anger and lust, for example) if we feel anything at all.

In fact, anxiety and depression have been shown to correlate to problems in interoceptive processing, and aging and post-traumatic stress disorders are associated with a significant decline in interoceptive awareness. So, what do we do about this? What do we do when we are overwhelmed by a mess of confusing feelings, have trouble feeling our feelings, or do not feel safe enough to allow ourselves to feel much of anything at all?

Yoga as Embodiment

One solution: mindful exercise, aka “embodiment practice”. Things like yoga, martial arts, pilates. Practice anything that teaches the mind/breath/body connection. Since I’m a yoga teacher, and because yoga is accessible, can be found free online, and is safe for every body (it can be done in a chair!), I’ll focus on the practice of yoga here.

Remember, we are talking specifically about feeling the sensations that are going on within our body (interoception), and how disruption in our ability to access and understand these feelings and sensations can be a part of anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

A key takeaway here: It’s not all in your mind.

It isn’t just changing the way you think, being positive, or explaining to yourself or others why you are the way you are. Yes, these are all helpful tools in creating a life you love, but healing fully must involve a relationship with your body.

Finding inner wisdom means we must inhabit our bodies. Knowing what “a life you love” even looks like requires we pick up the messages our body is sending us. We’ve got to feel our hunger and fullness, our pleasure and pain, our yes’s and no’s. We’ve got to know when we feel safe or unsafe, we’ve got to trust ourselves, but what is there to trust without reliable input from our bodies? Do we trust our minds?

Our minds are notorious for thinking – over-thinking, under-thinking, imagining, dreaming, spinning stories, reminiscing, worrying. Our minds are likely to be wrapped up with memories from the past or planning for the future. Our minds have a tendency not to be present.

Our bodies, however, do tend to be present, with us right here, right now. When we dream, our bodies lie still in bed, they don’t travel off with our mind. When we plan for the future, our bodies stay right where they are, breathing and pulsing, gravity-stuck to the earth, in the present moment.*

What Yoga Practice Is Like

A major part of yoga practice is tuning into your breath and your body. We move with our breath rhythmically as we inhale and exhale, reaching arms up and folding our body forward. We fine-tune our muscles with tiny movements, like contracting our quads to pull our kneecaps up or feeling our collarbones spread away from one another as we reach out through our fingertips.

We spend class focusing on our breath and our body, feeling what’s going on inside (again, interoception) and finding more subtle sensations as we advance. If we forget to breathe, our teacher reminds us to inhale. If we can’t catch our breath, we rest in child’s pose until we are back in control.

Yoga is one way to get where we want to be, whether or not we know yet exactly where that is. First, we must know who we are, and from where we begin. We know who we are and what we want because we feel it on the inside. Our bodies, solid in the present, tell us what we need and what feels right or wrong.

Embodiment practices like yoga teach us how to tune in, feel, and witness these messages with curiosity and compassion. Yoga connects us, ever more fully, to our inner selves, our highest truth, our passion, and our calling. The practice brings us closer to ourselves, so inner wisdom can guide us forward in creating a life we choose and a life we love.

* There is an important exception to the body staying present. When sufferers of PTSD experience a flashback, their bodies re-experience the initial trauma as if it were happening right now. The body goes into fight-or-flight mode, characterized by increased heart rate and blood pressure, secretion of stress hormones like adrenaline, tensed muscles, sweating, and rapid breathing. Yoga has been shown to be an effective therapy in treating PTSD.

Sources

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

Bessel van der Kolk

New York: Viking, 2014

Interoception. A new correlate for intricate connections between fascial receptors, emotion and self recognition

Robert Schleip, Heike Jager

Elsevier, 2012

Interoception in anxiety and depression

Martin P. Paulus • Murray B. Stein

Published with open access at Springerlink.com, 2010

and inspired by

Jennifer O’Sullivan’s Medium article, “How Yin Yoga Affects Connective Tissue”