Interoception – Mindfulness in the Body

By Bo Forbes

What does it mean to be embodied? And doesn’t yoga already take care of that? When we take a closer look, the answer might surprise us.

Think of embodiment on a continuum. On one end we have exteroception, in the middle proprioception, and on the far end interoception. Each of these points says something about where we place our attention: outside us, part of the way in, or deeply inward.

Exteroception deals with the question, “What’s happening around me?” When we’re engrossed in the latest Hunger Games film, scanning a crowd for a friend, working out and hear our favorite song, or note the tears pooling in a friend’s eyes—these are examples of exteroception.

Proprioception deals with the inquiry “Where is my body in space?” When we sense where other people or objects are, and know the relative size and movement patterns of our own body, that’s proprioception. It helps us navigate our world without knocking into things or, as often happens, other people. If you’re a weekend warrior, athlete, or yoga practitioner, you need well-developed proprioception; it’s an integral part of good movement.

Interoception addresses the matter of what’s happening inside our body. In the interoceptive space, attention turns inward. Awareness matures and becomes subtler. Interoception can be seen as mindfulness expressed in the body. And in the words of renowned researcher Stephen Porges, it can be thought of as our “sixth sense.”

Interoception has a few requirements. It asks us to:

  • Let go of any predictions of what we’ll encounter.
  • Resist becoming “fixed” on a particular sensation.
  • Turn down our mental chatter or narrative.

When we’re truly practicing interoceptive awareness, we enter the body without expectations. We attend to momentary sensations in the body as they fluctuate from one point in time to the next. And we can move awareness after a few moments and not become immersed in one sensation too long.

What’s the relevance of interoceptive awareness to our health and well-being? It turns out that many illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment. In these illnesses, awareness becomes skewed. In chronic pain syndromes, for example, we tend to predict what we’ll encounter, but to remain there ruminating about it. “I think that shoulder pain’s about to start up,” we might say. “Yep, there it is. In five minutes it’s gonna feel sharp, like it always does, and then I’ll get that stabbing pain that lasts for hours.” Then we stay in that same area of the shoulder, refusing to move our attention. Should the pain actually let up, it creates a cognitive dissonance. We feel a disparity between the identity of pain and freedom from pain. The freedom is actually harder to integrate; it’s at odds with our pain-centered self-concept. Our mind cancels out the comfort, and wires the pain response in further.

The Continuum of Embodiment is a framework for understanding several things: First, the extent to which we inhabit our interior. Second, where we place our attentional spotlight, as it’s called in MBSR and mindfulness: outside us, on the outer layer of the body, or deeply inward. Third, the continuum of embodiment refers to the degree to which our awareness is gross or subtle.

Interoception evokes the quality of the relationship between our mind and body. Can the mind move out of its comfort zone? Can it learn to tolerate and even seek out the gentle surrender, the humility required to enter the wilderness of the body? Can it cultivate a sense of neutrality, a kindness toward the pain and suffering it finds inside?

In the end, it’s not all interoception, all the time. It’s the dynamic interchange between the three kinds of attention that benefits us. And we might ask ourselves: as yoga practitioners, teachers, or therapists, are we engaged more with proprioception as beautiful movement or interoception as deep awareness?

Our response is significant. Neuroscientists are beginning to study the effects of interoceptive awareness on our brain, in our immune system, and in our emotional lives. The results are astonishing: Embodiment, as it turns out, is vital to our health and well-being. It may also be a doorway into higher consciousness.

This post was republished with permission from LA YOGA Magazine. You can find the original post here.

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How Trauma-informed Yoga Empowers Cancer Patients

by: Wendy Goldsmith

When we think of trauma, we often imagine an assault from the outside. But when someone is diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer, the attacker is on the inside. People often report feeling betrayed by their own bodies. 

That sentiment is common to students in Bobbie-Raechelle Ross’s Yoga Nidra class at InspireHealth in Victoria and Vancouver. Attendees come to the centre for physical and emotional support with cancer care beyond medical treatments.

“They don’t feel safe because their body is too unpredictable. Instead of focusing on their capabilities, their view of their body becomes negative,” says Ross, a yoga teacher with 500 hours of training.

This sense of being betrayed by one’s own body is also common to people in recovery from addictions, or who have experienced abuse, says Ross. She witnessed this scenario repeatedly when teaching yoga at a mental health facility and alternative high school in Winnipeg before moving to the West Coast. Hearing positive feedback about the overall effects of yoga on her students inspired her to study the phenomenon more deeply. She embarked on a diploma in yoga therapy (almost complete), and is also working towards qualifying as a registered professional counsellor.

People with cancer or other serious illnesses may numb out, dissociate, or become hyper-vigilant – all symptoms of trauma held in the body. Like abuse or assault, a serious illness threatens personal safety, and may even attack self-perception. 

Suddenly, a person becomes a patient, and the illness is in charge.There may be confusing medical tests, long periods of waiting for results, and uncomfortable or painful treatments. A person may feel dependent on doctors for access to information and specialists. Choice and personal agency are compromised.

Because symptoms in cancer patients are similar to those of other trauma survivors, Ross uses trauma-informed techniques when she teaches. For instance, she talks almost continuously throughout the class. 

“Silence and stillness can be difficult for people who have experienced significant trauma,” explains Ross, “because they can get caught up in the chatter of the mind.” 

To avoid this internal chatter, Ross encourages students to develop interoception – the ability to perceive sensations in your body, including hunger or thirst, muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, or excitement. Interoception skills are strongly correlated with resilience. In other words, people who are better at paying attention to their bodies are better at bouncing back from adversity.

Where regular yoga classes may begin with a silent meditation, Ross opens with a guided grounding exercise, inviting students to notice their bodies’ contact points with the floor or chair. 

During the asana portion of the class, Ross invites her students to ask themselves, “Am I in my body right now? Where am I? What am I noticing in my body right now?”

“When our interoception skills are still growing, we can spend too much time cognitively getting wrapped up in the stories [related to each sensation]. My goal is to provide a somatic experience where students can feel safe to observe their own body, the sensations, or lack of.” 

Ross says it can take a few classes for students to warm up to the practice, but the difference is noticeable. 

One woman was particularly frightened of CT scans, partly because of the lengthy time she had to spend inside the noisy machine. After taking Ross’s Yoga Nidra class for a month, she had a different experience. 

As the scan began, the woman noticed signs of her body becoming hyper-aroused: her heart was racing and she felt sweaty. But then something new happened – she remembered Ross’s voice leading her through an exercise called Rotation of Consciousness. “Right big toe, second toe, third toe….”

“She was able to self-regulate using this coping mechanism,” says Ross. “She had no choice in the scan; it had to be done. But she could choose to tap into this tool and come out less overstimulated.” 

Ross has dozens of anecdotes like this, where students share how a sensation-focused yoga class has raised their confidence. 

“Having this reminder that you have a body and all that it’s capable of can be a really empowering experience moving through trauma,” says Ross. “Instead of focusing on all the negative, focus on awareness of what your body can do for you.”

In coming weeks, Ross will be taking her awareness to Turning Point Recovery Society. There, the soon-to-be Yoga Therapist will help to launch a yoga program for people building new relationships with themselves after quitting a relationship with substances. As she did with the patients at InspireHealth, Ross will be gifting her new students a safe space for connecting with their bodies. 

This post was republished with permission from Yoga Outreach, Yoga Outreach Blog, you can find the original post here.

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