Enhancing Proprioception & Interoception in Yoga
For yogis, one of the most intriguing features of fascia is that it‘s the largest and most wired sensory organ in the body. The extracellular matrix contains more nerve endings than our tongue or our eyes! If one of the primary features of yoga practice is that it supports the mind-body connection, then fascia is the physical gateway for that connection.
As the principle facilitator of our sense of touch, fascia is the organ that cultivates proprioception and interoception, or presence manifest in the body. My teacher, Sarah Powers, refers to it as “body-based consciousness.” When we practice movement with intention and attention, we promote fascia health by increasing its sensing capabilities. Increased proprioception and interoception helps us to feel more present and connected. Some research even suggests that there is an inverse relationship between proprioception and our experience of pain.
Below are some of the ways that I help my students train up their perceptive powers in my yoga classes. I should also note that yoga is not the only way to improve proprioception and interoception. Physical therapists and trainers employ many techniques and tools to enhance their clients’ proprioceptive abilities, improving rehabilitation outcomes and increasing sports performance. Interoception is also an increasing area of interest for psychologists. But we’ll stick to what yogis can work with.
But before we jump in, let’s define these two terms:
Proprioception is the awareness of one’s body, its position in space, and its movements. Because of our ability to know where our various parts are in relation to one another, we are able to do things like bring a fork to our mouth and not our eye, know where to look if we hear a sound, and even walk.
Interoception is our awareness of our internal processes and how we “feel.” Because of interoception, we know when we’re hungry, when we need to go to the bathroom, and when touch is pleasurable. One researcher has even suggested that interoception is related to consciousness.
Build Awareness Through Movement & Sequencing
Move slowly. When we allow the mind to move beyond choreographing yoga sequences, we can shift our attention to how movements feel in the body.
Disrupt routines. Repetition, while good for performance, diminishes our sensing capacity because the brain knows what’s coming next. Novelty and variety keep our inner listening skills sharp.
You don’t have to get overly creative, just find ways to mix things up. Try new ways to get into familiar poses. Turn the head in a different direction. Put an arm in a unique position. As long as you aren’t applying hefty loads, it’s OK to break yoga alignment “rules” so that the body learns to adapt to a variety of situations.
Offer variations not just for different experience levels, but to encourage students to do things differently just for the sake of it. If your body is used to the same poses, it doesn’t matter if a pose is advanced or not. Even foundational poses can feel new if you haven’t practiced them in a while.
Vary the pace. Try exaggeratedly slow movements as well as very quick, almost invisible micro-movements.
Zoom in and out. We often like to target specific body parts (hips, shoulders, etc.). Don’t forget to incorporate movements and postures that rely on the whole body. Balancing poses are perfect for waking up the entire matrix.
Embrace the power of gentleness. A lot of people have over-taxed nervous systems. Gentle practices not only reduce tension and give people positive movement experiences, but they also foster inner listening.
Incorporate time for reflection. Moments of stillness in resting poses give students a chance to experience the echoes of the poses. Don’t wait until savasana.
Use Your Words
Cueing is an essential tool for promoting inner listening. Teachers, don’t expect students to just listen to their bodies. They need to be taught how.
Set the intention to pay attention. In the broader context of yoga, we practice asana to build awareness through the body. Take the time at the beginning of a class to remind your students of that point, and encourage them to set the intention to pay attention alongside their personal reasons for coming to class.
Notice sensation. Remind students not to turn away from the feelings generated by the shapes. We want to be aware of not just the mechanics of the postures, but also the subtle sensations that arise because of them. Guide your students to turn their attention to the nucleus of the strongest sensation of the pose and then slowly zoom out. My favorite cue is “What’s happening now?”
Compare sides. When offering asymmetrical poses, don’t be in a hurry to switch sides. Give your students a chance to notice the difference between having done one side and not the other. I love to lead a nice long standing sequence on one side and then have my students pay attention not only to the feeling of space on that side, but also the urges to fix any feelings of imbalance.
Notice the before and after. Similar to noticing the differences between the two sides, it can be interesting to pay attention to how the body feels before a pose and then the immediate after-effects of a posture.
Notice more than just physical sensation. My root teachers, Don & Amba Stapleton, always remind us to notice any subtle, energetic sensations like tingling, streaming, and feelings of spaciousness. In the yoga context, we consider this evidence of the movement of prana, subtle energy. Fascia researchers would use these cues to foster interoception.
Visualizations and creative imagery. While there are those that find the flowery language of yoga silly, research shows that visualizations and mental imagery are powerful tools for learning and improving motor control. Elite athletes use visualizations to improve performance. If you have injured students or someone who can’t do what you’re offering, they can take a neutral pose and visualize themselves doing it with the rest of the class. The brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining and doing.
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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