Coming to Your Senses in Yoga Poses
Asana works to steady the mind through a focus on physical sensation, breath, or drishti (gaze). If we can bring that same focus into our Accessible Yoga practice, we quickly realize that the outward appearance of a pose is not a sign of whether or not someone is practicing yoga. What’s important is the mental focus and engagement. —Jivana Heyman
I think this is a very good summation of what practicing yoga poses mindfully means. But I thought today I’d take a closer look at what forms “mental focus and engagement” can take.
Much of the time in our everyday lives, our minds are preoccupied with our thoughts, including worries about the future, ruminations about the past, and judgments about the present. And that happens even when we’re in a yoga pose. A more lighthearted example of this is when I used to take a noon yoga class in my office building; I often found my mind was wandering to thoughts of what I was going to eat for lunch. Practicing yoga poses mindfully means moving your mind away from your internal monologue and focusing on what you’re sensing in the yoga pose. The examples that Jivana uses are physical sensation, breath, and gaze.
But I think there is actually more to it than that, because you can use any of your seven senses (yes, I mean seven) in this way. And now I have to warn you that I’m going to use some fancy terms (which you may or may not have encountered in yoga classes before) to explain this. I hope this is not too annoying! I’m doing this because even if you don’t remember the terms after you read this post, I think you’ll have a better understanding of how to practice yoga poses mindfully.
Exteroception: This is a set of senses that provide our ability to interact with whatever environment we find ourselves in, whether indoors or outdoors, including what we think of as our five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
When Jivana talks about using physical sensation, that includes our sense of touch, such as the way we use our feet or other body parts to balance by sensing what type of surface we’re balancing on—even or uneven, soft or hard, etc.—and the feeling of our breath moving in and out of our nostrils. And when Jivana talks about using drishti (gaze), that would be using our sense of sight. But we can also use our hearing when we’re practicing poses or meditating, by focusing on the sound of our breath. (We don’t typically use smell or taste in our asana practice—at least not intentionally.)
To work with exteroception, you could practice your standing poses by focusing on whether or not your feet are evenly pressing against the ground, and try to adjust them when you sense unevenness. Or, in your balance poses, you could focus your gaze on a focal point that is at the same height as your eyes to help steady yourself.
Interoception: Typically our sense of “touch” as a physical sensation refers to our skin sensing the environment outside our bodies, such feeling of our feet or hands on the mat, our back on a bolster, or even one body part touching another. Interoception refers to our ability to feel what’s happening inside our bodies. This includes sensing internally that your belly is rising and falling with each breath, your heart is racing or slowing, or a muscle is activating, stretching, or relaxing. You can also experience an internal sense of energy flowing through your body in a pose (or getting stuck).
Focusing on your internal sensations is a very powerful practice. It helps keep you safe in a pose (as you can back away from pain in a joint or from overstretching), and for those with body image issues, it helps you learn to fully inhabit or “reclaim” the body you have.
This can also provide a really good mental focus in a yoga pose. My long-time teacher Donald Moyer used to ask us to make an adjustment in a pose (haha, often by moving some obscure muscle or bone in some way no one had ever heard of or thought about before). He would then observe how that subtle realignment caused a ripple of changes throughout the body that brought you either deeper into the pose or freed up some stuck area. Donald even said, “Feeling an adjustment is concentration. Feeling the adjustment ripple through your body is meditation.”
To work with interoception, you can lie in Relaxation pose, and guide yourself into complete physical relaxation by intentionally focusing different areas of your body, one by one. Relax and release each one until your whole body melts into the ground.
Or, in a more active practice, you can focus on noticing what happens to your entire pose when you intentionally press the entire soles of your foot or feet in the ground to create a strong foundation for the pose. Does this give you more lift in Tree pose or more energy in Warrior 2 pose? Of course, you can always focus on feeling your breath in your body.
Proprioception: This is an internal sense that allows you to feel where your body is in space. Proprioception is what allows you to walk in the dark (and what enables blind people to walk) and is an essential part of balancing. To observe this sense in action, try closing your eyes and bringing your finger to your nose.
Proprioception is actually a term that certain yoga teacher’s use when they talk about practicing mindfully. And you use your proprioception to move in and out of your yoga poses, such as when you position your back arm in Warrior 2, step one foot back and turn the foot in Warrior 1, and to make minor adjustments while in other poses.
Although we use proprioception naturally in almost every pose we do, you can use it specifically as a way to engage your mind by doing poses with your eyes closed or by intentionally focusing on the parts of your body you can’t see even with your eyes open. Try moving into Triangle pose with your eyes closed. Or, as you bring your arms overhead and move into Upward Bound Hands pose, focus on sensing your arms move through space, your fingers entwining with each other, and your palms turning up toward the ceiling.
Our bodies are so beautiful in all the different ways they allow us to experience our internal and external environments and to move through the world!
P.S. There actually may be more than seven senses, but right now I’m not aware of any other specific ones. Anyone know more about this?
Nina Zolotow is editor-in-chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog. She is a yoga writer, certified yoga teacher, and longtime yoga practitioner. Her special area of expertise is yoga for emotional well-being (including yoga for stress, insomnia, depression, and anxiety). She completed the three-year teacher training program at The Yoga Room in Berkeley, CA, has studied yoga therapy with Shari Ser and Bonnie Maeda, and is especially influenced by the teachings of Donald Moyer. She has studied extensively with Rodney Yee and is inspired by the teachings of Patricia Walden on yoga for emotional healing. She teaches workshops and series classes on yoga for emotional well-being, yoga for stress, yoga for better sleep, home practice, and cultivating equanimity. Nina is the coauthor, with Rodney Yee, of two books on yoga: Yoga: The Poetry of the Body and Moving toward Balance.