The senses play an important part of our yoga practice. We use sight and touch as we perform yoga poses. We use hearing to gauge the quality of our breath. We also learn to soften our senses, allowing them to recede or withdraw when we move into the quiet and still parts of yoga such as savasana and pranayama. Beyond the five senses that everyone knows, there are two more senses, lesser known, that play an important role in yoga. These are proprioception and interoception.
Proprioception tells us where our bodies are in space; the relative positioning of our various body parts. It’s something that dancers, gymnasts and many athletes naturally have. It helps a gymnast, for example, flip head over heels and land squarely on a four inch wide beam. The rest of us may not be naturally gifted with proprioception, but yoga helps us improve in this area.
For many yoga students, the idea of turning upside down or arching over backwards is unnatural and scary. These are not positions the average body is used to doing. The mind is also not used to these positions, so it creates fear or discomfort. Learning inversions and backbends step by step with the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher is one way to overcome these fears.
As the body learns how to reposition itself, the mind follows along. Soon, they start to work together. The mind understands how the body has to work to get into headstand or upward facing bow. This learning improves proprioception. We gain a better understanding of how the body moves in space.
Interoception, generally speaking, is understanding of the body from within. It is a finely nuanced and subtle sense. To gain any significant amount of interoception can take months or years of study. Fortunately, yoga helps tremendously with developing interoception.
Following the breath and working with physical alignment are two ways to tap into interoception. When we practice pranayama, regulation of the breath, we become quiet and observant, aware of movement happening inside the body. With experience, we notice how small, internal actions impact the breath and how the breath affects the mind.
The alignment of the body in yoga poses also affects us internally. As we learn to improve the outward form of yoga asanas, we discover the associated, necessary inner movements and begin to notice subtle physiological changes. We know that yoga can help improve various physical states and conditions. With experience, we begin to observe these as they happen.
Do not expect to improve or develop proprioception and interoception with just a few yoga classes. They are also not something you think about with every yoga practice. Eventually, however, you will find that yoga has brought you a better sense of your full embodiment, both outside and inside.