In the Western hemisphere many are familiar with only one limb of Yoga – Asana, or physical postures. However according to Patanjali (Ancient Indian Yoga Scholar and systematiser of the Yogic texts) there are eight limbs of yoga. They need not be practiced in any order – but for a real yoga practice – all eight limbs should be incorporated.
Those deeper into yoga have also come across pranayama or breath control. I won’t explain all the limbs of yoga but jump to the fifth: pratyahara. Many western translations will refer to pratyahara as withdrawal of the senses, but that’s not the complete picture. Pratyahara is really about changing your focus from the outside to within.Pratyahara is understood as the practice of withdrawing external sensory perception in order to increase inner awareness. In neuroscience we have now defined and are beginning to understand this inner sense. We call it – interoception.
What is Interoception?
Interoception is the sense of our internal bodily states2. It underlies our ability to know what’s going on inside our body. Interoception which is also called “our extra sense”is unlike our other senses -hearing, sight, smell, touch and taste. Theses well known senses develop almost spontaneously from birth in most people unless there is a physiological abnormality. And while interoception can occur spontaneously for some, for most it is an acquired skill that requires practice to master. This is because our brains default mode is externally directed3,4. Those who practice meditation acknowledge the challenge required in attending to a single object and maintaining focus without allowing the mind to wander. Meditation and meditative yoga encourage the practitioner to turn their attention towards the present moment, which traditionally includes the sensations arising in the body. Studies have found a relationship between the ability to be mindfully aware and the ability to use interoception5. This is because “being mindfully observant is connected with greater body awareness”5. Thus, mindfulness meditation and yoga can strengthen our interoceptive ability. However, because yoga engages both body and brain at the same time – it has the ability to more train interoception more effectively and more speedily.
A Brief History of Interoception
Interoception was first mentioned by Charles Sherrington, an American physiologist in 1906 in his book The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. However, even though he did not use the word interoception, Charles Darwin alluded to its significance in his lesser known book published in 1872, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Darwin theorized that the experience of an emotion is heightened when accompanied by bodily expressions (e.g., baring one’s teeth or smiling)7,8. William James, the father of American psychology expanded on this idea when he suggested that signals from the bodily inform the mind about its emotional state5. He endorsed the idea that “we do not shiver because we are scared of a lion, but we shiver, and we label this shiver as fear”9. He suggests that a bottom-up process – from the body to the brain – underlies all emotion.
However, this idea was relatively unexplored as the research community of the 1900’s – 1990’s favoured a top-down process, where the emphasis was placed on how the brain informs the body.
Researcher’s side-lined this area of study due to the inability to find that neural pathways that enabled us to perceive internal sensations. They knew that a system was at work that processed internal signals and that this system kept us alive for it regulated the heart rate, breathing and almost all internal function. They proposed that these inner workings were controlled by the autonomic nervous system. It was believed that these autonomic functions happened automatically and there was no way to be conscious of them, let alone control them.
It wasn’t until Antonio Damasio proposed his somatic marker hypothesis (SMH) in the 1990’s, which he describes in his book Descartes’ Error that the bottom up processes resurfaced. The somatic market hypothesis describes how sensations that arise in the body bias our decision-making10. Due to interest in this theory there was an emergence in research of how bodily sensations guide our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours11.
Interoception – The Science
Leading on from bottom-up processes, in 2002 Bud Craig, an American neuroatomist and neuroscientist brought interoception back into the research arena when he redefined interoception as the sense of the physiological status of all tissues of the body. And he proposed that interoception is what supported homeostasis – the process that enables the internal environment of the body to sustain life. From this point a small body of researchers decided to discover how information from all tissues of the body made its way back to the brain. They discovered that this information was transferred via a specific nerve pathway (the lamina-1-spinothalamic tract) found in the spinal cord. Via this area of the spinal cord, information from all body tissues pass to a very specific part of the brain called the insula where the body sensations are put together for form a sense of self. It was also discovered that poor interoception was linked to anxiety, body dysmorphia, eating disorders and depression. Hence it became important to discover how to train people to be more interoceptively aware.
How to become more Interoceptive?
My research in this field considered how to teach one to become more interoceptively aware. I looked at top down and bottom-up techniques to discover if training mental attention or body awareness was the more efficient method for interoception training. An early research paper entitled Interoception: A Measurement of Embodiment or Attention explains the process1. https://www.ibpj.org/issues/articles/Buldeo%20-%20Interoception%20A%20measure%20of%20Embodiment%20or%20Attention_.pdf
My studies in this area have enabled me to develop the Interoceptive I-Yoga technique to teach interoceptive awareness speedily and efficiently while improving posture and overall wellbeing. I-Yoga is a simple 4-Step pracitice to increased interoceptive awareness.
What was remarkable for me as a Yogi and scientist is that while it took centuries for the modern scientific research community to grasp how the body and mind work together to create our experiences, ancient Yogi’s described this process in detail. The Upanishads, written works dated from 1900BC which were based on an even older oral tradition discuss yoga and the process of inner awareness. The Yogatattwa Upanishad dated pre 150CE describes the practice of pratyahara in detail. It states that Pratyahara arises from the union of Prana (breath), Apana(hydration and oxygenation of body), Asana (physical alignment) and Jivatma(bio-physiological harmony or homeostasis). Pratyahara (inner awareness) leads to higher functioning and supernormal states of functioning. Modern research is suggesting that the same is true. Higher interoception (inner awareness) leads to superior human abilities.
This is why interoception matters. Interoception is the window into the body that informs the mind. And as we hone our interoceptive skills, we are able to utilise the influential power and wisdom of our body sensations.
Every cell in our body responds to the environment, our body is full of wisdom – by training interoception we discover how to utilise this wisdom.
Dr Nitasha Buldeo is an Integrated Medical Practitioner, Entrepreneur, Scientist and Yogi. She created I-Yoga & Organic Apoteke and is Director of the Centre for Exceptional Human Performance. She researches human potential and delivers programs that encourage you to live exceptionally. Nitasha believes that every one of us is striving to be the best we can. Her passion is bringing you
- Buldeo, N. Interoception: A measure of embodiment or attention. International Body Psychotherapy Journal. 2015;14,1:65-79. https://www.ibpj.org/issues/articles/Buldeo%20-%20Interoception%20A%20measure%20of%20Embodiment%20or%20Attention_.pdf
- Garfinkel SN, Seth AK, Barrett AB, Suzuki K, Critchley HD. Knowing your own heart: Distinguishing interoceptive accuracy from interoceptive awareness. Biol Psychol. 2015;104:65-74. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.11.004.
- Farb NAS, Segal Z V, Anderson AK. Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2013;8(1):15-26. doi:10.1093/scan/nss066.
- Farb NAS, Segal Z V, Mayberg H, et al. Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007;2(4):313-322. doi:10.1093/scan/nsm030.
- Hanley AW, Mehling WE, Garland EL. Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. J Psychosom Res. 2017;99:13-20. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2017.05.014.
- Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW. Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: A fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. Neuroimage. 2012;59(1):750-760. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.07.008.
- Darwin C. The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray; 1872.
- Strack F, Martin LL, Stepper S. Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1988;54(5):768-777. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3379579. Accessed October 30, 2017.
- Fuchs T, Koch SC. Embodied affectivity: on moving and being moved. Front Psychol. 2014;5:508. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00508.
- Dunn BD, Dalgleish T, Lawrence AD. The somatic marker hypothesis: A critical evaluation. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2006;30(2):239-271. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.07.001.
- Werner NS, Schweitzer N, Meindl T, Duschek S, Kambeitz J, Schandry R. Interoceptive awareness moderates neural activity during decision-making. Biol Psychol. 2013;94(3):498-506. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2013.09.002.