Exploring the world of Interoception as an embodied practice. Restorative Yoga Therapy for Teachers
What if in each moment you were able to focus on your internal messages of the body from moment to moment. Noticing when you felt some tension, the stretching of your body during Yoga, the filling up and emptying of your breath, the hint that something is just not right, or when someone is connecting to you deeply and you felt a great sense of peace, you felt fully alive. Do you even know what that feels like?
When you do enter these moments you know at any given time what choices to make, you no longer react you respond mindfully, lovingly, honestly. No matter what sensations, feelings, responses are arising at any given time you know they are there. When you are in this state you are living via Interoception.
What does it mean to be embodied? Bo Forbes says, " 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 say something about where we place our attention: outside us, part of the way in, or deeply inward."
Exteroception refers to what is happening around us (sights, sounds, smells etc.), propriocetion is where we place our body within the area of the immediate environment (such as not running into things) it is essential for experiencing movement patterns. Interoception is the ability to notice and connect bodily sensations with emotions organically, viscerally. Research states that interoception is an important factor to the development of effective self-regulation skills. Dr Stephen Porges, in his book "The Polyvagal Theory" likens interoception to our Sixth Sense (sentient self). It requires a skillful awareness in exploring our body when it is incorporated through various Restorative Yoga Practices that can create a healing environment that leads to a deep sense of self and safety via re entering into our internal world.
Without predicting what we might find there. Without getting stuck in one sensation and attaching to it (e.g. chronic pain) Without trying to find or do something in particular or judging what is there (no expectations). Without mastering, or trying to understand a way of fully knowing but sensing organically
This in itself has become in essence the foundation of helping to overcome Trauma and chronic stress states using Yoga practices, we become like an explorer navigating the internal dimensions with curiosity and a deep desire to connect to what and who our exquisite and unique inner landscape is seeking that which we are seeking... renewal.
It has been noted through research that a number of illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment. In these conditions, awareness becomes interrupted. During chronic pain syndromes, for example, we tend to predict what is coming next, then consult about it. “I feel that migraine is about to start up,” we might say. “Yep, there it is soon it’s gonna get worse and its going to last for days, it will knock me out again and I will end up depressed".
During Sympathetic Activation which can be a constant hum within the life of a trauma suffer, once cultivated, interoception can increase the quality of an organic surrender and connection between our mind and body just the same as the Mindfulness model refers to entering our inner world by becoming comfortable with what we are experiencing rather than running, fighting or freezing.
Restorative Yoga and other Yoga integrates all 3 experiences, when they are mastered we become "embodied"
Our body is our primary vehicle of awakening , as we become more present with the subtle and not so subtle sensations, feelings and impressions of what is going on within and go with it a something beautiful occurs, we shift and open spontaneously. If we can just go with it. Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra are 2 portals that can take us their. Why? Because they both offer the Safety and Support so needed for our journey forwards.
Trauma & stress, within a Yoga Practice.
I find this easy to understand and apply having practiced Yoga for over 25 years and having been a child of DV for 17 years. From birth I lived in a hostile environment. I could easily have been living with temperamental wild animals...hey it's true, the unpredictability of every moment became embedded in my body - mind and brain, what I saw and received seemed to lead me to eventually become quite skilled on how to survive on a moment to moment basis. Looking back there were times I went quiet, times I would run outside and times I would lash out, the later did not serve me well as it always came with painful consequences. Each one of my brothers and sisters had developed their own skill set which sometimes included deflecting a number of situations onto someone else along with using force to get their own way.
Any human being whom experiences the variances of trauma all have the one thing in common and that is of Safety. If you are safe then no harm can come to you, you wont have to run, fight or freeze you have the comfort of peace. Look at what the Yoga Yama/Nyama model is based upon. It is the model for survival both within the outer world and the inner world.
Safety may look a little different for the person with trauma, before someone deems their environment is safe they require a high level of trust. As a Yoga facilitator if you even look a little like one of those wild animals I can tell you your trust meter has dropped below 3 and you are probably already out, if any of your facial expressions, mannerisms, tone of voice, sudden sounds refer back to any familiarity of their past experience they will feel uncomfortable and unsettled, and will do this unconsciously and not know why or even that they are doing this. They will scan the room first to ensure that there is nothing sensory that may harm them or cause a threat. (exteroception)
Once they settle into the Yoga they are best left alone with little attention to begin with, they will take in only some of what you are offering as part of their brain is in survival mode. There may be words you use that create some tension there may be moves that may induce various physical feelings of nausea or pain or they may be a bit off in their coordination (proprioceptor), however if you hold a gentle loving space in your environment if your intentions are good, you are observing rather that projecting they will sense this, and finally when you take them into a guided relaxation it will seem strange at first but eventually they will learn to feel again, they will find one place they have never looked for safety before, inside of themselves...they will return home. (interoception)
My philosophy on Trauma Informed Yoga is this and it will always be subject to change and variances.
* Treat all of your students the same: Just be yourself and be consistent.
* Avoid adjusting or assisting or using too many descriptive words, a brain and body in activation can only take in small amounts of information, here the senses are on alert and as a facilitator our main directive is to get their senses to move through the 3 stages to create the experience of Pratyahara.
* Learn to use the language of choice rather than command, for example saying "you might choose to bring your arm over head or just reach upwards..." over "bring your arm overhead or reach your arm above your head". (I can attest that there was no choice language during my early Yoga practice while healing from trauma and I am fine, it may be due to familiarity of being told what to do, or not initially noticing feelings or sensations.. however commands can trigger sympathetic activation.)
* Adjusting and the use of touch can be a powerful tool to move through proprioreception and interoception, there is a time, a place and a way specific to all people. It commences with Trust at both ends, on a personal level confidence in your knowing the positive results of assistance can support your person deeper and further when you feel connected and you have asked the person "may I assist you" or "can I offer you some help", (today, next time may be different). You can of course just use verbal cues, however be very careful how you project that. I recently was verbally forced into doing something a teacher wanted me too in a Yin class, as an example I will share: When she wasn't happy with my shape she said" I feel you would be more comfortable..." I replied "I felt fully supported and comfortable"...she said " I feel if you were to add this and move that..." she actioned this twice during the class, each time my defenses and sympathetic activation went into danger, she was taking control... the second time my polite reply was "What you feel, and what I feel are two completely different experiences." (I am sure this may have caused some activation in her too).
The goal is to teach your groups and individuals to "Self Adjust", keep in mind, for this to be effective some touch and adjusting may be necessary for them to experience a different feeling and opening, when a support applied correctly creates safety. It's like when you get your pillow just right before you go to sleep, your comfort level is at its peak and you are able to sink comfortably into the support you have created for yourself.
* Always check in with yourself before class or personal sessions, In a group situation it is perfectly ok to say that tonight your energy is a little low etc., re assure your students you are real, if you are faking it, they will know on some level, create a ritual with your intentions your mood your energy, if you are coming from a clear and supportive space with clear and concise instructions it will "feel safe". Also teach your students to "check in" with themselves, using the breath is a great tool here, as variances in breath will reflect states of feeling and being, the breath can be an anchor a support. I am a big believer that it is what your resonating which sets the basis of your experiences also, teachers are humans, look after yourself, work towards becoming clear and clean in your energy.
* Teach all Yoga practices with adaptions and alternatives, the theory that certain Asana's trigger past trauma more than others has no research base as each individual is unique. Encourage all students to stay with the practice for as long as comfortable, assure them that every day is variable and some days the body will bend and move effortlessly and others it won't. Some days they will feel emotional and others energetic or strong, this is with the understanding that we live in a world of constant change and Yoga helps us to learn how to go with that change rather than fight it (flee it or ignore it). Encourage their bodies to be covered with a blanket or throw during Savasana and the forehead raised just higher that their chin, this has several effects, one is it releases tension in the occiput (vagus nerve enters from the Medulla Oblongata) thus effecting the parasympathetic systems response.
* Educate them in the Koshas:- It is not helpful for any of us to over create in one area of our being, if we only focus on the physical layer or we are constantly slaves to our mind or emotions, no form of Yoga practice will move us beyond any activated or resistant state, you cannot be at ease in a Meditation position with a clear mind if your body is screaming in pain, the importance of understanding that these are vehicles for change, who we are is deeper and beyond these layers, the sentient self. Our body is our primary instrument for awakening, fine tune it and it will play the most beautiful music.
* Become the Observer of your people, be invested in their evolution, learn about the broader area of energy and the spiritual path, it may be through other areas such as Buddhism, Christianity, Koran, Upanishads all roads lead to the same place. Take care of yourself, burn out is a new age reality, not only is it individual it is collective. A very powerful simple practice is one of Heart Coherence, just by placing a hand on the area of the mid chest and invoking the feelings of calm, gratitude, appreciation and compassion we can slow down some of the fluctuations that lead to dis embodiment and re connect to our loving essence.
Embodiment practice is the new Yoga, it will be the future and evolution of our very existence.
Cathie McGill is the founder of Spirit of Yoga & Restorative Yoga Wisdom Training
Her interest is in healing trauma and stress, the underlying cause of dis ease. She runs several Training Courses for Teachers, Therapists and the general public and teaches Restorative Yoga and Yoga Nidra both to groups and individuals. And now a new Self care programme to assist with healing, the first being a weekend retreat.