Last week we discussed how learning new movements—and learning to be as mindful and specific as you can with those movements—can help you to develop new concepts. Another wonderful upshot of the yoga practice is that it creates a greater sense of felt awareness within the body. Many people see the stretches that we do within yoga as a way to increase flexibility. While this is certainly true to a certain degree, there is a lot more to it than that.
In order to get a sense of precisely what I mean, it might be helpful to do a little physical yoga experiment. Luckily, you can do this right where you are, without even standing up if you don’t want to. If you’re in a public place, it won’t even be conspicuous enough for anyone else to think that what you’re doing is particularly odd. Feel free to use your headphones. I'll wait till you're ready.
One of the reasons behind the profound nature of this simple exercise is that—as obvious at it may seem—your neck is what connects your head to the rest of your body. If you have so much stiffness and discomfort in your neck that you are unable to feel it, it will—both literally and metaphorically—prevent you from feeling the awareness of the depth of connection between your head and the rest of your body. The palpable sense of relief this stretch can give you is due not only to the fact that it can abate some of the pain associated with chronic stiffness; it is also because it suddenly allows your conscious awareness to inhabit your body much more fully than you might be accustomed to. The movement of the physical yoga poses creates this same sensation throughout the entirety of the body. For my money, this is the main reason yogic stretching is so beneficial for the soma as a whole. There are certain practical advantages to having a greater range of motion, but only up to a point. I often joke in my classes that the arm positioning in gomukhasana is really fantastic training for when you haven't got somebody else to put sun cream on your back; however, I have yet to think of a single practical advantage to the ability to put your leg behind your head. (I invite those with more adventurous imaginations to submit their own proposals!) What’s more, people who are hyper-mobile tend to injure themselves more frequently, often leaving them with a smaller range of motion than a person of less-than-impressive flexibility.
From the perspective of embodied consciousness, one of the greatest gifts of a regular yoga āsana practice is the fact that it allows you to feel more present in your body. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains that one reason we often interpret certain bodily sensations as emotions is that we are not able distinguish amongst the various imbalances that our interoceptive network—responsible for reading the function of our inner physiological systems such as digestion, circulation, etc—might be predicting and interpreting. She gives the example of a famous study in which it transpired that a group of Israeli judges on a parole board became less and less likely to grant parole to a given candidate as the first half of the day progressed—the rate bottomed out close to 0% just before lunchtime. After lunch, the parole rate bounced back up to around 65%. These judges were quite likely interpreting their interoceptive network’s signal that their stomachs were empty as some “gut feeling” that the parole candidates in question could not be trusted. The result was a much greater chance that the inmates reviewed just before lunchtime would continue to spend their time behind bars rather than getting a second chance at freedom.
There are a few seemingly unrelated studies that can help us to see that the effects of our bodily experiences on our perceptions of others is not always negative. In fact, a couple of studies have shown the power with which our verbal concepts can create a bridge across the oft-perceived mind-body divide. In his book Touch, David J. Linden describes a study in which people were invited to weigh in on job candidate assessments. In the lift on the way up to the assessment, an assessment would ask the subject to hold either an iced coffee or a hot coffee while the assistant wrote the subject's information down. Upon entering the room, the subject received a packet containing information about "Candidate A," who "was intelligent, skillful, industrious, determined, practical, and cautious." When questioned afterward, subjects who had held the warm cup were significantly more likely to describe the candidate with “warmer” emotional words such as "friendly," "helpful," and "trustworthy"; conversely, of course, the subjects who had held the cold cup were more likely to use “colder” words such as “controlling” or “pretentious” when describing the exact same candidate.
For me, these results serve as another element in a growing body of evidence which demonstrates the degree to which our verbal concepts can shape both our physical and perceptual experience. So many of the words we use have both physical and social meanings, but the unbreakable flow of information between the brain and the rest of the body makes it impossible to completely separate the difference between material and symbolic. Remember: neurons that fire together, wire together. As Noam Chomsky, Stephen Pinker, and others have demonstrated at length, the structure of language is an intrinsic part of the human condition; as such, it serves as a tremendous agent in shaping our reality. The neural networks which activate in association with certain words will necessarily create connections between the symbolic and the tangible.
Research has consistently demonstrated similar phenomena. One study had a group of graduate students attempt to create grammatical sentences out of a set of jumbled words. For one group, the word set was loaded with words associated with the elderly—such as "grey," "Florida," "bingo," and "wrinkle." Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers’ task was to measure the speed with which the students left the room after reading a text that was primed with such words. The findings were remarkable: when compared to a control group (which arranged neutral, non-priming words), the group that was “primed” with elderly vocabulary took an average of 12 percent longer to move their bodies across the same amount of space! In all likelihood, the students reading these texts did not make a conscious connection to the fact that the words they were arranging had anything to do with age or speed; nevertheless, the neurons that fired in response to these words set off a chain reaction throughout their somatic process which created a demonstrable change toward a stereotyped physical behaviour.
Priming can even have effects on your love life. Another study shows that while playing with a magnet a subject is more likely to rate their partner as attractive, and the bond that they have with their partner as strong. Consider the conceptual dance your conscious mind would have to do in order to make these connections:
- You are having a conversation about your partner.
- You are playing with a magnet at the same time.
- You therefore associate that person with a magnet.
- You associate the physics of magnets with attraction.
- You associate the concept attraction with feeling physical or emotional interest in another person.
- You are therefore more likely to find this person attractive.
WHAT?! It seems rather far-fetched, but this is certainly what the evidence demonstrates. Yet to understand how sensible this actually is, we need only recognise the amount of neural overlap that occurs amongst the networks which govern these concepts. Although it seems to take a lot of steps when we break it down verbally, the brain makes these connections more or less simultaneously. This is why it might not occur to us that the resulting attraction we feel for the other person is due to the magnet—the body-mind sees the entire process in correlative terms, rather than in terms of cause-and-effect. Just consider how often the feelings you may or may not develop for another person are completely connected to other circumstances which actually have nothing to do with how compatible that person is with you! (Just to let you know, I have never tried to win somebody’s affection by giving them a magnet to hold. I can say, however, that somebody tried it on me once. And yes. It worked.)
While many of the outside influences that affect our feelings are probably incidental, there are certainly people (in advertising and in politics, for example) who use the knowledge of priming in a deliberately manipulative manner. This may perhaps point toward another benefit to developing a greater degree of conceptual granularity. Understanding the differences between unrelated concepts may help us to see our circumstances as separate phenomena, rather than interpreting too much of what we are experiencing as the result of another person.
Imagine the implications of these kinds of studies might have on your own life, and in your own relationships. How often have you become upset with your children, your colleagues, or your partner because you were simply misinterpreting your interoception? I can certainly relate to the popular internet meme “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.” We could easily replace the final word with “thirsty,” “tired,” “in pain,” “in need of physical affection,” or any number of bodily states that we might have a habit of conceptualising as interpersonal emotional affronts. Perhaps using your āsana practice in order to develop a more mindful awareness of your inner body sensations could help you to develop a greater ability to distinguish between your own needs, and perhaps this might keep you from taking things personally. Expanding your attention to include the fluctuations of your body balance can certainly help you to become more aware of when you can honestly, non-euphamistically inform your fellow human-beings: “It’s not you, it’s me.”
What's more, recent research has shown that people who are more sensitive to their own interoceptive states—for example, those who are able to feel their own heartbeats from within, rather than by having a hand on a pulse point—are better able to experience compassion and empathy for other people. These findings might seem counterintuitive, but they do actually make sense. If you are able to feel into your own body, to fully feel your own inner needs, it is much more likely that you will be able to understand similar needs in others. By taking time for yourself in a practice like yoga, in order to open your body and allow your consciousness feel more fully embodied, you make yourself better and better equipped to be sensitive and kind to those around you.
So take another moment before you go. Let your attention reach into your body, wherever you are. Feel your breath. Feel your heartbeat. Feel your blood circulation throughout your being. Feel the aliveness of your cells.
Now remember that this aliveness is common to all beings. Go forth and be wonderful to each other.