Interoception and the aesthetic sense in yoga

In January, I began a 200-hour yoga teacher training course. I wanted to build on 20 years of yoga practice, and to explore the possibility of evolving the teaching I have been doing for seven years in art schools into a teaching practice in which I help people to breathe and move their bodies in ways that might help them navigate the demands and pressures of everyday life in a big city. I was looking forward to focusing on embodiment, to finding a new community and to re-igniting my love of learning.  Two months later London went into lockdown and my deeply held desire to be in the physical presence of other people while learning and practicing yoga was utterly frustrated. Five months after that, I graduated with a teaching qualification and a regular yoga teaching practice. One of the subjects I found most fascinating and revelatory is interoception: the sense of what is happening inside the body. For me yoga is not about the shapes you make so much as how those shapes make you feel.

This essay is my exploration of what the development of interoception means on a personal and societal level, drawing on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, an ancient compilation of aphorisms about the theory and practice of yoga, which dates from 325-425CE.


Sutra 1.7: Right knowledge consists of sense perception, logic and verbal testimony.

Interoception is the sense of what is happening within the body. As a means of perception, it complements exteroception, the sense of what is outside the body apprehended via the five traditionally identified sense organs, and proprioception, awareness of what is in contact with the body. The scientist Stephen Porges calls interoception the ‘sixth sense’, alluding to its importance in human perception, yet in recent years, scientists have mapped between 23 and 33 senses of human perception, including senses of space, balance, respiration and hunger. I would add to this list the other senses felt in the body, such as the senses of belonging, (in)justice, safety. The way we process our body’s sensory signals plays an important role in the formation identity, and interoception in particular contributes to our sense of body-ownership in both physical and psychological terms.

Clinical psychologist, yoga therapist, and yoga teacher Bo Forbes has found that by cultivating interoception in her yoga practice and daily life, ‘awareness matures and becomes subtler’, adding that ‘many illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders, and more—are diseases of disembodiment’.[1] According to Forbes, interoception helps us to navigate the ‘wilderness of the body’. It fosters a deeper connection with the self, which can lead to a clearer appreciation of our interconnectedness with other people, living beings and the wider world, and eventually facilitate right action. According to Forbes, in order to access interoception we must let go of predictions of what we’ll encounter, resist becoming ‘fixed’ on a particular sensation, and turn down mental chatter and narrative.[2]

While interoception is instrumental in developing a sense of who we are, it can also enable us to let go of ego-centred identity, ultimately helping us develop an embodied knowledge of our interconnectedness with other beings and objects. What does this mean in practical terms? Richard Miller, psychologist and founder of the iRest yoga nidra method, teaches that through meditation, we can allow the senses to land on an object, welcome in sensations, and eventually let go of our self as the ‘welcomer’ so that we come to ‘land in a field of presence’ that is shared with all other beings and objects.

Sutra 1.8: Error is false knowledge stemming from the incorrect apprehension [of something].

Sutra 1.9: Metaphor consists of the usage of words that are devoid of an actual object.

For me, yoga is about sensing into creative energy. This doesn’t happen every time I come into downward facing dog, but on occasions when I allow the practice to work on me, it shows me the quality of my own mind and awareness within my body. My thoughts and sensations are not abstract puffs; they are located in my body. My ideas and words are in my hands, mouth, legs, and in my perceptions of the world around me. Yoga helps me sense the workings of my mind and bring them into clarity. Although feelings and sensations experienced through yoga may not always be pleasant – yoga may facilitate clarity around grief, anger or sadness as well as joy, trust and contentment – there is beauty in the way it reveals.

I have heard value judgements expressed about the difference between yoga practiced with an aesthetic goal and yoga practiced as an embodied pursuit: the first is assumed to be vain and misguided and the other authentic. For me these conflicting intentions are one and the same. The issue is not in approaching yoga as an aesthetic pursuit; it lies in the way society reduces aesthetics, which is concerned with beauty in all its manifestations, to the visual.

Modern culture privileges vision over other senses, and although 40% of our brain is connected to visual perception, our experiences tend to be multimodal. This means that a single perceptual event integrates multiple senses at once. One of these senses is interoception, and on occasions when I am aware of sensations inside my body – usually through the practice of yoga – I experience more complex, satisfying and beautiful feelings. One caveat: this is true as long as I suspend judgement about the sensations inside the body. Layering thoughts on top of sensations hijacks the experience. This kind of incorrect apprehension confuses or overwrites the feeling, and can lead to misguided actions.

Sutra 4.29: For one who has no interests even in [the fruits] of meditative wisdom on account of the highest degree of discriminative insight, the samādhi called dharma-megha, cloud of virtues, ensues.

In his book ‘The Mirror of Yoga’, Richard Freeman writes of karma yoga – yoga offered without an expectation of specific results – that ‘the work itself becomes an experience of aesthetics and beauty—the experience of art that inspires a depth of appreciation for the grounding and visceral nature of the aesthetic experience.’[3] This is yoga practiced for yoga’s sake, not for advantage or self-improvement, and the gift returned is aesthetic experience, which is both ‘grounding and visceral’. This is another way of thinking about interoception.

Developing interoception can help people have a fuller experience of their own bodies. It contributes to the dismantling of unhelpful sensory hierarchies such as the supremacy of the visual and the bias towards exteroception, which are also expressed in societal prejudices against those with non-normative physical characteristics or impairments.

By training the body to move through physical space and in contact with the mat, yoga develops proprioception. But, thanks to simple exercises, yoga can also play a part in interoceptive enquiry. Those who see can be invited to lower or close the eyes. Or, better, since one aim of yoga is to extend the benefits of the practice to daily activities that invoke vision, students of yoga can keep their eyes open and soften their gaze to allow peripheral vision to grow. They can be encouraged to become aware of other senses, by tasting their own mouths, noticing smells, and welcoming sounds into their ears. They can be guided to place their hands on their bodies to stimulate interoception, or as Forbes puts it, to ‘bring awareness to the point of contact between our hands and our body and use that point of contact as an entryway or a portal into embodiment’. If our hands are microcosms, as is taught in Vedic and Buddhist systems of thought, then placing them on the body may be a way to manifest our position within the cosmos – the word ‘manifest’, whose original meaning was ‘palpable’, is rooted in the Latin manus, or ‘hand’.

Sutra 1.17 Samprajñāta [Samādhi] consists of the consecutive mental stages of absorption with physical awareness, absorption with subtle awareness, absorption with bliss, and absorption with the sense of I-ness.

Because interoception functions on the level of individual psychology, it may play a part in soothing distress or agitation related to identity. That we have different personalities, and that we can express them is wonderful. Nevertheless, we live in a society in which identity is routinely politicised, causing untold suffering. We are taught to judge one another according to externally perceived attributes such as our skin tone, size, shape and ability; our jobs, salaries, lovers, friends, families and past behaviour. As a respite from the visible world, interoception and aesthetic experiences may help people build more self-supporting identities, and from there to develop a sense of place and interconnectedness within the world. But these practices of withdrawal and interiority are ultimately at the service of an ethical system that extends to action in the world. Control of the body (asana) and the senses (pratyahara) are but two of of yoga’s eight limbs, the roots of which lie in our relationships to others (yama) and to the self (niyama), and involve commitments to truthfulness, non-injury, non-greed and self-study – among other things. The eight limbs are co-dependent, and relatively senseless when practiced in isolation.

Practicing interoception requires time and safe space, which is not readily available to all. There are obstacles to these practices, in practical and ideological terms: they do not serve our individualistic, competitive culture. Yet the gestures that facilitate access to interoception are simple, free and relatively easy to communicate. They begin with placing our hands on our bodies and sensing into the point of contact.


[2] ​Bo Forbes on ‘Interoception in Practice, Liberated Body​ podcast, episode 53

[3] Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga (Boulder: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2010) p.115