Not 5, but between 10 and 33 distinct human senses...
When we express our love of life, we often describe corporealsensations—the taste of dark chocolate, the rapture of listening toYoyo Ma play Bach, the vision of the sun rising above the sea. Whilethe emotions our senses elicit have moved our souls for hundred ofthousand of years, sensory neuroscientists are only now beginningto understand how the brain encodes and processes sensoryinformation within the body.
Our everyday understanding of perception is that we see, touch,smell, taste and hear. As such, we often describe our thoughts andemotions in terms of five distinct senses. Until recently, these senseshave been studied and described both by philosophers andscientists in isolation.
Modern cognitive neuroscience is challenging this understanding:instead of five we might count up to 33 senses, served by dedicatedreceptors. Instead of simplifying how we experience flavour merelyinto taste, research suggests at least two separate ways in whichflavour information is sensed. Touch can be pleasant, painful,thermal or pressure related; with separate sensory fibres andpathways for each aspect of how we feel through our skin. Similarly,how we “see” can be broken down into colour and contrast vision, orneural pathways that deal with the nature of the object or wherethat object is in space.
Studying isolated senses is misleading: everyday, real worldexperiences like watching a film or eating a meal involve multipledifferent senses working together.
How many senses can you notice and re-notice, as you move through asana?
Yoga involves paying attention to things we may previously have left unacknowledged or taken for granted - the sensations we feel when we practice.
Sensations we can notice as we practice yoga postures are things like...
• The feeling of muscles stiffening as they take up the work of a posture, then releasing and softening as the work subsides.
• Or the feeling of contact with the floor through a foot or hand, or any other body part in contact with the ground.
• Or perhaps the fluidity, or stiffness, of a movement.
• The acceleration and deceleration of the body in transition from one position to another.
• Or the sense of weight travelling through the bones.
• We can notice the feeling of spaciousness or constriction in the chambers of the body - the ribcage and the abdomen.
• And perhaps you can think of some more sensations we can look out for in the course of our yoga posture practice.
Learning to re-notice Our roles and responsibilities give our lives shape and meaning. But they can also leave us feeling tugged in too many different directions and out of touch with ourselves.
On any given day we cast our attention in a thousand different directions. Our different roles and responsibilities - the different hats we wear in relation to different people in different situations - give our lives shape and meaning. But hat swopping can also sometimes leave us feeling tugged in too many different directions and out of touch with ourselves.
How can we be sure we won't be fragmented by our complex lives and lose touch with the keen sense of self we were born with? Perhaps in one way or another we have to constantly re-notice ourselves. And notice who's doing the noticing. Yoga is well placed to facilitate this. Because it involves paying close attention to sensations we feel as we move through life which we often leave unacknowledged, or take for granted.
Cultivating a 'hunter-gatherer sense' When we work consistently with the body, it changes. Our muscles grow stronger. Our range of movement increases. But lengthening and strengthening muscles aren't the aim of our practice at Lotus Leaf. Here, we're more interested in paying attention to ourselves rather like our ancient ancestors would have had to in order to survive. Imagine a hunter gatherer, moving calmly and smoothly through the natural environment, listening. To stay safe and approach prey, they tread softly, so as not to draw attention to themselves. They have a keen sense of embodiment. Their senses are awake. They're alert, present and responsive.
The 'hunter gatherer sense' we're trying to cultivate - through play really - is quite different to a standard exercise approach. There's no call to frown in rigid concentration, as you dutifully attempt to perform a movement to a certain standard, squeezing yourself into someone else's idea of how you should be. You can practice this idea, like a child's game, in class and as you step off your mat and into your week.
The 'hunter-gatherer' approach to yoga is sometimes referred to as a ‘bottom up approach’ - as opposed to a ‘top down’ one. 'Bottom up processing' describes the way an organism responds to its environment through its senses. In its simplest form, it's drinking water when you're thirsty, or resting when you're tired. To do these simple things we first have to notice how we actually feel. Then we respond intelligently to our feelings, in order to feel comfortable again.
The bottom up approach to yoga a marks a distinct shift away from the exercise approach, peppered with basic eastern philosophy, which is so popular in mainstream modern yoga practice. This approach has more in common with western systems, like the Alexander technique, the Feldenkrais Method and Somatics. Practicing yoga with a bottom up approach places less emphasis on stretching and strengthening the muscles and fascia of the body. And more emphasis on working with the nervous system. Because it’s in the functioning of the nervous system that it seems most of our problems - and consequently our solutions - lie.
The humanist approach to yoga also encompasses a serious attempt to integrate our senses in different spheres. We begin by heightening our sensory awareness of our own body, mind and heart. The next question we ask ourselves is how can we expand this special kind of awareness into our relationships with our fellow humans? With our local community? And with our social and natural environment?
I've absorbed these ideas & approaches from Peter Blackaby's wonderful book 'Intelligent Yoga' - available on Amazon.
The beautiful photograph is by Andy Maano. CC (Creative Commons) It's in the public domain..