Developing Internal Awareness

My job in teaching yoga to cancer patients is to facilitate a healing process. One of the first things we look at in this process is internal awareness. In turning inward, participants begin to tease apart the different internal phenomenon, all of which will, in general, fall into one of three categories: physical sensations, emotions or thoughts. Why is this important? In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, we’ve become so externally focused that we’ve lost our ability to feel and to understand what we’re feeling. We intentionally ignore internal sensations in order to accomplish tasks. Over time, with enough ignoring, we lose that ability to feel. We lose internal awareness and with that we miss messages that the body is trying to send us.

When you close your eyes and turn your attention inward, notice the transition from external to internal awareness. Notice what is prominent. Is it a sensation, an emotional state or mental activity? Scan the body and notice what sensations are prominent. Cold toes? An ache or pain? Tension in the shoulders? See if you can begin to notice the difference between the actual sensations in your body and the thoughts you have about those sensations – the comments, stories or judgments – in your head. Separate those two actions – sensing and thinking. Just focus on sensations. Imagine you are a scientist collecting data – what are the prominent sensations on the body?

Now shift your awareness to the emotions. Label what you notice even if it is uncomfortable. This is not about changing the emotion or pushing it away, but acknowledging that it is there. Try not to get pulled into the emotion and it’s story. Stay removed and cultivate a witness-like quality of attention. If it is not clear what is present, tune into the feeling tone in the body. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? This is how we sense emotions. They create feeling tones in the body. You can always use, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral to understand the nature of your current emotion.

The third realm of internal phenomenon is mental activity or your thoughts. Notice the general state of the mind. Is it very active or agitated? Or is it sluggish, sleepy, and heavy? It may feel awkward to try to notice the mind without actually “thinking” but just imagine that you could stand outside of yourself and see the activity of the mind. How would you describe it? Try not to judge what you find, just notice, and avoid getting pulled into the mind’s activity. Just label what you notice. Keep in mind that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go like the weather. You do not have to believe your thoughts!

Our culture values fast-paced, multi-tasking, high-achieving behavior. We’ve come to think it is a necessity for survival. Perhaps for some this busy-ness has become an obsession and for others it’s a distraction from what’s really happening inside. Of lesser value, culturally speaking, is internal steadiness and peace. How do we maintain a sense of calm awareness regardless of what’s happening around us? To observe and detach from the chain reaction of thoughts-triggering emotions-triggering-physical-sensations is a huge accomplishment. Whether on a healing journey or simply wanting more of this steadiness, it is worth spending time developing your internal awareness.

Published by Michelle

Michelle Stortz, C-IAYT, ERYT500, MFA, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in yoga for cancer and chronic illness. She teaches in numerous medical settings throughout the Philadelphia area. Michelle also teaches mindful meditation. She has been studying in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition for the past 15 years and has also trained in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction curriculum. She leads retreats and group classes and works with individuals in private sessions.

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