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Physical Awareness

One summer when I was home from college, I got it into my head that I should take a class down at the rec center. So, I looked through the list of classes and eliminated one thing after another until I was left with a choice between two disciplines that I was curious about but had never tried: yoga and karate. I chose yoga, for no particular reason, and ever since then I've studied it intermittently … taking a class here and there, practicing at home, reading parts of a book, but also forgetting about it for years at a time.

As a result of all that, I've gradually developed my own funny little approach to yoga. The basic ideas are the same as in any yoga class: posture and breathing (two of the eight elements of classical yoga) combined with relaxation. The emphasis is a bit different, however. When I enter a posture, I'm not at all interested in having correct alignment or approaching some ideal configuration, I'm only interested in being aware of what's going on … paying attention to sensation, as my current instructor would say. I like to take the time to settle into the posture, to explore it, to breathe there for a while. The posture is just a means of producing sensation. If I'm misaligned, i.e., doing something harmful, I'll feel it and change what I'm doing; and if I practice a lot and become more flexible, I'll need to extend further to produce sensation, perhaps approaching some ideal; but those are just side effects, not goals.

For example, even if I practice a lot, I can only rarely touch my toes without bending my knees. But so what? I can reach toward my toes, or I can bend my knees, and either way I can feel my hamstrings stretch, my quads work, my hips flex, my back elongate, and so on. There are plenty of interesting things to pay attention to!

In case anyone reads this and is inspired to try yoga, I think I should point out an important limitation of yoga classes. Some forms of yoga emphasize motion more than others, but in any class there has to be a certain amount of motion, simply because most people don't want to sit still for minutes at a time. Unfortunately, all that moving around requires some attention … it's easy to go through the motions (literally) but very hard to go through the motions and simultaneously be aware of everything that's going on. I certainly can't do it! So, although classes are good for learning, and for exercise, they're not very good for discovering new things, which to me is the whole point of yoga. For that, I think you just have to practice by yourself.

Before I move on, here are a few semi-related thoughts. I've talked about being aware once before, but that was about external awareness, being aware of other cars while driving. I've also talked about paying attention, but that was more about attention as a limited resource. And, finally, I also have my own funny little approach to meditation, which I described briefly toward the end of Mind Maps.

Now, here's the fun part! I don't know if yoga is responsible for this, or if it's just a natural result of getting older and wiser, but I've gradually learned to be aware not just of bones, muscles, and structure (as in yoga) but also of all kinds of other internal things. Here's a fairly complete list, starting with a few that are closer to normal yoga.

  1. When I'm relaxing on the floor at the end of a yoga session, I like to find different parts of my body by focusing on them and “listening” to the signals they're sending out. Fingers, for example, are easy … I can find any one of them by the pulse of blood in the fingertip or the feel of air moving across the skin. Toes are harder … the big and little toes are easy enough to find, but it takes some work to isolate the other three. I've never been able to find my hamstrings at all … if I could, I think it would help with touching my toes.
  2. As I find things, I like to imagine them relaxing and opening up, or even filling up with a fizzy light-blue liquid, as I explained in In Other Contexts. I'm not sure what that does, physically—increases blood flow, most likely—but I'm pretty sure it's not entirely disconnected from reality. It's especially nice to relax the eyes that way.
  3. If, when I'm done relaxing, I extend my fingers very slowly, I can feel the tiny discrete steps as the tendons (or whatever they are) on the palm side stretch out. First they creak as they get a bit longer, then they pop as the muscle fibers unlatch and slide past one another. (There's not actually any sound that I can hear, “creak” and “pop” are just reasonably descriptive words.)
  4. I enjoy being aware of the extent and range of motion of my limbs (kinesthesia). I like to catch leaves as they fall, and bugs as they fly. (Mosquitoes, fruit flies, and moths are easy; houseflies are hard.)
  5. I also enjoy being aware of my position within a known space. Inside my apartment, I know just where everything is; I can walk around in the dark without running into things, or walk right to a light switch and turn on a light. (And, returning to the previous point, I can flip a light switch up or down gracefully with my big toe, albeit not in the dark.)
  6. I'm more aware of my weight and momentum than I used to be … playing ultimate (frisbee) has helped with that. But, even years and years ago I'd already discovered some ways to make use of momentum, ways that are still pleasing to me.

    The first way applies to hiking. Suppose you're hiking down a fairly steep trail, and you come to a large rocky step that you don't want to jump down because the ground below is slanted and gravelly, hence slippery. Sometimes there will be an intermediate step, and you can just step down; but sometimes the intermediate step won't be level enough to stand on. If the step happens to be tilted toward you, well, that's when you can make use of momentum. All in one motion, you step forward with one foot onto the intermediate step, push off the step face with a force normal to the surface so that there's no slipping, then step backward with the other foot onto the ground. So, that's the basic idea. The same idea applies to all kinds of other situations, notably upward steps, but the example above is how I always think of it.

    The second way applies to crossing ice that's not quite level. If you launch yourself onto the ice at a fast walk, in a slightly uphill direction, and take little steps to keep your feet under you, not exerting any sideways force, you'll travel to the other side on a nice parabolic trajectory. Of course, I wouldn't recommend trying that if the ice leads off the edge of a cliff or anything.

  7. I like to make use of the momentum of other things as well. I like throwing things in the trash from a distance, sending them on their way and seeing them go where I told them to. When I have to turn a corner while carrying a suitcase, I enjoy letting the momentum of the suitcase pull my arm away from my side and back, so that the suitcase travels in a smooth arc. I even used to enjoy the motion of car doors … I liked to get in and out quickly so that I could let the door swing all the way open, bounce against the hinge, and then close by itself. (I wouldn't recommend trying that at all, it's too easy to catch your fingers or toes in the door.) There are lots of other examples, those are just some of my favorites.
  8. Speaking of physics, another thing I like to do when I'm relaxing on the floor is pay attention to gravity and think about how I'm stuck to the side of a big ball of dirt and rock.
  9. I've been blurring the line between internal and external here, I know, but let me blur it one more time and then I'll be done. The traditional five senses (sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing) are exactly on the line; they translate the external world into internal sensation. I am keenly aware of all of them! Of course, some are more powerful than others … sight (vision) has by far the strongest effect on me, with touch and hearing perhaps a distant second and third. (By the way, over the past few years I've become convinced that on average, smell and hearing are more powerful for women than for men.)
  10. Speaking of vision, over time I've learned how to unfocus and refocus my eyes without changing where they're pointed. Partly that's a result of an eye exercise I did for a while, in a futile attempt to improve my vision … I liked (and still like) to unfocus my eyes and then snap them back into focus, to keep them from getting lazy. And, partly it's a result of looking at lots of stereograms and playing the 4D maze game I wrote.
  11. Sometimes people like to call this or that kind of internal awareness a sixth sense. I don't think that's useful … there are lots of things that could be called senses, e.g., almost any item on this list, so if we started numbering them, where would we stop? The twenty-ninth sense, being able to tell that your bladder is full? The five senses may be a bit arbitrary, but at least they're easy to keep track of. (Sometimes the different kinds of internal awareness are lumped together and called proprioception … now there's a fancy word for you!)

    But I digress … I was supposed to be talking about the sense of balance that comes from the inner ear. I'm only slightly aware of that. I have pretty good balance, but it's mostly visual. For example, I can't balance for long on one foot with my eyes closed.

  12. I'm much more aware of the temperature sense provided by the skin. I like the warmth of warm air, of sunshine, of hot pavement on bare feet, of a closed car on a sunny day. The creeks here come from snow melting in the mountains; when I get close to one I can feel the air suddenly get colder. When my skin gets warm, I can feel it expand and open up; when it gets cold I can feel it contract, with less blood circulating. I can control that to some extent … as I said above, if I imagine a thing expanding and opening up, sometimes it does, and gets warmer to boot.
  13. Like anyone else, I can tell when I'm tired physically, and need to rest. I can usually tell when I'm tired mentally, and need to sleep or nap, but I don't always respond correctly … often I'll end up doing something mindless like web surfing even though I'm tired, not getting anything out of it, and not getting any less tired. (I've touched on aspects of this idea before: recognizing tiredness in Deliverables, mindless watching in Routine, and not getting less tired in the conclusion to Not Enough Time.)

    Recently I've noticed that when I go inside after being out in the sun, I get sleepy-tired in a completely different way … tired biochemically, maybe. I don't know what that's all about. I like to imagine that it has something to do with production of vitamin D in the skin, but I don't have any reason to believe that's true.

  14. In the same way, I can tell when I'm hungry or thirsty. That's not as trivial as it sounds! It's easy to ignore whether you're hungry, and eat for other reasons … because it's time to eat, because you're bored or under stress, because the food is there, because you're supposed to clean your plate. Restaurants are particularly troublesome. The food is there, I've paid for it, and I hate to see it go to waste; but often it's enough for two complete meals. If I'm near home I'll save some as leftovers, but if I'm traveling it's a real dilemma. What I aspire to do is to follow Bankei's plan.

    … when I feel hungry I eat, and when I feel thirsty I drink.

    (That's from The Real Miracle, and is also mentioned in Long-Distance Driving.) For example, when I go to an Indian buffet I eat a lot, because it's yummy … but then I hardly eat anything for the next day or so, because I'm not hungry. By the way, when you're eating, it takes some time to realize that you're full, so it's helpful to eat slowly. I eat more slowly than almost anyone I've ever met … not intentionally, that's just how I turned out.

  15. Even better, I can tell not just when I'm hungry, but also what I'm hungry for. I think that sense developed out of years of having to choose what to eat at home and at restaurants, i.e., having to think about what would hit the spot. Now I don't have to think about it as much … I just immediately know that I'd like something salty (or whatever). I completely sympathize with the proverbial pregnant woman who craves pickles.

    What different kinds of things do I get hungry for? Sometimes I want something acidic, like coffee … that's good for digestion after a large meal but is harsh on an empty stomach, and will make you hungry. Sometimes I want the opposite: something basic, like milk. Sometimes I want some salt (Gatorade and the like are interesting here), sometimes sugar or protein. I can sort of tell when I want some caffeine. Strangely, sometimes I think I want carbonation, independent of caffeine, but that might be purely psychological; I have no idea whether carbonation has any physical effect. The same is true of chocolate. Recently I've been learning to recognize what it feels like to be dehydrated; eventually that will tell me when I want some water.

    I talked about many of the same things in Long-Distance Driving.

  16. I like to think that it was my attempts to become aware of the details of how a hiccup occurs that led me to discover my cure for hiccups.
  17. By paying attention to what happened in my ears (or rather Eustachian tubes) when the air pressure changed in an airplane or on a high mountain, and by experimenting, I learned how to yawn in a particular way that makes my ears pop. I've never had any trouble with air pressure since.
  18. Once I had a sinus infection. I was awake all night for several nights because of the pain, but I wasn't awake enough to do anything useful, so I took the opportunity to become aware of my sinuses. The infected one had some fluid in it; by tilting my head I could move the fluid here and there and feel the extent of the sinus. I tried to figure out where the outlet was, and whether there were any muscles I could move that would expand and contract it … I'd read that most sinus infections were caused not by foreign bacteria but by native bacteria multiplying in the unusual humidity of a closed sinus, so I thought if I could open the outlet, and let some air in and some fluid out, I could cure myself. I don't remember exactly what happened, but eventually it got better, and I'm in no hurry to have a second opportunity.
  19. I try to be aware of the circulation of blood, but it's tough to get a handle on it. I can feel my heart beat, of course. If I concentrate, I can feel the slightly delayed pulse in my neck, arms, and fingers. I know that when I raise and lower my arms, the blood flows out and back in; I can feel that, sort of. Similarly, I know that when I stand up quickly, the blood flows into my legs, giving me a head rush; I can certainly feel that! And, just in the past year, I learned (from my current instructor) that I can stop the head rush by tensing my leg muscles for a second or two after I stand up.
  20. I've never understood about insulin and blood sugar … I should go read about that again, I think it would help me to understand things. Right now, all I know is that after a large meal I can feel the blood rush to my guts, and then soon afterward I get sleepy, in a different way than from sun or bedtime. Rarely, maybe three times in my life, I've experienced a really interesting effect: if I'm tired and hungry, and I drink some orange juice or grapefruit juice, sometimes I can feel a kind of shock wave of energy propagate from my stomach all the way out to my fingertips. I think that must be related to the special role of citric acid in metabolism.
  21. Over the past few years I've learned to recognize the twitchy feeling that comes from eating or drinking too much sugar. It's unpleasant to wait it out; I prefer to walk around or do some push-ups to burn off some of the sugar.
  22. I can't say that I know what caffeine feels like, since there's no particular sensation I can point to, but I do know that since I turned thirty or so, having a coffee or soda after 6:00 will keep me up at night. Somewhere I read that caffeine reduces blood flow (to the extremities). I never noticed that until recently, but this past winter I was very aware of it.
  23. I'm fairly familiar with what alcohol feels like, but I don't have much to say about it; it's not part of everyday life for me the way caffeine is. I certainly like the feeling of warmth that alcohol produces in the skin.
  24. Speaking of chemicals in the blood, one of the things I'm fairly proud of is that I know what adrenaline feels like. It feels like … anger! If I'm almost in a car accident, or if I'm woken up at 3 AM by noisy neighbors or a loud car stereo, pow, I'm full of adrenaline! It takes about an hour for the effect to wear off, for me … so if I've been woken up, there's no point in trying to go back to sleep; I might as well get up, go deal with the noise, then find a nice book to read. Also, I won't claim to speak for everyone here, but for me, adrenaline doesn't just feel like anger, it is anger; the two are two sides of the same coin.
  25. The last thing I want to talk about is goosebumps. First, just so everything is perfectly clear, let me tell you what they feel like to me: for two or three seconds, the hair on my head, neck, and arms stands on end, little bumps appear, and there's a tingly sensation. Goosebumps are traditionally caused by creepy things like a cold breeze, or a bug crawling on the back of the neck, but nowadays for me the main thing that causes them is music. Without the creepy associations, the tingly sensation is actually quite pleasant! There are four or five pieces of music that give me goosebumps reliably; there are even some written words that do it, such as the passage I quoted at the end of the essay Understand. In fact, I can almost give myself goosebumps at will by replaying the sounds (or words) in my mind!

    Somehow or other, I'd gotten the idea that goosebumps had something to do with endorphins, but a quick look around on the web doesn't seem to support that hypothesis. For what it's worth, here's what my dictionary has to say about endorphins.

    Any of a group of hormones with pain-killing and tranquilizing ability that are secreted by the brain. [END(O)- + (M)ORPHIN(E).]

    Wouldn't that be fun, to be able to generate those at will?

As you can see, there are many interesting things to be aware of! There's even one more thing that I didn't mention, a thing supremely interesting to be aware of, and as internal as can be: the mind! Of course, that counts as mental awareness, not physical … but don't be fooled by the words, the mind and the body are not completely distinct. If you're angry or sleepy, for example, is that a mental event or a physical one?


  See Also

  Long-Distance Driving
  Notes on the History Block
  On Biking
  On Caffeine
  Walking Barefoot

o June (2004)
@ May (2006)