Our fitness editor explores movement through her senses, peeling back the exercise experience layer by layer.
Arch . . . and curl. I follow these directions, rolling my spine like a wave under the gentle coo of Susan Gaines, a Minneapolis-based trainer who specializes in the Gyrotonic Method, a machine-based practice composed of spiraling, rhythmic movements.
I arch my back as I lean forward, opening my arms until they can go no farther. Only then do I curl my body over itself, drawing my head down and bellybutton in — so far that it feels as though the front of my body were leading me backward, like a point in the current pulling back out to sea.
Susan presses a finger gently against my spine, prompting me to draw my tailbone under myself more deeply — accentuating my curl.
“I feel like my guts are on fire,” I share hesitantly. I’m searching for a sensory experience called interoception — a lesser-known sense that refers to the perception of internal bodily sensations — and I wonder if I’m confusing it with a simple rise in body temperature.
But Susan’s eyes light up: “I often think of it like a pilot light clicking on,” she says.
I’m on the right track, but the so-called eighth sense is hard to grasp.
When I first began exercising, the primary sense I used was sight. I watched videos, group fitness instructors, and fellow exercisers — any chance I got to study someone who seemed to know how to move. Fitness was a choreographed dance, and I was hyperaware that I didn’t know the moves. So I stared and I copied.
In other words, I was a creep — albeit a well-intentioned one.
After some time, I began paying attention to how exercises felt. My primary sense became touch, literally how the movements and implements and environment felt. This included proprioception — a deeper attunement to the body’s muscles and joints that dictates body awareness in space — and vestibular sense, which relates to balance and coordination.
As I paid more attention to feeling, my performance improved. Paying attention to my muscles boosted my form and increased my strength. It also upped my confidence. I still sought out instruction for new exercises, but I relied less on others to show the way before I was willing to move.
It was over coffee last year that Susan first mentioned interoception.
“It’s a tuning in to the nuances of sensation that we experience from our internal organs out through our muscles and skin,” she explained.
Sensing . . . with our organs?
I’d never heard of such a thing, and I immediately felt sheepish for thinking that honing my proprioceptive and vestibular skills was the be all and end all. I heard Susan’s words but couldn’t quite grasp their meaning.
Interoception is a sense that we don’t hear much about, unless there’s a problem with it — for instance, in the case of sensory-processing issues that make it difficult to sense hunger, thirst, and temperature.
As I researched it, I found a treasure trove of information, including research related to fitness: Interoceptive awareness is increasingly cited as a tool in trauma therapy and injury rehabilitation.
Susan and other experts believe honing interoceptive skills can improve athletic performance, particularly in sports that require deft movement patterns and environmental awareness, such as golf, martial arts, and Olympic weightlifting.
It can also play an important role in prehabilitation — preventing injuries.
Beyond the promise of better performance and improved resiliency, I was enticed by sheer curiosity and began training with Susan. Gyrotonic is familiar: It has roots in yoga, tai chi, and dance, and it uses machines to accentuate movement. And it’s foreign, as I seek messages from my insides.
Exploring new rhythms and ranges of motion, I feel warmed by the thought that even after all these years, there are new physical experiences for me to discover and try.
This originally appeared as “Strong Body, Strong Mind: My Eighth Sense” in the October 2018 print issue of Experience Life.