Our first brisk fall morning. Do I really want to go for a walk when it’s 43 degrees? (Pause) Well, want isn’t the right word, but I know I’ll benefit so I dig out the thermal running gear and as Grandma Nike says, “just do it.”
Cold air hits my face, my breath feels thankfully warm, and I start to get in my body, feeling my limbs loosen with each rhythmic step inside my shoes. Soon I notice the changing landscape and enjoy the bright sun. I “hear quiet,” less sound, fewer distractions. I am waking up—not just from sleep, but from my lack of awareness. From the imbalance that marks modern life, the swing that goes from numbness to overdrive.
The impact of the last year and a half can leave us numb, “stuck” in thought and action. But we can also find ourselves supercharged by trying to create yet another new normal or because the constant barrage of news, demands on our time and attention, and even the happy busyness of life keep us spinning in all directions. Through it all, we are “losing our senses”—our capacity to feel, and to manage sensory input. We are losing our sense-ability.
The senses—what we taste, smell, hear, see, and feel through touch—are avenues of awareness and connection. From perceiving the outside world to understanding our inner world, the senses help us navigate life and our place in it. In balance, they help us to enjoy richer experiences (think good food eaten slowly or beautiful music) and to flow more intuitively between the moments in our days. Out of balance, our senses lead to stress (from reactive multi-tasking and constant notifications) or dis-ease (a bloated stomach from mindless eating or a hopeless outlook from over ingesting news).
Regaining our sense-ability starts by gently awakening the senses. When we look, are we really seeing? When we hear, are we listening with discrimination? Do we really feel the breath we take, taste the food we eat, and notice the smells around us?
Try this five-minute exercise to awaken your senses. Sit comfortably; lower your gaze or gently close your eyes. Hear these words as though you are being guided. Leave time between prompts to breathe, releasing one sense before moving on to the next. When done, slowly open your eyes and come back to your surroundings:
“What do you taste (lingerings of toothpaste or the morning coffee? . . . )
What do you smell (perfume or exhaust from a nearby car? . . . )
What do you hear (birds chirping or the faint hum of the overhead lights? . . . )
What do you see (light behind your eyelids or an image in your mind’s eye? . . . )
What do you feel (the seat of the chair or warmth of your breath? . . . )
Take a few minutes to release all the senses, come inward, and just breathe.”
This awareness exercise helps sharpen our acuity. By focusing on each sense, we remember and activate more of its full power. To feel fully alive, we need awakened senses, as I experienced on that brisk morning walk.
Regaining our sense-ability also requires us to manage our sensory input because what we let in of the external world leaves an imprint on our internal world. Coming inward during this exercise balances our breath and nervous system and returns us to a truer version of ourselves. This is the practice of Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga. Defined as withdrawal of the senses or gaining mastery over external influences, pratyahara is the link between yoga’s first four (outer) limbs and last three (inner) limbs. We practice pratyahara when we tune out the external world; when we choose how and when to respond to sensory stimulation, so we are not controlled by every email ping, graphic image, difficult conversation, or commercial for the biggest burger.
Regaining our sense-ability has practical application to our work. Artists are sense makers. We are in the business of creatively sensing and helping others to do the same. We need keen awareness to shape the sound and experience we desire but will always be challenged by external factors that can take us off center and launch us into panic mode or leave us numbly staring into space (what’s your default response?). Know yourself, know what you need, and come back to your senses. And teach your singers to do the same.
Time to regain our sense-ability. To be and to share our wholly, wonderfully human selves.
Dr. Ramona Wis is the Mimi Rolland Endowed Professor in the Fine Arts, Professor of Music, and Director of Choral Activities at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois and the author of The Conductor as Leader: Principles of Leadership Applied to Life on the Podium. Dr. Wis is a 500-hour CYT (Certified Yoga Teacher) with training in yoga history, philosophy, meditation, energetics, pranayama (breath work), anatomy, Sanskrit, and the teaching, sequencing, and adaptations of asana (posture-based) practice. Reach her at:
Check out these guided sense meditations:
A good read on yoga’s fifth limb, Pratyahara: