Established in every limb and organ, the inner purusha has entered the heart of all living beings. Katha Upanishad
The nature of self-identity is the subject of much of yoga. Recent neurological research on illusory body-swapping sheds interesting light on yoga’s ancient and seemingly esoteric revelations about the nature of identification with the body.
A couple of Swedish researchers reported an experiment in which volunteers experienced what the researchers call a “body-swap illusion.” Here’s how it works.
You wear a headset that covers your eyes and beams video feed from a small camera positioned on the head of another person or mannequin sitting across from you. If you look down you see the body of the mannequin. If you look forward, you see an image of your own body. Now you shake hands. The visual feedback is that you are shaking your own hand, and the touch sensation is of shaking hands with another person. Within a few seconds, you experience yourself as looking out from the body of the other person shaking hands with yourself. You literally feel as if you have embodied the other person. If a knife is passed over the arm of the mannequin, you feel it’s your arm and respond with measurable physiological signs of emotional arousal.
Yoga tells us the seat of the Self is the heart; and that the sense of touch, one of the five jnana indriyams, is associated with the heart chakra. Touch receptors in our joints and deep in the organs and tissues of the body, as well as the skin, tell us where we are in space, and keep us “in touch” with the body; that is keep us actively and consciously identified with the body. Stabilizing that input is the first step in deep relaxation and meditation—it frees us from the constant reminder of body experiences.
I think we also use this capacity as yoga teachers—it’s a kind of kinesthetic empathy—the ability to feel how a student feels in a posture. You look at someone in say, trikonasana, and right away you can feel in your own body the pinch on the underside of the rib cage, the rigidity of the locked knee, the tension in the neck…. Obviously there is a kinesthetic memory involved, and vision, and projecting yourself into the experience of the student’s body—a bit like the body-swap illusion experiment.
And finally, another intriguing thing about this experiment is that the volunteers experienced the illusion as “exciting” and “wanted to come back and try it again.” The urge to transcend all our limitations!