Sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing are our five senses. We are told, with science backing it up, that people with a missing sense, whether it be eyesight, touch, hearing, smell or taste, tend to have their other senses enhanced. A popular example is blind people who are said to have enhanced the rest of their senses in the absence of their eyesight. What remains unspoken is the need for a conscious, mindful and deliberate effort to unlock these potentially enhanced senses. It’s almost like having the genes with the potential to excel but not putting in the effort to express them.
Even though it’s not mentioned in the five senses, ‘feel’ can be considered the sixth sense. It works independently of the other senses but at the same time is also a combination of all of them. ‘Feel’ is very important for blind people in their lives. Those of us who have all our senses working absolutely fine take it for granted and do not appreciate that life is very different even when any one of these senses is absent. And, blissfully enough, we lack ‘feel’ too.
Now, I am no guruji and I don’t want to sound too self-important either. It’s simpler than you think, but at the same time, a lot more difficult than you would expect it to be. I encourage you to consciously, mindfully and deliberately switch the five senses off, and go by the sixth sense, i.e. feel. This way you’ll be able to deliberately enhance your ‘feel’.
Since I had missed my run on one day in the last week, I decided to jump on the stationary recumbent bike at home. This bike is an acquired taste, as for the longest time I used to hate stationary bikes and advised patients against using them. I had a preconceived notion about them without ever experiencing them – a syndrome that we all tend to suffer where if something doesn’t match our philosophy, where we dismiss it as useless and even harmful. At least, that’s what we think.
My preconceived notion stemmed from the assumption that one couldn’t exercise while almost lying down because unlike a regular stationary bike or a spinning bike, a recumbent stationary bike offers a laid-back position for your workout.
In any case, as soon as I got on the recumbent bike, the display didn’t turn on. Rather than getting irritated, I thought of it as a blessing in disguise as I could focus on myself instead of the numbers. I smiled and decided to close my eyes. That’s one sense taken care of.
I first tried listening to an audiobook before switching to an Arthur Jones (the founder of Nautilus, Inc and pioneer of High-Intensity Training) lecture on YouTube that I had been listening to earlier, but something didn’t seem right. I wasn’t able to focus on either cycling or what was being said. I then put on my favourite playlist on Apple Music but switched that off too as it was a big distraction. Hearing, my second sense, now felt off as well.
In this situation, my senses felt dulled except for the sense of touch which remained active. This is why, while I was pedalling away, I decided to focus on three things.
First, breathing, which is something that we often take for granted. I started to take in long deep breaths over 4-5 seconds, hold my breath for about two seconds and then breathe out for 4-5 seconds again. In about a couple of minutes, my breathing had settled down and I was no longer obsessing about breathing at a certain pace.
Second, to close my eyes and start scanning my whole body, becoming aware of each and every body part, one at a time. I soon picked up that my rib cage was constricted and that my left leg wasn’t moving as freely as my right one. I had been holding the handlebars tighter to compensate for it, but I was able to exert more force from my left leg.
Third, I focused on reminding myself to relax my body and focus on the muscles engaged in cycling. This simple act helped me relax not only my shoulders, my back and my legs, but also my tense grip. I even unclenched my teeth. The immediate reaction was a natural and unforced smile. More than being happy, I was simply at peace.
In about five minutes, I was on autopilot, cycling at my peak pace (which felt like 40 kmph), without feeling breathless or getting tired. I was in a state of zen. I kept up a good pace, without knowing any numbers as the display wasn’t working, but it didn’t matter. And at all times my eyes were shut. I simply connected with myself, who is also someone we have taken for granted and don’t have the time for.
A couple of days after that, while I was out running, I followed the same protocol. While running, obviously, I couldn’t close my eyes for long. So, I would close my eyes for about 5-10 seconds each time after checking that there was no traffic and that I was on a straight road without any speed breakers or obstacles.
This is something I have asked folks who have run with me to do, but the usual response is that they are scared, even though I would be right next to them and they would be aware of their surroundings. Another trick I use is to make people jump on the spot or use a skipping rope with their eyes closed. Try this, and you’ll find a part of yourself that you weren’t aware of.
Coming back to running with ‘feel’ – similar to while I was on the stationary recumbent bike – my breathing soon settled down, and I was moving seamlessly. I had decided not to check Strava, the digital-physical exercise tracker app, on my phone to track my speed as I was consciously making an effort to not focus on picking up speed.
When I halted at the two kilometres mark, I checked the app to find out I had covered the distance in just under ten minutes. I could hardly believe it! (Please note, the numbers I mention are relative and what’s easy for me, could be hard for you, or vice versa.)
At the five kilometres mark, the act of running felt a lot smoother but upon checking the app, to my surprise I had been running even faster. I decided to follow the same rule of not checking the phone for the next five kilometres, and guess what? The same thing happened again.
Nowadays, five minutes per kilometre is not as easy for me as it used to be a few years earlier, but here I was, trying to run at a relaxed pace and still my speed kept increasing. What was the thing that was working for me while I was cycling or running in this manner? It wasn’t me trying hard, on the contrary, I was trying to relax. I was simply going by the ‘feel’, something we don’t do much of.
When I was in medical college and used to look at slides through a microscope, I was taught a simple lesson by Dr Krishnanand, my pathology professor, “You can only see what you know.” I try to impart this lesson to people who run with me, helping them to improve their running form or get rid of an injury. Most people just don’t know enough and assume that they do.
Firstly, people might get scared when they close their eyes while running because they are introduced to the unknown even though they are still aware of their immediate surroundings, but once they overcome the fear of tripping and falling, they begin to appreciate what their body is doing, how they breathe, how heavy their feet land, whether they run in a slouched manner and whether they are too stiff while running.
Bob Bowman, coach of the legendary swimmer Michael Phelps, with 23 Olympic gold medals to his name, realised very early on that Phelps was no ordinary swimmer. Unlike Mr Miyagi from Karate Kid, Bowman’s coaching was the real deal. He started by giving outrageous challenges to Phelps. As the story goes, at one of his first national junior meets in the US when Phelps was 13, he had forgotten his goggles in the team’s sitting area before walking over to the blocks. Bowman noticed this and could have taken the goggles to Phelps, but thought that he needed to learn to be more careful to deal with adversaries. Phelps won the race without goggles.
This particular training came in handy when during the 2008 Olympics, only 25 metres into the race, his goggles filled up with water and he couldn’t see a thing. But he was relaxed as this wasn’t new to him. Bowman had made him practice this many times during his training. He ended up winning the Olympic gold medal and breaking the world record even though he was blind for 175 metres of the 200 metres fly race.
Whether it be mere mortals like any of us or legendary swimmers like Michael Phelps, there is a lot to learn for all of us by going by the feel.
As for me, please ignore the numbers I have mentioned above. You’ll have your own. Don’t become a slave to them, let them only be guides, and that too when you want. Think about breathing, relaxing and being at peace. Once you do this, it’ll surprise you what you are capable of doing. This is what coming back to your senses is all about.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal