This blog post is written by Elizabeth McFaul, graduate of our 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program. Elizabeth was a long-time work-trade at the studio, and she continues to be an avid knitter, farmer’s market-goer, and Yoga enthusiast. Our trainees write blog posts as a part of their homework, and Elizabeth chose to dive deep into the movement education thread of our training.
What is proprioception?
Close your eyes and move one of your hands around in front of you. Touch your ear, then the top of your head. You are able to do this (hopefully accurately!) because of your proprioceptive system.
Proprioception is your body sense, or your kinaesthetic awareness. It is your brain’s ability to sense the relative positions and movements of your different body parts. Because of proprioception, you can sense your hand in space as you move it around, even though your eyes are closed. It’s sometimes referred to as our sixth sense or a sensory map.
Why is it important?
Your proprioceptive system allows you to make coordinated movements. It provides for body awareness, coordination, and motor skills. If we had to look at our limbs with every task, we wouldn’t be very effective. Imagine looking down every time we take a step, or looking at our arms when dribbling a ball, petting a cat, or putting things away. When we close our eyes, we still sense our body’s place in the world, relative to other items and relative to itself.
Proprioception is important for everyday tasks, but it’s essential for sports and other activities where movements involve several body parts acting in a connected and coordinated fashion. It would be impossible for a gymnast to land a backflip if they didn’t have an elite level of body sense, aware of the position of each of their limbs at all times.
What happens when your proprioception gets compromised?
Since all coordinated movement depends on your proprioceptive system, when it is compromised, simple activities like walking or standing can become challenging.
Your proprioception can be compromised by neurological disease, impairment, or pain. Pain reduces the brain’s ability to process proprioceptive information from the joint(s), because it is busy listening to pain signals instead, and the high-priority pain signals crowd out the other signals. Pain also tends to lessen movement in the injured joint, leading to less detail in the sensory map. Pain reduces movement, which reduces coordination, which can reduce movement further, and so forth.
Sensing your own proprioception
You can tune into and refine your own sense of proprioception with exploratory movements that are new, interesting, and rich in sensory input. Intention also plays a critical role, as does repetition. This is often why physiotherapy focuses on deliberate, repeated movements to help your body recreate maps for the injured area.
Here are five fun ways you can explore your sense of proprioception:
- Explore balance, especially on an uneven surface (like a foam block). Balancing on an uneven surface forces your body to make continual adjustments to stay balanced, offering a lot of sensory input in the knees and ankles. This can help your speed and efficiency in making micro adjustments to movements like changing direction, kicking, and stepping, which can prevent twisted knees or ankles in sports. The more uneven the surface, the more challenging this motion can be.
- Build awareness in an eyes-closed Sun Salutation. Start by completing a few rounds of Sun Salutation A. Try to keep yourself at a consistent pace. Then close your eyes and repeat. Are there changes to how you feel the movement? Do you approach the movements differently? What else might you notice? Closing your eyes removes that sensory input, focusing your efforts on proprioception and other senses.
- Play some Hopscotch! Grab a piece of chalk and create your hopscotch. You can play hopscotch the traditional way, or for an additional challenge, pause between each hop (around 20 seconds), balancing on one foot. Reaching for the rock changes your relationship to gravity and the dynamic movement of hopping from one foot to another challenges your proprioceptive system with things that are novel & new.
- Test your control with a Crossover Walk or a Grapevine. Try this exercise slowly, concentrating on the movements and focusing your awareness on your knees. Start with your feet a bit more than shoulder width apart, bend your knees, then cross one leg over another, taking a large step to the side. Step out so that your feet are returned to their original position, and then repeat, sidestepping like this 5-10 times in both directions. If you’d like to try a different version of this, try the grapevine. Cross one leg over another in front, then for the next step, cross behind.
- Reach and replace in Warrior 3 Block Play. Grab a block (or something similar in shape). Stand on one leg, take the block in one hand, and bend forward to place the block on the ground. Come back upright, then bend forward again, picking up the block with the opposite hand. Come back upright, and repeat. You can make this as challenging as you’d like by placing the block in different locations. Placing the block very far away, behind you, or very close to your standing leg all can add difficulty. You can see proprioception in action if you look away while you explore this exercise. Your body remains aware of the location of the block even as you aren’t looking.
What other ways can you explore your body’s sixth sense?
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