Proprioception could be defined as body awareness, the ability to feel our body and how the parts of our body relate. Learning to consciously proprioceive is simply a matter of putting the awareness in the right place within the body so that you can feel what is happening while doing some rhythmic repetitive movement slowly and smoothly.
An extension of proprioception is learning to feel how our body relates to the earth when we shift our center of gravity relative to our foundation. Where information on relationships and changes in relationship within our body is signalled by changes in tension, information on how our body relates to the earth can be signalled by changes in pressure. While both are important I focus a bit more on perceiving pressure changes in Yoga Balance Poses.
In this article the focus is on sensations that are created by tension (or it's lack.)
To develop conscious perception their are two main steps.
It should also be noted that this is a recursive process. We can continually refine our conscious proprioception.
At the same time we can refine our ability to consciously control our body.
When coordinating actions across time, it helps if everyone uses the same clock and to that end, a group of soldiers each with individual tasks synchronize watches so that they carry out their tasks at the right time.
In a similiar way, it helps to have calibrated instruments when trying to do really accurate work, say in the engineering or scientific world.
Using a Torque wrench as an example, torque wrenches have some sort of dial or indicator to show how much torque is being exerted on whatever is being turned and tightened.
If a torque wrench hasn't been calibrated, then there is no guarantee that the torque that is shown on the indicator actually matches the torque that the wrench is outputting.
During calibration a torque wrench is tested using a known quantity and if the torque shown doesn't match the torque produced the indicator is adjusted until it is.
And rather than just testing at one value of torque, for a wrench to be properly calibrated it will be test throughout a range of torque values.
In the same vein, I remember in one of my first chemistry classes our teacher taught us how to always gaze and the measurements of a beaker from the same angle to eliminate parallax error.
The point here is that if measuring instruments need to be calibrated so that what they indicate matches the actually quantity being measured, then this same process should be used so that our perception of what our body is doing actually matches what our body is doing. This can be easier to do if we focus on individual parts of the body.
The main tool that I use for first teaching people how to feel their body and then calibrate what they feel is isolation.
For learning better proprioception (conscious proprioception), isolation is (in my experience) an essential technique or element.
It is through isolation that the brain can easily identify sensation or whatever it is that we are are trying to learn and then calibrate it to the related movement.
My main reason for using this technique is because it is fast and efficient.
I use it when teaching myself, and then when my students have problems learning a movement I use it to make learning a new movement or posture more effective.
I think one of my first conscious experiences of self learning through isolation was in a Japanese Calligraphy class.
(I started of learning Japanese Calligraphy, and then moved on to focus on Chinese Calligraphy, in part due to the fact that I moved to Taiwan.)
The teacher gave me the symbol for peace to try and copy.
Instead of trying to paint the whole character and repeating the process, I focused on two brush strokes, (or three), repeating those strokes so that I could focus on their relationship to each other.
Then I'd focus on the other two strokes. Then I'd put them all together, again noticing relationships so that I could replicate them effectively.
My teacher then gave me another character and told me to do with it what I had done with the character for peace.
The same technique can be used in learning to feel the body (as well as control it.)
Instead of trying to learn a pose all at once, break it down into clearly defined elements, the bodies equivalent to brush strokes.
To learn brush strokes I practiced them over and over again.
To learn a body element create a movement to help learn to feel and control that element and practice that movement until you can feel it and control it.
(And if you have difficulty, or its too easy, then change the movement.)
After learning to feel a movement element in isolation the next step is to then gradually integrate the learned sensation into larger and more challenging movements.
(Here again, movements can be combined and re-combined in different ways. Find combinations that have a sense of flow. When you flow in one combination, then try a new combination, one that perhaps previously you found too difficult and see now if you can find the flow.)
Now why bother learning to feel the body? Why learn conscious proprioception?
By itself, proprioception is only one half (actually, one third) of the whole picture of body movement.
The compliment or other side of the coin from proprioception is control... (or perhaps I should say, "Conscious Control").
This could also be thought of as "responsiveness."
As a systems engineer, I spend some time working with control systems.
Apart from the hardware and software at the heart of the system (the "brains" so to speak) the two most important elements were devices for sensing what was happening and devices to help control or vary what was happening.
In a gas plant, actuators, or controllers, could be used to open or close valves to varying degrees.
In turn sensors could be used to determine how much stuff was flowing.
And ideally the idea of opening or closing a valve was to change the amount of stuff that was flowing (or not flowing).
Sensors told us how much stuff actually did flow and then controllers could be used to vary the amount of flow until it matched the desired flow.
(And at some point there would be a calibration process for both the sensors and controllers.)
With just sensors we could only see or sense how much stuff was flowing without actually be able to do anything about it.
With just controllers we could increase or decrease flow without knowing by how much or how little we we changing the rate of flow.
With both we could sense how much stuff was flowing and we could choose to change the amount of flow via control devices.
What is the point of having sensors and controllers?
So that we can create the desired change or maintain a desired state despite whatever changes are happening "externally."
Conscious perception and conscious control allows us to feel our body and control it.
We can then choose to use these abilities in movement or stillness to improve the quality of both while keeping our body injury free. Even at a beginner level, if all we do is improve our ability to feel our body, we can learn the signals that indicate the potential for injury and either stop or modify what we are doing.
We then learn practice being responsive.
There is a third element that is, (I feel) important to understand when learning to consciously proprioceive and control the body.
That third element is knowing what it is that we are trying to do.
Knowing is like an idea or intent. It is what we are trying to make real: the shape of a yoga pose or a movement or series of movements. It is through proprioception and control that we take an idea or intent from the world inside our head (the imaginary) and via our body make it real. And just as in learning to sense the body can be made easier if we break the body down into elements and learn those elements little bits at a time, so too can a yoga pose be broken down into elements for easier learning.
Knowing the "definition" of a pose, we can then work towards moving the parts of the body into the desired relationship.
But what if we can't feel our body and/or aren't very good at controlling it?
Then the yoga pose can be a means of improving conscious proprioception and control.
But not the way they are traditionally taught.
As an example, say we are trying to learn the yoga pose warrior 1 (while learning to feel our body at the same time).
Here's a quick look at the shape of the pose as a whole.
Basic Definition of Warrior 1:
Front shin vertical, thigh level, back leg straight, back foot turned out, both feet flat on the ground, torso upright, hands up over the head, elbows straight, hands touching.
This definition leaves some room for interpretation and can also be adjusted. Think of it as a starting point for learning the body. And since the goal is learning the body, as opposed to trying to force it into a shape that it isn't capable (yet) of doing, we can adjust this definition.
Rather than trying to teach all of the elements of this pose all at once I often like to focus on isolation exercises that teach the necessary elements of body awareness and control.
I'll go over the exact details of the exercises later on in this article but for now, one possible way to train the necessary elements of warrior 1 is to use the following exercises:
I like to start with spinal awareness first since the ribcage can then be used as a reference for moving and feeling the shoulder blades. These in turn form the foundation for movements of the arms.
If these have been learned while sitting (or kneeling) the next step would be to do the same exercises with the legs in the warrior 1 position. The focus can be keeping the pelvis and front knee stationary while repeatedly reaching the ribs, shoulder blades and arms upwards and then relaxing them downwards.
On some days I might start with proprioception exercises for the feet and ankles while in a variation of mountain pose with feet separated and knees slightly bent. ,
For the base of the pose, it may be enough to teach some foot awareness exercises for foot and ankle stability, some simple knee exercises so that it is easier to feel when the knee is straight or bent and how it is positioned relative to the foot.
Pelvic awareness has at least been touched upon already during the spinal backbending exercises.
You can skip ahead to those exercises here or read first about some principles and mechanisms for conscious proprioception and control.
One of the paradoxes of controlling posture is that the better ones posture is, the easier it is to control the body.
And so a goal in setting up any yoga pose, or action is first setting up the body so that it is easier to feel and control.
One general principle I try to adhere to that makes the body both more feelable and more responsive is that of
Interestingly enough, (well, I find it interesting) for someone studying how to design aircraft there is a subject area called "stability and control."
That deserves an article in and of itself but one quick note is that an aircraft can be designed so that it is very stable.
The sacrifice is maneuverability and responsiveness.
And so if a plane is designed to be responsive, then the pilot not only has to work to control the plane i.e. choosing direction to travel in and orientation of the craft, he or she also has to make the necessary control actions to keep the craft stable.
With respect to our bodies we can be like a pilot of an aircraft that isn't stable. We can make the necessary control inputs to create stability as well as to control the direction or action of our bodies.
With a better ability to feel and control our body, we can use that sensitivity and controllability to create stability, space and relaxation.
All of these are things that we can learn to control and learn to consciously perceive (so that we know our body is responding to our "control" efforts.)
And the reason for creating stability, space and relaxation is that these in turn make it easier for us to feel our body and control it... with less effort.
In my own teaching endeavours I sometimes focus on space and relaxation first and worry about stability later.
To that end I'll often start with seated poses because stability isn't such a large critical factor.
However, if I start with standing exercises, say if my focus is on balance to begin with, then I'll focus on stability and relaxation and worry about the creation of space later.
In both cases, what I tend to work on is either:
Both types of movements can be turned into rhythmic movements and as they are repeated what we can tune in to are the feelings of creating space and the feelings of relaxation. With enough experience of these two extremes we can then explore the realm between them, finding a balance between relaxation and the creation of space.
Note that the creation of space has a couple of roles.
Where practice is required is finding the balance between too much space or too much relaxation.
With too much space we may actually create excessive tension or take the part we are moving to the edge of its range of motion.
Where the creation of space may rely more on connective tissue tensioning, the creation of stability may be more a result of muscular tension.
Here too balance is required. Too much stability (i.e. opposing muscles working against each other) may be tiring and wasteful and can also deaden proprioception of parts of the body outside the contraction of muscle. Too little muscle action may mean that stability isn't actually achieved.
As just mentioned, two main types of tension that we can learn to feel are
Large muscles with larger/thicker muscle bellies or numerous closely grouped muscle bellies are easier to feel than thinner, smaller or sparser muscle fibers.
Since the muscle action of smaller muscles is difficult to feel what we can instead learn to feel is the tension in the connective tissue that is created by their activation.
In general, the key to improving proprioception (In my experience) is to repeatedly vary tension, whether it is muscular tension or connective tissue tension.
With muscle tension movements can be used that turn muscles on and of. If done smoothly and slowly enough and if the practitioners attention is directed to the rough location of the target muscles they may then be able to discern the different sensations that occur as the muscle is activated and then relaxed.
An example in the exercises that follow is learning to feel the spinal erector muscles activating and relaxing when the spine is bent backwards (spinal erectors active) and then the back bend is released (spinal erectors relaxed.)
With connective tissue tension, movements are again used, but instead of focusing on the muscle being used (which may be too small or too thin to perceive) the focus is on the movement of the bones and any change in sensation that accompanies those movements.
An example of this is feeling the ribcage as the spine is bent backwards and forwards and noting the sensations in the chest and ribcage as it lifts and lowers.
A general tip on creating connective tissue tension is to work on creating space, make the body "feel big" or "expansive." (But not too expansive.)
Below are some of the basic conscious proprioception exercises that I used during my classes.
The basic technique that I use to train conscious proprioception is to use movements that create changes in sensation, which in turn is generated by changes in either muscular tension or connective tissue tension or both.
Generally these two extremes can be created and moved between by creating space (which generally also creates tension) and then relaxing (which releases tension.)
Changes in tension can also be created by moving between stability and relaxation.
One of the basic exercises that I use for experiencing changes in tension is bending the spine backwards and then relaxing (explained below.)
This can also be turned into a very basic breathing exercise, particularly for those having a hard time breathing.
However, rather than focusing on the movement of the breath (into the body and out of it), for conscious proprioception I tend to focus on feeling and controlling the muscles and bones that create the movement of breath.
One exercise that can be practiced at the beginning of any yoga class (particularly when there are lots of beginners) is lengthening the spine and then relaxing it.
The spine is a difficult body element to learn to feel and control but we can work towards feeling the spine by first learning to feel and control the ribs relative to the pelvis and the head relative to the ribcage.
We can then use this as a general action within any yoga pose, including warrior 1.
So that we don't have to worry about stability we can start in a seated position and practice bending the spine backwards and forwards.
Actually what we can start of with, since the spine is too big and too general (it has 24 vertebrae after all) is the sacrum and the pelvis.
Generally the sacrum moves with the pelvis and we can start of by lifting the sacrum and then lowering it.
This moves the pelvis, rolling it forwards and backwards, and if the ribcage is kept upright it also causes the lumbar spine to bend.
(Later on we can get into moving the sacrum relative to the pelvis, at the same time "shape changing" the pelvis.)
Generally I teach the sacrum first because it's a handy reference in a lot of movements where the pelvis is involved and it's a lot more specific than "tilt the pelvis forwards."
What I find for myself is that with enough practice of this exercise it is easier for me to sense the location of my sacrum. (Other proprioceptive exercises may have helped.)
The pelvis is a difficult mass to perceive or even imagine, but the sacrum being close to the surface can be easier to identify.
However, even if not, what is more important is the movement that lifting and lowering the sacrum generates.
It causes the lumbar spine to bend back and forwards which in turn activates the spinal erectors in the lumbar area when the spine is bent backwards.
By bending the spine back and forwards the lumbar erectors turn on and off again repeatedly and if the movement is smooth enough and slow enough and if awareness is directed to the lower back, which is just above the sacrum, the practitioner can learn to feel the spinal erectors activating and relaxing.
A lot of teachers seem to teach this very same exercise on all fours or while laying on the floor (locust pose.)
I'd argue that the upright position is better since we spend most of our time upright anyway.
This feeling, the feeling of the spinal erectors, can be consciously magnified to increase the back bend of the lumbar spine.
Body weight is generally enough to cause the sacrum to sink (and the pelvis to roll backwards) without any muscular effort. Instead the focus can be more on a gradual relaxation as the sacrum sinks downwards.
The goal of this exercise is to learn to lift and expand the ribcage, but to get there I find it easier to start with "feeling" the sacrum, and then from there the lumbar spine, and then from there to expand the movement to include the thoracic spine.
Generally what I try to get my students to do (and I'm not always effective in explaining or teaching this) is to carry the feeling of the lumbar spine bending backwards up into the thoracic spine.
If you've got the feeling of the lumbar spinal erectors contracting then carry the contraction up into the thoracic spinal erectors.
Often I find some students retracting their shoulders to assist in bending their thoracic spine backwards.
If that's the case and they can't do otherwise then I'll do an exercise to help them learn to feel their shoulders then invite them to do the spinal back bends without using their shoulders.
And that's cool because shoulder awareness is an important element in warrior 1 anyway.
Continuing with the spine and ribcage, after some time bending the thoracic spine backwards and then relaxing the next step is I to focus awareness on the front of the ribcage, the chest.
What happens to the chest when the thoracic spine is bent backwards?
It moves upwards, away from the pubic bone. And it expands or opens meaning the ribs slide relative to each other in such a way that the volume within the ribcage increases.
From there the instruction can now be lift the chest (bend the thoracic spine backwards) and lower the chest (bend the spine forwards.)
Generally I find that people often have difficulty lifting and lowering their chest straight off the bat and so it is easier to start with the sacrum, the lumbar spine and then work on the thoracic spine and ribcage.
Since the ribs attach to the thoracic spine any movement of the thoracic spine will affect the ribcage.
This doesn't mean that every time I ask students to lift their ribs I also want them to bend their thoracic spine backwards.
But at a beginning level when I'm first trying to teach conscious proprioception, it helps to work on bending the thoracic spine backwards in order to open the chest.
Now often I don't talk about the breath.
Instead I have them smoothly and slowly bend backwards and forwards, and if they work on this the breath naturally follows since this action naturally increases and decreases lung volume.
And so the movement teaches them breath control via learning to control the muscles and bones that drive the breath.
Students thus get a taste of learning to feel their breath by feeling the movements of the muscles and bones that cause breath in the first place.
Too further exercise some of these same muscles, a further exercise while seated could be a simple seated cross legged twist, either using the arms to help twist the lumbar and thoracic vertebrae relative to each other or using the intrinsic muscles of the waist and ribcage to do the twisting.
Depending on the level of the students and my own teaching focus this can also be an exercise in conscious proprioception.
As a way of learning to activate the paraspinalis muscles, the smaller muscles that work between adjacent vertebrae, I could have them move their awareness up their spine, one vertebrae at a time, and working on twisting the current vertebrae relative to the one immediately below.
To make this exercise more effective I'll have them count vertebrae, five for the lumbar, five for the lower thoracic, seven for the upper thoracic and seven for the cervical spine. If by the time they've counted upwards for the five lumbar vertebrae they end up somewhere in the middle of the upper back then it's a hint that they can make smaller jumps as they move up their spine.
Generally, when I'm on a roll, this phase of conscious proprioception learning goes quite well.
The movement actually feels good and so I don't have to keep on telling people what to do.
The next step in working towards warrior 1 is the arm lift.
For the arm lift I'll teach shoulder blade awareness first, generally spreading and then relaxing the shoulder blades.
This can be done with the ribcage expanded, then once they can consciously perceive and control shoulder blade protraction (or the feeling associated with protracted shoulder blades) then I have then sequence the two actions, first lift the ribs then spread the shoulder blades.
This can be followed by a lifting of the arms forwards and up while keeping the shoulder blades protracted.
Note the importances of knowing what we are trying to do.
The actual technique for teaching shoulder and arm awareness doesn't matter if we know that the goal is to get students to be able to feel the movements of their shoulder blade relative to their ribcage, and to get them used to feeling their elbows and fingers and ribs and pelvis.
Knowing what we are trying to do we can devise simple exercises to get students to feel the relevant part of the body.
What is important is slow and smooth movement with a focus on the part that is moving (or with a focus on where ever there is a change in sensation as the body moves.)
Once a basic movement has been grasped, then get them doing the same movement slowly and smoothly while focusing their awarness on the part that is moving.
Another exercise that I use for conscious proprioception is to have students lift one arm. This can be done while sitting or standing.
I'll have them lift the shoulder moving it upwards, towards the ear (upwards but not inwards), then feel the elbow and straighten and then feel the fingers and straighten them, then feel the ribs and lift those away from the pelvis.
For people who have difficulty I'll hold on to their hand and gently pull up then gently relax.
These movements might start of rough and abrupt. But once the basic movement is understood, then the focus can shift to doing the movements slowly and smoothly.
While sitting or standing I'll then have students lift both hands, slowly reaching up, then slowly and slightly relaxing, and then repeating the action.
In a class setting I may teach the base of warrior 1 first, the legs, then do all of the above proprioception exercises while they hold the leg position.
So now, what about the legs?
For the legs, I'll have students stand with one leg forwards.
The first action can be to square the hips to the front. Since this is an action often repeated I probably wouldn't drill it. But if I see a regular student doing the movement abruptly I'd ask them to do it slowly.
The next step is to bend the front knee while keeping the back knee straight and the back foot flat on the floor.
This can then require a further separation of the feet so that the shin is vertical while the thigh approaches the horizontal position.
Sometimes I might have students bend the knee first and then square the hips.
Then I suggest moving the back foot so that the foot, knee and hip are all in a comfortable position.
Rather than restricting them to a prescribed foot position I'll have them move the back foot inwards or outwards, rotate it outwards or inwards and during those actions they should be able to feel the position that is most comfortable or least uncomfortable.
One simple exercise I might have students doing prior to setting up for warrior 1 is to rock back and forwards on the feet while paying attention to the feelings in the feet.
General instructions might include rocking forwards till the toes naturally press down then rocking back till the toes relax. Then I'll ask them to hold the forward position and note the general feeling in the feet compared to the weight shifted back position.
The general consensus is that the foot feels more active when weight is forwards.
Again, if the movement is done slowly and smoothly it can be easier to consciously perceive the gradual changes in foot tension. However, just changing positions may be enough for them to detect the difference and as a result not only perceive the difference between and active and relaxed foot, but then be able to press the front of the foot down to activate the foot.
They can use this action in warrior 1 as way of stabilizing the feet.
Adding the upper body actions, the instructions might include unbending the front knee slightly and then bending it again just to become more knee aware.
Then the instructions could be to keep the knee still and the pelvis at the same height while the ribs and arms are lifted and then lowered so that as the arm are lifted the upper body including the arms lengthen upwards and then lower down while the pelvis remains relatively fixed.
Depending on the level of experience, this can be the end of warrior 1, or they can hold the final position with hands either separated or together.
Then, for more advanced students the focus can be on making smaller movements within the pose, a gradual lengthening and then a gradual softening, so that the pose, and the body, have the appearance of breathing.
Equally important in this is the work of the mind. During the lengthening the phase the mind can be focused on the idea of lengthening upwards. Then during the relaxing phase the mind can be focused on sinking downwards And at the end of each phase both the body and the mind can smoothly change direction like the ebb and flow of waves coming ashore.
Do the isolation exercises need to be performed every time prior to warrior 1?
No. Ideally, once you've got the hang of feeling the relevant parts you can get on with feeling your body and controlling it.
To make it easier to feel your whole body, what I sometimes teach as an intermediate step is the body scan. This can be done in any order that makes sense to you, but generally it involves focusing on a body part, say the feet, for a breath, then moving your awareness to the next body part, say the knees, after a full breath cycle. Or, inhale and feel the feet, exhale. Inhale feel the knees. Exhale. Inhale feel the hips and pelvis, exhale etc.
Another approach is to feel the entire body and notice any areas of excess tension or slackness. Focus on those areas and add or subtract tension as required them zoom out to feeling the whole body again.
After enough practice you may then find that you want to refine your awareness. And so then you might go back to the spinal backbending exercise and choose to focus on feeling the individual vertebrae. Or you might choose to focus on the shoulders and focus on different muscles of the shoulder area.
For poses that are totally different from what has been practiced or experienced before the same general methodology can be used, break the pose down into basic actions, work on conscious proprioception for isolated elements then gradually integrate so that the whole body can be felt and controlled in the full pose (or some modified version of the full pose.)
The nice thing about conscious proprioception is that the awareness and conscious proprioception practiced in one exercise can be carried into other similiar exercises.
Also, it doesn't matter what a students level of strength or flexibility is, they can still learn to feel their body.
And one of the reasons that I focus on conscious proprioception is that it can then make it easier to improve flexibility and strength.