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Learning to Feel Your Body

Working within the limits of short term memory
Learning to feel and control your body is easy if you learn to work within the confines of short term memory. Neil Keleher.

The main tool that I use for teaching people how to feel their body and then calibrate what they feel is isolation.

For improving 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.

What do I mean?


Isolation isn't moving one part of the body absolutely still while moving another part (though in some cases it could be.)

For beginners, it's moving one part of the body while focusing on the part that is moving.

It may involve holding one part of the body relatively still but not absolutely still.

More importantly it means putting the rest of the body in a position that is relatively easy to maintain so that mental effort can be focused on feeling and controlling the body part in question, the part that is being isolated.

Isolation can make Learning Faster and More Efficient

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 teaching a new movement or posture more effective.

Brush Strokes

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 focused on the other two strokes. Then I put them all together, again noticing relationships between strokes so that I could work at replicating them effectively.

My teacher was quite surprised. He could find nothing with my final character and so gave me another character and told me to do with it what I had done with the character for peace.

Isolating Parts of the Body?

The same technique can be used in learning to feel the body (as well as control it.)

In the context of a yoga pose this can mean breaking it down into clearly defined elements, the yoga pose's equivalent to brush strokes.

But even without a yoga pose for context, the same can be applied to the body in general.

To learn the body, use isolated, repeated movements and focus on feeling those movements, or the muscles that cause those movements.

(A large portion of this website focuses on isolated movements, or on focusing awareness on isolated parts of the body.)

Endless Repetition is Not the Goal, Nor the Method!

To learn brush strokes I didn't practice them over and over again.

Volumous repetition is not the goal here.

Instead, if focusing on a single character, I focus on a few brush strokes at a time till they become relatively smooth and I have remembered them.

Then I move onto the next set of strokes and repeat the process.

Then I put the two sets of strokes together.

If I can't remember strokes from the first set of the second set then I go back and repeat until I do.

In this way I can quickly learn all the strokes of a character with little effort.

Working Within the Confines of Short and Mid Term Memory

It actually can feel quite peaceful because I am working within the limits of my short term memory. I don't have to think about what stroke is next because I'm doing them from memory.

The short practice is enough that I can move what I have just practiced into mid term memory. Then I can put shorter sequences together into one longer sequence which I can then practice again, without thinking.

This is basically the process I use for memorizing the strokes of a character.

A Memorization Process That Feels Good

The cool thing is that done little bits at a time it feels quite good (really good) and then, because the character is memorized I can then practice it from memory.

If there are problems connecting a few strokes then I can isolate those strokes and practice them till the problem is delt with. Then I can get on with painting the character as a whole.

The process is repeatable for strings of characters, say a piece of poetry or prose.

And the process is applicable to learning to feel and control body.

Models in Imaginary Space

One way to think of learning is that it is the process of building "models" inside of our consciousness. In the case of Chinese characters, the process of learning builds a model of each character within my brain.

If I only focus on reading, then this model is such that I can recognize the character when I see it.

If I learn how to write the character then my model of the character allows me to recognize it when reading it and also allows me to output it.

Improving our brain's model of our body

By learning our body we can improve our brain's model of our body. To do that we can focus on first learning the parts of our body in relative isolation and then practicing them in different contexts to integrate them into the large whole.

But why isolate parts of our body in the first place?

It's like learning to drive a car, or better yet, a motorbike. To learn to ride a motorbike, one of the first things we did was push each other around on our bikes with the bikes turned off. We then learned how to use the back brake and the front brake. I can't remember how long we practiced, but we did it enought that we could use the brakes without having to think. We then learned the next thing. Learning to ride a motorbike was a process of isolating the necessary skills so that we could learn them to the point we didn't have to think about how to do them. We could just do them. What we were doing was building habits.

This same process applied, and still applies, when learning to paint Chinese characters. By breaking a character down into small parts, I could repeat those parts, those miniature sets of brush strokes until I could do them without thinking. I turned them into habits that I could then practice with other habits. I could then integrate them. And then I could improve them, learning to use them in different combinations and improving my ability to paint them freely.

This same process can apply to learning the body. The trick is picking the right degree of breaking things down and isolating them.

What is clearly definable and recognizable? Just as importantly, what can be used over and over again?

Stay within the confines of short-term memory

Perhaps the biggest point about breaking the body down and then isolating the parts to learn them is working within the confines of short term memory. If we learn within the limits of short term memory, we can focus on doing the skill instead of thinking about how to do it. We can do it repeatedly, make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. In the process, the skill we are practicing moves from short term memory to mid-term memory which means that we can practice it in combination with other skills.

Repeat a few times and the skill then moves to long term memory.

For our body, what that means is that we can learn our body, bit by bit, and in the process build up a library of skills or habits that can be used in different combinations. For each part that we learn to feel and control, we then have the ability to feel and control that part as part of the integrated whole of our body.

Going back to the motorcycling example, having learned the skills necessary to ride a bike, I can speed up, slow down, or turn, all based on whatever is happening on the road. With the body, learning to feel and control all the separate parts, we can become a better driver, or operator, of our body.

Published: 2020 08 17
Updated: 2022 02 27
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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