Updated: Mar 3
Close your eyes and bring your two index fingers to touch in front of you. Did that work out for you? If so that is your proprioception in action. Proprioception has been called our "sixth sense" and that goes beyond talking to dead people. It is not something that links us to the spirit world or gives us the ability to read minds. It is actually something quite different. It is our ability to sense how we are positioned in our environment so that we can control our movement and preform the simplest to the most complex tasks.
I found out about proprioception while on an endless journey to learn more about our bodies and how they function. Studying movement and anatomy has opened up my mind to understand that so much sensing happens inside of us that goes beyond our conscious radar and without these internal sensors sending information to our brains our movement would be a disaster.
When I finished my formal yoga teacher training and started teaching I realized that I knew very little about cueing movement or really anything about anatomy or kinesiology that was accurately grounded in reality. So I started to dig deep into my own research on anatomy and movement. I listened to countless podcasts from yoga teachers, researchers, and movement and anatomy specialists from around the world. I read blogs, articles, studies and reviews I spent hours turning pages of books, reading with an undying thirst to learn more. I also took multiple online course on yoga, anatomy and biomechanics. Studying anatomy consequently led me to fascia and its mind blowing intricacies.
A couple years ago I stumbled upon a pivotal book that has profoundly informed my teaching: Yoga Fascia Anatomy and Movement by Joanne Sarah Avison. It was while reading this book I discovered the word proprioception. In her book Avison vividly explains proprioception as "the sense that tells us where we are in space at any given moment, feeling the cup we lift to drink from and the amount of energy it takes to place it accurately and sip; making tiny subtle negations as the volume goes down and we put it back on a surface... Fascia is referred to as our organ of organisation and its proprioceptive qualities are subtle and extensive. In yoga it is essentially the sensing of every part of us, in any given pose, relative to every other part and the mat. It speaks the instinctive language of movement because the body literally senses where it is and what it does all the time, regardless of our ability to analyse it intellectually." Avison also explains that "'Proprio' comes from the latin word proprius, meaning 'one's own', and 'ception' comes from perception. So the translation of proprioception is one's own, or self, perception. Innate to the term is its meaning as a sensory feedback signaling system."
So what really is proprioception and why does it matter? Jill Miller from Yoga Tune Up is one of the biggest fascia nerds I have encountered yet and spends her time teaching people how to get into self massage as an act of healing, self care and body awareness. In her book The Roll Model Miller says: "This body sense awareness is called proprioception. Your body relies on proprioception to move through space in a coordinated way; it's like an inner GPS system to help you navigate your way through your own tissues and the world around you. Proprioception exists because of specialized nerve endings peppered throughout your body. These nerve endings are found deep in joint capsules, in the surrounding muscles, in the multiple fascial layers within muscles, and in the fatty tissues underneath the skin."
If proprioception helps us to move through space in a coordinated way, does that mean that a lack of proprioception would potentially cause us to be a lumbering klutz? Probably. Proprioception is an internal sense and we have other internal senses as well such as the vestibular system (think balance and movement) and interoception (perception of self from the inside). With proprioception we have sensors in our body that detect pressure, stretch, force etc and transmit messages through our nervous system to the brain to inform us where this is happening. Simply stated proprioception attunes and refines our movements but is quite complex (as are our all systems of the body). Without getting too technical it is safe to say that with poor proprioception we tend to get off balance easily or might have a problem accidentally hip checking people or objects as we walk by. Also lack of proprioception can show up as clunky awkward and spatially unaware movements. Some of us might think I am naturally a clumsy person" but proprioception is something that you can train. Movement and meditation are great ways to train proprioception. Which brings me to yoga.
Asana in of itself helps with proprioception. It is ingrained in the practice because it leads us into mindful movement that is seeped in self awareness and incorporates a meditative mindset. One big reason is we usually practice barefoot which gives all the nerve endings in the soles of our feet an opportunity to feel the surfaces below them. There are plenty of balancing poses to choose from in asana, and single leg work can be helpful in bringing in more proprioception and the bonus is that, again, we are barefoot. Also and more importantly yoga asana is meditative and brings attention back to our deeper self. It allows us a moment in space to reconnect with our bodies, breath and life source. One way to take improving proprioception a step further in your practice is to practice asana with your eyes closed, to go slow and pay attention to the movements of your body without letting your eyes get involved.
When we practice with curiosity, enthusiasm and focus we are better able to be present with ourselves without forcing or pushing too hard. With a consistent practice of yoga asana or any mindful movement we train and fine tune parts of ourselves that we didn't even know existed. So we might find more balance and grace. Our bodies are so complex and in that complexity our minds have very little conscious access to all of the intricate systems that are constantly working to keep us alive and functioning. It is not easy to pay attention to things we cannot see but that does not mean that we cannot improve and fine-tune parts these parts of ourselves that are hidden from the lens of our everyday awareness. And of course that goes much further beyond proprioception. The physical practice of yoga is just the beginning, it is a gateway into much deeper realms of connection that without a steady practice we might never discover.