Proprioception should be a less intimidating word, but when I say it to people, they give me that furrowed brow look that says “huh?”. Proprioception is the ability to know where your body is in space in relation to other objects. It’s what allows you to walk around a dark room at night and not bump into things. But I find so many people are in the dark about where their bodies are in space. I want to bring some light to this problem, and if I do you will have fewer stubbed toes, less bumped knees, knocked heads, bruises, and overall mishaps. And if you are one of those infamous close talkers, you might find you’ll have better conversations. I can’t tell you how many times I have backed away from a close talker because I felt my personal space is being compromised, possibly not allowing me to be as attentive as I would like.
We are all pretty aware of movement. Our arm just doesn’t move randomly and without our noticing, thank goodness, or we’d all be a bull in a China shop. For the most part, most of us have refined our movements to be able to look and move like everyone else. Until you put people in yoga poses, then the truth comes out. Most people are just touching the tip of the iceberg in their understanding of muscle movement.
I am choosing to link coordination and proprioception together. But let me be clear – I am not a scientist, at least not by degree. By personal interest, I am a scientist in behavior. I am constantly testing, experimenting, researching, analyzing and interpreting my abilities. I’ve read enough to be well informed of the limits of the human body, but I like to test what I have heard and read it through my own body. Figuring that as I go, I might find some contradictions, as well as some very clear affirmations. But at least I will have developed new skill sets along the way. With every new movement, I am gaining sensitivity. It is this sensitivity that is informing me towards more graceful and coordinated actions. This sensitivity allows me to know the difference between 1 inch and 1 foot of space between me and anything else I might come in contact with.
Interestingly, I was a long jumper in high school and I think that helped me refine my skill of proprioception. If your foot stepped over the launch line it was a scratched jump. Just like if a high jumper knocks the bar with their body when jumping, it’s no good. These spacial relationship’s are a great way to learn muscle movement and just how much it can be refined. So how is it that so many people show up on yoga mats across the country, year after year, and they don’t seem to be inhabiting their body. Some people wear their body like an over size suit, just flopping it around with out any life in their limbs, almost with a sense of bagginess. As if, if it weren’t for their bones they’d fall to the floor. Then there are those people that wear their body like a suit of armor, rigid and unpenatrable. Their movements have no fluidity and they seem expressionless and motionless.
The one pose, as a yoga teacher, I endlessly become a bit saddened by is Triangle, or trikonasana. It is one of the trickiest poses for people to execute properly. As many times as I will physically place students in the best example of the pose, week after week, they still execute bad alignment. One of the easiest ways to fix this problem is to give people a reference point, something for their bodies to work with or against, that will help them perceive their body position. What I do is put them up against a wall, and try and have them make themselves as flat as possible against that wall. (There is more to it then that, but for now I’ll leave the description of triangle brief as this isn’t about triangle). This always seems to work, but the moment you bring them off the wall back on their yoga mat the pose seems to just disintegrate.
It is that word that I want to focus on: disintegrate. Or better yet it’s direct opposite, integrate. Yoga is the practice of integrating muscle movements into our perception. Yoga is a great way to work on your body feedback system. The more feedback you become aware of, the more refined your movements will become. But how to make people listen to the feedback is the question? No matter how much information and physical support I provide some students still do not execute the pose well. Maybe it’s a laziness issue or a poor health issue. But whatever the case, I can’t teach people to want what I want for them, they must want it.
The yoga sutra’s talk about a list of obstacles that will effect your development in life, your ability to integrate your perception of yourself in space as well as in behavior. Sutra 1.30 Vyadhi styana samsaya pramada alasya avirati bhrantidarsana alabdhabhumikatva anavasthitavani citta viksepah te antarayah. Translated – The obstacles that distract the mind are illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, overindulgence, illusions about one’e self, lack of perseverance, and instability. I have found you can’t really teach people to be less lazy or less careless. I have found that you can inspire caring and inspire effort, mostly by example.
This is why with my teaching style ,I will demonstrate yoga poses in a two pronged approach: I will first show them a bad example, and then start to integrate from that form right into a good example so they can see how I move my body onto different planes with different energies. I have found this to be a very useful teaching method, as more and more, I feel we are becoming a society that learns more through our eyes then we do through our ears. There are three available approaches to yoga teachers in informing their students. First is words, second should be example and third should be touch. I don’t start out with touch first, because all that sometimes happens is, I am moving them into the correct position. I’m the one doing the work, not them. When students constantly want to be adjusted it can be a sign of laziness, they want you to do the work. I will intervene only after they have tried. After they try and perceive where their body is, and what might be holding them back, then I can assist them with touch. This is where, if the student is interested, yoga will expose patterns of movement that are not always working. In this exposure, the student becomes enlightened. This enlightenment will give them greater perception, greater understanding of their body in space. which is ultimately going to lead to gracefulness, coordination, sensitivity, and integration.
This will happen on your yoga mat if you come to your practice with all the necessary tools available to you: health, alertness, confidence, concern, energy, moderation, truthfulness, perseverance, and stability. Now, if you do not have all these things at the start, then yoga’s journey should help you get all of these things. Your teacher should be inspiring and provide you with the best possible guidance. But remember, it doesn’t lie on the teachers shoulders. You must care. You must want more knowledge, more health, more energy, etc.. As my teacher says, “experience removes doubt”. The best way to get started is to get on your mat and experience inhabiting your body. Work to become more perceptive of the details, the things that aren’t always “in your face” obvious. Shine some light on what has become dull. The trade off will be fewer stubbed toes in the middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom, or fewer bumped elbows on the corners of things, and better posture, greater health, or overall a generally good feeling about your body and how you are inhabiting it.
You know that feeling when someone has put their yoga mat down too close to yours, when you feel like your space has been invaded. Well, what I want for you is to invade your body, to become more in it, and not of it, to be more connected, instead of disconnected. Proprioception is space invading instead of space evading. Avoidence is not the answer. As sutra 2.3 says Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah. Translated – the causes of suffering are ignorance, egotism, excessive attachments, unreasonable aversions and fear. Being in the dark can be scary and dangerous. Use yoga to become enlightened, to reduce your suffering and to make you very perceptive. This inward perception that you will strengthen will also deepen your outward perception of the world around you. This is illuminating, it’s like turning the lights on inside your body.
Each room in your home has a light for you to navigate it, so do your muscles. Treat each muscle like a room. You have approximately 640 muscles in your body so it’s like living in a mansion. Take care of this body that is your home. Turn on the lights, open the windows and doors so that energy can flow through. Yoga is feng shui for your body. It’s time to create good Qi. The life force is within you, go find it.