Finding Your Place in Space

Recently I heard a story about a meditation teacher addressing a class.  He asked his students to demonstrate how they feel space. Immediately every student raised their hands into the air.  The teacher laughed.  He said, “You don’t need to put your hands in the air.  You are already feeling space.”  Think about it.  Space is all around us.  And not just outside our bodies, but inside our bodies also.

Your body’s ability to sense its position in space is part of what we call “proprioception”.   The term also refers to recognizing the relative position of each limb in relationship to other parts of the body as well as the environment.  Proprioception is important in all movements of the body since it enables us to know where our limbs are in space without having to look.  When I teach chair exercise classes and ask participants to move their feet, everyone looks down.  This always makes me smile.  For most of us, our feet will move whether or not we are watching them.  But somehow we feel the need to help them along by looking.  I often ask my yoga students to close their eyes when standing in Mountain Pose and bring their feet to a parallel position.  Then I’ll ask them to open their eyes and see how they did. Surprisingly most do pretty well!  This demonstrates the ability to sense the position of one’s feet in space and each foot in relation to the other.

Of course, this is not true for everyone.  People with certain neurological conditions may have difficulty with proprioception.  It is also one of those senses that tends to diminish with age.  Several years ago I read a book called “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain researcher who had a stroke.  While she was actually experiencing the stroke she was somehow able to marshal her knowledge of how the brain works and recognize what was happening to her.  The book describes her experience both during the stroke and in recovery.  As the stroke was happening, one of the indicators for her was that she became unable to distinguish where her body ended and other objects began. Every time I trip over something I think of this.  Even though I see the object and should be able to get around it, somehow I lose my ability to recognize where my body ends and the other object begins.  Thus we collide.  As my husband would say, “No – you’re just clumsy”. Point taken.  But I still prefer the other explanation.

Any of you who have ever had nerve damage to a limb will know that one of the goals of physical therapy is to restore functional mobility.  In an article discussing proprioception in physical therapy, author Brett Sears, P.T., describes how different nerve endings in your limbs relay information to your brain about the relative position of your limbs and the direction and speed of movement.  This process enables us to move in space without actually watching the movement.  Think of yourself walking.  Generally, you can move your arms and legs in space without looking at them and also usually manage to keep them from bumping into each other.  When this communication between brain and limb is disturbed, it needs to be retrained if possible.  Most of us understand the need for practicing balance, but proprioception is equally important.  The two senses work together to help us move efficiently.

So how can we work on improving proprioception?  One way is to create balance challenges.  Try standing on one foot.  You may notice that your standing foot starts to wobble.  If you pay attention you may recognize that the part of your foot that is wobbling changes minutely from moment to moment. This is your body adjusting to subtle shifts in your center of gravity.  For example, perhaps you are also moving your arms or maybe without even realizing it your body is tilting forward or back.  As these changes in positioning occur, your proprioception abilities are called upon to help you stabilize.  You will probably not be surprised to learn that both yoga and Pilates help to train your senses to respond to the constant changes occurring as you move through space in normal everyday activities.  These and other mind-body disciplines help practitioners to develop awareness of their bodies in space and the space in their bodies.

Moving through space requires more than just internal control.  We need to be aware of gravity and other forces that impact movement like momentum, uneven surfaces, and elevation changes as well as obstacles in our path.  Pilates in particular focuses on strengthening from your core or center.  Exercises help you to stabilize the center and move from there.  The concept of “oppositional lengthening” is emphasized so that movements from the center are balanced in all directions.  This does require attention and practice.  But as you learn your own body’s individual idiosyncrasies you begin to train your body to become better at making those subtle adjustments enabling you to move more easily through space.

Learning to move from our center can help in other ways as well.  We all know what it’s like to feel “off-center”.  This is usually a sign that we are stressed and losing balance in our lives in general.  Thoughts become scattered and unfocused.  Even routine activities can seem overwhelming.  Our mental muscles and nerves begin to lose their ability to adapt to changing experiences, internal and external.  This can easily translate into physical discomfort as well.  Fortunately, mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates can also help with these feelings. Breathing practices can help bring us back to our center, reminding us of what is really important in our lives.  Coming back to our centers and retraining our brains to adapt to shifting energies both internal and external can help us restore balance and ease as we move through space and through life.

Advertisements

Choosing Assistance

There are times in all of our lives when we need a little help from our friends.  Yet some of us have a hard time acknowledging that.

Last week I was talking with a friend who was commenting on the struggle she was encountering with some home repair projects she was trying to complete on her own.  Any of you who have attempted something similar, especially after the loss of someone you relied on to do these things, will recognize the dilemmas these tasks present.  It can seem like an overwhelming chore looming over you like a black cloud. You find yourself succumbing to the procrastination mantra:  I’ll do this when ________.  Fill in the blank with any mythic event in the nebulous future that will somehow enable you to handle this on your own.  As we talked, we both wondered why it was so hard to accept that sometimes you just can’t do everything all by yourself.  And, in fact, there are times when it is better not to even try.

Our culture has ingrained in us this mythical idea that self-sufficiency is the ultimate noble goal.  We need to be strong and face all of our challenges by ourselves.  This concept seems to be in our national DNA.  In fact, our society carries it to such an extreme that we get upset with people who we perceive as “not carrying their own weight”.  You can see this in the current debates raging around us, particularly when it comes to social services.  Policies are built with rules that will prevent the “undeserving” from obtaining services.  This means that arbitrary moral judgments need to be made about who is or is not deserving.  Sometimes following those rules is so daunting that even the “deserving” can’t get access to services.  Thus everybody complains and nobody benefits.  Somewhere along the line we have lost the sense of community and common good.  Or worse, our sense of community has become so distorted that only certain people are allowed to join.  If they don’t meet the requirements they become outsiders, not worthy of our generosity or even compassion.

This scenario may seem extreme, but I think you all know what I mean.  Still I can hardly profess to having the answers to all of the world’s problems.  One thing I do know, though, is that we can all do a better job of accepting our own limitations.  Sure we’ve all heard stories of people overcoming impossible obstacles to achieve some amazing goal.  Those stories can be inspirational.  But too often we forget that these are the exceptions, not the rule.  When we find ourselves unable to accomplish similar feats we can easily become discouraged, focusing on perceived inadequacies rather than recognizing that we, too, each have our own amazing skills.  Instead we withdraw into our safe little cocoons afraid to let anyone know that we might not measure up to the impossible standards we set for ourselves.  And – yes – we impose these standards on ourselves.  You can try to blame outside circumstances, but ultimately we make our own rules for acceptable behavior.

Let’s all engage in a little thought experiment.  Look back in your own life and try to find at least one achievement or experience you have had in which you accomplished something that you didn’t think you could do.  My guess is you’ll find something.  Probably more than one thing. We have all faced struggles and challenges.  Chances are, too, that each of these has been a learning experience. This is something that the “vulnerability expert” Brene Brown talks about in her speeches and writings.  Her message is that even though we think that putting on a brave face is what is expected of us regardless of how we feel, it actually takes more courage to acknowledge that not being perfect isn’t a measure of self-worth.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the program “On Being” Ms. Brown said, “the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn’t know I could get out from underneath. . . the moments that made me were moments of struggle.”

So needing help on occasion doesn’t mean inadequacy or even failure.  What it means is that each of us has certain gifts, but no one is always good at everything.  We can fall into the trap of thinking that other people have it all figured out, but somehow we missed the boat.  We are obsessed with perfection.  Interestingly, though, perfection itself is in the eye of the beholder.  There is no hard and fast definition of perfection that works for everyone.  I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition: “an impossibility, something unattainable, something that cannot be reached..ever.”  Even the Cambridge English Dictionary defines perfection as “the state of being complete and correct in every way”.  Does anyone know of any person or thing that meets that consistently meets that definition?  Of course not!  And yet somehow we expect it of ourselves.

Here’s another thought experiment:  think of all the times when you have helped someone else.  Usually, you feel good about helping and give your assistance freely.  You feel glad that you were asked for your help.  Why not spread those good feelings around?  When you ask for help you are giving someone else the opportunity to experience those good feelings.  So instead of feeling needy, you can actually feel altruistic.

All of this can, of course, relate to my favorite topic – exercise.  Sadly, I still hear people say that they don’t want to come to a class because they are sure everyone is going to point and stare and laugh because of their inability to be perfect.  There are, of course, many flaws in this viewpoint not the least of which is that everyone starts somewhere and even people with innate abilities were not born experts.  All attempts, no matter how rudimentary, are opportunities for learning.  So give the people around you credit for their willingness to support and help you along your journey, wherever you are on that path.  Accept their help at whatever level it is offered. You might be surprised to learn that none of them is perfect either.