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.