Isn’t it amazing that on any given day, we can multi-task walking down the street while chatting with a friend and drinking a cup of coffee at the same time? And most of the time not trip while doing so? Maybe you’re thinking, “sheesh, that’s a piece of cake. That’s nothing compared to rubbing your tummy and patting your head!”
Okay, well both of those activities actually require a pretty nifty feat of coordination on our part. You just might take the ability for granted – at least when you’re in your younger years. I’m talking about Proprioception, or body awareness. It’s like a sixth sense, as it informs the body of where your limbs and your torso are in space. It lets you know consciously and unconsciously, for instance where to place your feet as you’re walking up the stairs without having to stare intently at every single step.
The word proprioception is [derived from the latin proprio “self” and capto “to grasp” and was coined by Charles Sherrington (1964).]1
Part of my job as a teacher is to observe alignment both in static posture as well as dynamic movement. I help my clients perceive when, say, one shoulder is higher than the other, or encouraging relaxation if they are inadvertently tensing their neck and jaw when doing an exercise that is really meant for the lower body. The Pilates method calls for attentiveness to form so that there is no wasted effort or undue tension.
The starting point for anyone’s form however, begins in the individual’s perception and negotiating their center of gravity in space. Try this:
Balancing with Eyes closed
Standing in front of a mirror with your feet parallel and hip distance apart, toes pointed directly forward. Allow your arms to dangle by your sides without touching your body. Close your eyes and notice what you feel.
Where do you feel weight distribution in your feet? On the outside or inside of your feet? In the forefoot or the heel? Do you feel like the weight is sort of scattered differently on one foot vs. the other side? Or do you sense that you are bearing more heavily one-sided?
Beyond the feet, do you feel like you’re holding in your ankle, locking out your knees or gripping your glutes as a strategy to stand upright?
Keeping your eyes closed the entire time, take about 60-90 seconds (use a timer if you like) to make your observations, focusing internally. Note these observations to yourself or write them down. You’ll want to compare these observations later or from one day to the next.
Closing the eyes turns off a major sensory organ that we rely on for balance and proprioception – sight. Keeping your hands away from your body also removes the help of touch, and forces you to truly focus on how you are sensing your place in space.
The exercise is to quiet your mind and hone in on your
ability to connect to that innate sixth sense.
Typically we all feel some kind of imbalance, and certainly there is always room for improvement. Heightened proprioception is a common trait in performance athletes, professional dancers and the like. But don’t count yourself out, because as Stephen Covey might say, like with Habit #7 – it’s definitely a skill you want to keep sharp.
Balance and gravity is sensed by the vestibular system in the inner ear. And while proprioception has been thought to be transmitted from muscle spindles, recent science has discovered that there are millions more nerve endings sending information to our system via our connective tissue  – also known as fascia.
Believe it or not, the skin on the bottom of our feet in particular provides a TON of information to our nervous system. [With an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 exteroceptors in the sole of each foot, your feet are among the most nerve-rich parts of your body.}3 So, the feet are a great place to start when it comes to improving proprioception. Check out these 3 sets of exercises
Revisiting Your Best Foot Forward This is from a previous blog and describes the ‘Short foot’ exercise, essential activation in the muscles that comprise the arch of your foot, and relates to the video below.
Short Foot Single Leg Squat (youtube, 1:25). I am a huge fan of podiatrist, Dr. Emily Splichal. She takes you through this and includes the reference to the Short foot. Then there’s the further challenge of executing it on a single leg squat, which ties functionally to an effective firing in the glutes.
After you’ve tried one or more of those exercises mentioned above equally on each foot, repeat Balancing with Eyes closed and notice what differences you’ve made. Acknowledge the positive change and shift in awareness that you’ve accomplished! Now with eyes open, and if you feel ready, try some of these other challenges to keep you sharp:
1) Stand and balance on a single leg with the other knee bent – maintain your hips level and avoid locking your knee. See if you can do that for 30-60 seconds. If that seems pretty easy, then add
2) Closing your eyes while doing the single leg stand and balance – use a timer and shoot for as much as 30 seconds.
3) Start as with #1 above, with eyes open. Reach your arms out to the side like “helicopter arms” and try doing an upper body twist while you keep your hips still and your leg grounded.
Soon you’ll be a “Pro” at improving and maintaining your proprioception.
See you in the studio!