Proprioception, or our 6th sense “helps us keep track of where our body parts are in space.” Go ahead, close your eyes, lift your left hand, and touch your nose. The ability to know where your nose is located without having to see your hand or your nose is proprioception.
Similar to being able to walk without looking at the feet, for most of us, these actions come naturally. However, some people lack proprioception. Drugs and alcohol can also inhibit proprioception.
The ability to move our body and limbs in space without looking at them relies on sensory nerve endings located in our muscles, joints, and skin.
You might have heard this concept taught as body awareness in yoga class. However, using a specific scientific concept can change the way you can incorporate body appreciation in class.
Proprioception: Closing the Eyes and Limiting the Gaze
In yoga, our gaze helps us focus. Gaze also provides stability and guides the body. You’ve probably heard this cue: “look where you want to land” when jumping forward. The gaze helps you land where you intend to. Another example, the gaze lets you deepen a twist pose. We usually cue this by encouraging students to look past the shoulder towards the direction of the twist.
With proprioception, we rely less on the gaze, one of the five senses, to position our body in space. Instead, we rely on our 6th sense, our proprioception. We purposefully have to feel where our body is in space.
In short a class centered on proprioception will incorporate closing the eyes during transitions mostly. However, it can also apply while holding poses.
In all my years taking yoga classes, I have only come across proprioception as a theme once. I remember people in class talking about it after and appreciating this newfound knowledge.
Here are ways to incorporate proprioception in class.
Instead of explaining proprioception, let students experience it without realizing.
Sit in a comfortable position. Close the eyes. Extend your hands out to the sides palms open facing the front of the room. Gently cover your eyes with your palms.
If standing, have students close their eyes, and place the right foot in front of and in line with the left. After the task is complete, you can then briefly talk about proprioception or our 6th sense, our ability to sense where our body parts are in space.
From downward facing dog, have students close their eyes during step transitions. Such as placing the foot in between the hands for Warrior One. It’s important to not let students jump with their eyes closed for safety.
Make sure to encourage students to slowly move and feel where they need to land. Also, if your class has a couple of sun salutations, ask the students to observe if their aim gets more accurate over time. Acknowledge the feeling and the results without judgment.
For transitions from downward dog to lizard lunge, have students place their right foot on the outside of the right hand. Repeat on the other side.
Start in tadasana or mountain pose. Place hands on the hips and close the eyes. Lift the right leg, bend the knee and place the knee as close to the chest as possible. Now, extend the leg and hold. Repeat on the other side.
Standing poses where you can have the hand on the floor are a great way to feel proprioception. These poses include triangle, twisted triangle, side angle or the twisted version. Just make sure that since the transitions happen with the eyes closed, keep it slow.
Cue forward fold or paschimottanasana with proprioception in mind.
Close the eyes. Extend the legs straight in front of you. Raise the hands straight overhead, palms facing each other. Lean forward into paschimottanasana.
We probably rely on gazing at the feet to see how far we usually go in this pose. For today, having the eyes closed lets us feel how far our body can actually extend. We might even find that getting used to the gaze as a measure of how far we can go can be limiting.
Final Thoughts on Proprioception
Body appreciation starts from the most basic and what can seem natural for most of us. Incorporating proprioception in a yoga class, lets us feel the amount of work our body does for us, constantly and beautifully.
I find that practicing handstand develops proprioception. We rarely are upside down balancing on our hands. And that is part of the challenge of the pose, understanding how to feel balance in an unfamiliar position. Learning handstand as an adult, I felt how my body started to develop awareness in space while upside down. In the beginning, I didn’t know where my hips were or could even tell my right leg from my left. But awareness slowly developed.