by Kayleigh Miller
Yoga offers a multitude of benefits to practitioners, from improvements in stress related health issues* to improved joint movement and strength, and potential changes in behaviors**. Both yoga and other movement styles can have a profound positive effect on the relationship between the brain, the body, and the somatosensory experience.
To start with, let’s look at two words that are often used interchangeably but mean different things: proprioception and kinesthesia. According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, proprioception is “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body.” In other words, it’s the awareness of body position and location. Kinesthesia is the “sense perception of movement, the muscular sense,” meaning an awareness of how movement is performed.
Proprioception is the result of sensory input throughout the body (skin, fascia, muscle, joint receptors), which then sends feedback to the spinal cord and brain.
Kinesthesia, however, is more behavioral in origin and your body is more actively involved in assessing movement patterns and making adjustments.
In yoga and other movement disciplines, we need both our proprioceptive sense and kinesthetic abilities to execute tasks. In addition, the brain exhibits neuroplasticity, meaning that changes in nerves and synapses can occur, new movement skills can be acquired at any time, and there is potential for new neural connections throughout life, regardless of age.
As humans, we are creatures of habit, often preferring repetition and predictability to novelty, from driving the same way every day to work, to performing the same set of sequenced asanas in a class or at home. Although there is still incredible benefit to be reaped from repetition and movement, creativity is what drives the brain, kinesthetic sense, and motor learning. With every new set of movement concepts or skills, there is a timeline of growth and acquisition that can be seen in the psychological model of the “conscious competence matrix,” used in many different modalities of learning:
- Unconscious Incompetence: The student does not know or understand how to do something, and therefore does not know their own incompetence.
- Conscious Incompetence: The student does not understand how to do something, but sees their own deficits and is eager to learn.
- Conscious Competence: Student understands how to do something but is refining the movement and skills needed.
- Unconscious Competence: Student is able to execute the skill with minimal effort and ease.
Let’s apply this to a movement skill that I am still refining: handstands. When I first tried a handstand, I was convinced that I could not do one (having not done them in my youth), and had no idea where to start, thus the unconscious incompetence phase. I later started to realize the strength needed in the shoulders, although my kick attempts were clumsy (conscious incompetence). A few years later, I was able to kick up to the wall, albeit not always gracefully, and able to refine my kinesthetic mastery of the movement mechanics, thus conscious competence. I think I’m still somewhere in the conscious competence phase in regards to handstanding, since it’s not yet second nature, but we’ve all seen people pike and float into handstand with no problem, thus unconscious competence.
Let’s tie this all back to yoga asanas: after a certain point, many of the traditional yoga asanas (vinyasa, downward dog, tadasana, warrior poses, etc.) become very familiar, thus unconscious competence. We may have a remembered rote sense of what poses usually “feel” like, and thus replicate a similar felt experience each time. We may no longer think about the way we execute the pose, and may be doing the pose on autopilot, with little felt sense of proprioception or kinesthesia.
The solution? Make poses and movement new again. My favorite way to do this is with Yoga Tune Up, as it has many movements that originate outside the traditional yoga methodology, challenging the brain and body in bilateral movements, new pose orientations, and joint explorations.
Let’s look at a few exercises: the first, propeller arms, requires contralateral movement and shoulder circumduction (a movement rarely used in yoga). When most of us first try this, we had no idea this was even possible (unconscious incompetence) and are unable to make the movement contralateral and instead swing both arms in the same direction (conscious incompetence). How is this movement different from other movements? How is your proprioception impacted by the exercise? What do you feel in your shoulders? And are you able to refine your kinesthetic sense to execute the movement more efficiently?
Now let’s move to a movement targeting the spine, abdominals, lower back: sidewinder. Using a blanket on a sliding surface, this movement asks us to side bend the legs and torso while simultaneously maintaining contact between the pelvis, spine, and the blanket. This is an ipsilateral movement, but for many, this can be confused with rotation and other spinal actions, since we rarely sideband while supine. How does this pose challenge your kinesthetic sense? After you complete the pose, how is your proprioception affected? Are new areas of the body awakened?
Lastly, let’s look at a traditional yoga asana, uttanasana, and challenge our body in a new way, making the pose asymmetrical with the use of a block under one leg. For most of us, uttanasana is a pose we execute with unconscious competence throughout the course of a yoga class, but in this context, the block under the leg changes the plane of movement for the hips and spine, as well as the targeted tissues. How does changing the pose affect your bodily awareness? If this is a new movement, how was your experience of changing the pose?
No matter your movement diet, change and variability are essential for challenging the brain and creating new neural connections. Start to get creative with your practice, whether you’re a daily yoga practitioner or infrequent yogi challenge your brain and your body with new movements!
*Sharma, Monika, and Manvir Bhatia. “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Yoga to Manage the Adverse Stress Reactions at Work in Health Professionals.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
**Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga 2011;4:49-54
Kayleigh Miller, a violist in the San Antonio Symphony, enjoys a varied career of teaching, performing, and movement instruction. She is an experienced registered yoga teacher and has completed numerous additional trainings in Yoga Tune Up, MovNat, and other movement disciplines. As an instructor, she helps people to find more efficient movement patterns and prevent injury. She currently edits and writes the Musicians Health Collective, a blog and web resource bringing anatomical, movement, yoga, and other knowledge to musicians. She is also an embodied anatomy yoga instructor for the Esther Vexler Yoga School and is an ambassador for Africa Yoga Project.
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