by Kayleigh Miller
In the yoga and fitness space, there is an abundance of advertisements of “yoga for back pain,” “yoga for shoulder strength,” “yoga for weight-loss,” and a wide range of other objectives. Out of curiosity, I’ve been following research on pain management and specific movement modalities, including yoga, Pilates, weight-training, walking, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, and other practices. Although I know from personal experience that all movement yields many benefits for the human body, the research-based conclusions are often lacking in evidence for this.
When modalities are pitted against each other, i.e. yoga vs. weight training, or Pilates vs. physical therapy, there are rarely all-encompassing conclusions that one practice is superior to the other. This makes sense, as it heavily depends on the teacher, the student, the condition, the level of fitness, the specific practices, and many other factors. Yet, within such inconclusive evidence lies a common thread: that awareness-based movement practices yield enormous benefits in both pain management, movement efficiency, and whole body wellness.
The tricky thing in cultivating awareness and enhancing proprioception is that everyone responds differently; for some, it may happen via yoga or Pilates classes, and for others, through more subtle practices, such as Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique, or manual therapy. Essentially, developing proprioception (awareness of one’s body in space) is key to changing the way you move throughout the day, especially when working with an injury, area of overuse, underuse, or pain. As a professional musician, I also find this particularly interesting—musicians are often unaware of what they are doing with their body in space as they play, especially if they play in pain.
How does one develop enhanced proprioception and bodily awareness? The Merriam-Webster definition of aware is “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge.”
An essential piece of this awareness puzzle is the body map, also known as cortical map, in helping our bodies direct our actions efficiently and accurately. We create such cortical maps in response to the movement habits we adopt, which may be task specific, sport specific, or a response to a lack of movement input. Musicians, for example, will most likely have a more developed awareness (and body map) of their fingers and hands, whereas a dancer will have heightened awareness of their feet, legs, and ankles.
To enhance or expand a cortical map, one must move in a diverse way, but the movements must be controlled, slow enough to be coordinated, and with a relative amount of ease, at least to start. If someone is just beginning a weightlifting practice, they need to start with lower weights, lower repetitions, and slower movements as they begin to acquire movement awareness, and then over time, the tasks become easier, the brain and body are more able to execute the task, and weight can be added, as well as complexity of movement. The same is true in learning the initial postures of yoga- start slow and progress gradually. It can also be extremely helpful to learn about some of the basic anatomy of the body too!
Todd Hargrove, a Feldenkrais instructor, rolfer, and author, writes eloquently that, “of course, not all movements are created equal in their ability to stimulate the body maps. Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the maps are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful.”
In addition, lack of movement will limit the brain’s ability to map the body, as will pain (nociception). Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls are a great way to enhance your proprioception prior to a movement activity, while decreasing signals of nociception within the body’s mechanoreceptor system. Yoga asana, breathwork, and meditation are also a part of this- interoceptive practices of the breath and mind can further aid the body.
Despite the benefits of yoga, be courageous and get out of your comfort zone- engage in creative, non-repetitive movements more frequently, whether in the context of a new fitness class, dance class, or sport, which will not only challenge your muscles, soft tissues, and bones, but give your brain a chance to move in new ways, with new awareness.
Kayleigh Miller, a recent addition to the San Antonio Symphony viola section, enjoys a varied career of performance, teaching, and yoga instruction. As a yoga instructor, she initially trained with David Vendetti and Todd Skoglund in Boston, and has completed additional trainings in working with children, anatomy, and modifying a yoga practice for cancer. With over 500 hours of training experience, she is committed to learning as much as she can to support her students. Kayleigh currently teaches workshops throughout the greater San Antonio area.For her personal website, click here.