Art in Action: 4 Ways to Strengthen Proprioception

4 ways to strengthen proprioception
Art in Action is a weekly post: a short, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.

Proprioception is our body’s ability to sense itself in space and time. Watching Ian, a man who lost his proprioception, move in the documentary The Man Who Lost His Body, I was struck by two things: the brain’s ability to learn and change (sometimes called “plasticity”) and the amazing grace and ease of normal human movement.

Through determination, hard work, and consistency, Ian was able to regain most movement he needed to function. But in order for him to do even basic things like walking through a store and picking up a turnip require him to concentrate, focus, and plan each piece of the movement. Watching his story gave me renewed appreciation for the actions that most of us do automatically.

Cases of lost proprioception are rare but they invite us to truly appreciate the miraculous way our bodies move and give us the choice to pay attention to the secret sixth sense and do what we can to strengthen it. Awareness of proprioception can improve balance and grace and help avoid injury.

Here are 4 ways to bolster your secret sense including some little guys to show you what I mean (Remember, it’s not about being able to do the most advanced version, it’s about finding the balance in your body between challenge and ease/breath. Hint: if you can’t breathe, you’ve gone too far. Focus on excellent form over forcing to go to the next step.):

1. Standing Balance

The balance triumvirate of proprioception, vision and the vestibular system (inner ear) allow us to balance. Working together, the three allow us to walk along a crowded, uneven sidewalk or even just across the room. Strengthening balance strengthens the body’s sense of itself in space which helps increase stability and gracefulness and decrease the chance of injury. Here’s a simple graduated standing balance series (when you can do any of these for 30 seconds without falling, move to the next step):

proprioception standing balance– Stand with feet together
– Stand with feet together and closed eyes
– Stand on one foot (do both feet since balance is often different side to side)
– Stand on one foot with one eye closed
– Stand on one foot with both eyes closed (you can also do the one-foot balance on the ball of your foot or lifting up and down to the ball of your foot)
– Stand on an unstable surface (like a Theraband Stability Trainer) on one foot
– Stand on an unstable surface on one foot with one eye closed
– Stand on an unstable surface on one foot with both eyes closed
Obviously, there are unlimited variations on this. The basic idea is that the way to increase your balance and stability is to take your body out of balance and stability. Play with ways of challenging your proprioception by standing on different unstable surfaces and gradually eliminating the anchor of your vision.

Theraband Stability Trainer

2. Core Balance

Much of our balance and grace comes from the strength of our core muscles. Similar to the standing series, one way of powering up the center is to put it into increasingly unstable positions:
– Table Top Three-Point Balance – From hands and knees (hands under shoulders, knees under hips, spine long and neutral) lift right hand keeping the hips and shoulders level. Then lift left hand and each leg one at a time.
– Table Top Two-Point Balance – From hands and knees, lift right hand and left foot reaching away from center. Switch sides.
– Cross Lateral Table Top – From hands and knees, lift right hand and left foot long away from center then pull knee and elbow together. Switch sides. (Variations: touch knee to forehead, do this with eyes closed)

– Side Plank – Press right hand down into the floor and stack left knee on top of right and lift hips making a long line from knees to crown. Stack left shoulder over right and look up to left hand or even close the eyes! (Variations: Balance on the edge of the bottom foot, with the top leg bent and whole foot in front of the bottom leg; stack feet on top of each other, lift the top leg!)

proprioception side plank

3. Explore Novel Movement with Curiosity

“Movements that are most likely to lead to changes in the quality of the [brain] maps [to the body] are movements that are curious, exploratory, novel, interesting, rich in sensory input, slow, gentle, mindful, non-painful.” – Todd Hargrove, Move Better blog

Experiment with new movements like the ones described above. In particular, Feldenkrais, Tai Chi, yoga and Nia are excellent choices for strengthening the mind-body connection.

4. Visualize & Imagine

“The very act of visualizing or imagining the gestural movement helps [Ian] express himself better.” – Dr. Jonathan Cole, Neurologist, from the BBC documentary, The Man Who Lost His Body

At the moment, I’m attempting to learn how to do a handstand. The act of balancing upside down gives my nervous system all kinds of opportunities reorganize and burn new pathways! (It also gives me lots of opportunities to awkwardly fall and flail!) If I take a moment before I go into a handstand to visualize what I’m going to do and where my body is going to go, it always goes better. When learning or practicing a new movement, imagine yourself doing it before you do it.

A variation on this is to do movements using visualization: pretend to toss a cotton ball, then pretend to toss a bowling ball; reach up and lift a crystal glass off a shelf, then reach up and lift a glass punch bowl off a shelf; push open a gauze curtain then push open a heavy velvet curtain. By playing using your imagination to visualize various textures of movement, you are training your proprioception for a wide range of possibilities.

Have fun with these and I’d love to hear how awareness of your body’s proprioception affects your experience!

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