Tag Archives: proprioception

FOCUS POCUS NOTE! FocusPocus is now one complete post (art, focus, playlists and announcements) all together on Thursdays! So whether you come to the blog for the art, the information, the music or the latest happenings and offerings, you are in the right place. Every Thursday, you’ll get it all. Thank you so much for being here.

A dear friend of mine had a stroke several years ago. I love spending time with her and witnessing her courage and determination to keep her body moving and to heal. She is positive and optimistic and is grateful that the stroke happened on the left side of her brain so she is able to use her right, dominant hand. Sometimes we talk about how different her life is now. I asked her once what she missed most and without hesitation, she said, “I miss walking smoothing and being able to do things with both hands.”

So often do I take for granted my ability to move through spaces easily, open a jar of tahini, and drive my husband’s big red truck (both hands on the wheel!). Spending time with her reminds me to appreciate the small miracles my hands and feet, and in particular my thumbs and big toes allow me to perform.

As my friend points out, it’s not just one opposable thumb, but TWO that make our daily tasks so amazingly easy. Have you ever had an injury to one hand or thumb and suddenly realize what you are unable to do? I loved this piece about just that.

The thumbs are, of course, the largest finger on the hand and the strongest. It’s how we grip and pull and squeeze. It can also be where we hold tension. Right now, take the thumb of one hand and massage the big muscle at the base of your other thumb. Then give it a shake out and see if you were holding tension there.

Thumbs also are helpful in orienting the upper body. The whole hand is full of stretch receptors which are part of the proprioceptive system which allows us to sense ourselves in space. The thumb is a big part of that system that helps the nervous system to relax by knowing where we are and how to get where we’re going. The orientation of the thumb is also how we shift the orientation of the shoulder joint. You can do it right now by turning one thumb left and right with the opposite hand on your shoulder. Feel that rotation? Pretty cool, right?

Energetically, the thumbs are the nurturing finger. Think of a baby sucking its thumb for comfort and how when hands are in prayer, the thumbs rest at the heart. Focusing on the thumbs gives us a chance to mindfully choose what we want to nurture in this moment.

It’s in my yoga practice that I tend to notice my big toes the most. Balance is challenging for me but pouring awareness into the big toe helps me find and keep myself balanced. Focus on the big toe directs energy down the inside of my leg where it is most stable and roots me strong.

The big toe isn’t just about rooting down. This largest, strongest toe is also about propelling us when we walk and move. Many of us spend most of our time with our feet encased in shoes. So even if you’ve never had a foot injury, it’s likely that your feet have been in “casts” of shoes for most of your life. The restriction that happens when we are in shoes prevents the full range of motion through the toe and foot and that has surprising ramifications.

As this piece from Yoga Journal points out, big toe movement strengthens the arch of the foot and the arch of the foot is connected with the chain of muscles up the back of your leg, so “weak big-toe flexors, the muscles that bend the toe, may change the strength and effectiveness of your largest glute muscle, gluteus maximus.”

Focus on strength and mobility in thumbs and big toes ripples throughout the body. I’d love to hear what you noticed this week in your practice. Leave a comment below and we can all learn from each other!

Here are our playlists for the week. If you’d like to listen to the music, you can find almost all the songs on Spotify (you can listen for free)! As always, please let me know if you have any questions about any of the music we dance to!

There are THINGS happening, you guys! So before the playlists, here is all the details on what’s coming up!

Nourishing Movement Classes at the Studio at Dancing Water on Thursday mornings at 11am!
Nourishing Movement classes with Susan on Thursdays at 11am ~~ my mix of guided and unguided movement, meditation and creativity! Please go to for the details. Come join us in the trees by the river for grounded, flowing, spacious movement. Second Thursdays are followed by a pot luck lunch! Nourish yourself with movement and bring something nourishing to share! There is space in upcoming classes so please go HERE to sign up!
* The Studio at Dancing Water is at 2370 Old Lynchburg Road ~ detailed directions at and via email when you sign up!

Four Thursdays of Nourishing Movement Classes at the Studio at Dancing Water in February!
Let the love flow in February! Four Nourishing Movement classes on Thursdays, Feb 6, 13, 20 and 27 from 11am-1215pm for just $40. Put pleasure and movement and yourself on the top of your list. Go here to join us!

Charlottesville Climate Collaborative Plant-Based Cooking Class on Monday, February 3, 6-8pm ~ CLASS IS FULL ~ GET ON THE WAITING LIST!
This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years: I am excited to be leading a plant-based, whole-food cooking class in collaboration with the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative on Monday, Feb 3, 6-8pm at Bread & Roses at Trinity Episcopal Church off Preston Avenue in Charlottesville! We will be preparing a simple, versatile, delicious, fun, whole food, plant based meal and sharing it together while talking about easy ways of giving plants a bigger place on our plates. Our class will introduce the concept of the Buddha Bowl – a nourishing, plant-based meal that is essentially a little bite of everything. The Buddha Bowl is a one-stop shop for proteins, grains, and veggies. It’s also super versatile – break it down for picky eaters or dress it up with sauces to impress your dinner guests. You can also prepare ingredients ahead of time and then repurpose for multiple weekday meals.
Space limited to 12 participants so please register by sending an email to and submitting a $10 donation here: Can’t wait to share a meal with you!

An Extra Day To Play ~ Guest Teaching on Saturday, Feb 8, 9-1010am at acac downtown!
It always feels like a special occasion when I get to guest teach for Anne on Saturday mornings! We’ll explore music and movement, sensation and space around the courageous choice to feel good AND to tolerate discomfort! See you then.

Full Moon Restorative Yoga with Shandoah ~ Moonday, February 10, 430-6pm CLASS IS FULL ~ GET ON THE WAITING LIST (THERE ARE ALWAYS CANCELLATIONS) AND Moonday, March 9, 430-6pm!
Shandoah Goldman returns to The Studio at Dancing Water (2370 Old Lynchburg Road, Charlottesville) to continue the full moon restorative practice! The full moon is a time of completion. The fullness of the cycle lends itself to a practice of non-doing. Join Shandoah for a deeply nourishing practice of restorative yoga. Using props to offer support and comfort, the body is invited to profoundly let go and unwind. Rather than efforting or stretching, this is the practice of releasing and relaxing. We’ll celebrate what is finished and soften into the next cycle. Shandoah is a gifted guide for deep release and is a Shiatsu practitioner offering hands on assists during class. All bodies welcome, no experience in yoga or anything else is needed. Email Susan at to get on the waiting list.
Monday (Moonday!), February 10, 430-6pm at The Studio at Dancing Water is FULL and please let me know if you’d like to be on the waiting list.
Monday (Moonday!), March 9, 430-6pm at The Studio at Dancing Water ~ $30, $25 if registered before Feb 28!

First Friday Freedance with Kate ~ Feb 7 at 11:25am
Nia Freedance is an opportunity to play and tap into the creative wisdom in our body, emotions, mind and spirit. For a full hour we get to dance together with the intention of stimulating our own unique movement creativity. The next Nia Freedance will be at ACAC Albemarle Square Friday, Feb 7 from 11:25 -12:25.

Resetting & Balancing the Nervous System with Mindful Practices & Herbal Nourishment: Book Signing and Workshop with Susan & Heather ~ Saturday, February 29, 2020 ~ 10am-12pm at Nourish Louisa

“Stop the glorification of busy….It is OK not to be busy. Repeat this with me: it is OK not to be busy.” ~ Joshua Becker
Mid-winter is the perfect time to look inward at the rush and tumble of our days and practice ways of reconnecting and restoring our frazzled nervous systems. Join teacher and artist Susan McCulley and Clinical Herbalist Heather Wetzel to explore a realignment of our busy, over-scheduled days at the beautiful Nourish Louisa shop ( at 205 W. Main Street, Louisa, VA 23093
10:00-11:00: Book signing and conversation about the counter cultural choice for presence and less busyness with Susan, author of Octabusy: How to Let Go in a Sea of Doing. Come talk with Susan, watch an art demonstration, and have a cup of something warm.
11:00 – 12:00: Susan and Heather will present a short workshop focusing on re-balancing body, mind, and spirit using mindfulness life hacks and herbal strategies for moving from the habitual responses of our nervous system’s “fright, flight, or freeze” reactions into a more balanced, flowing, and peaceful state of “rest and digest.”. Topics include:
· How to support yourself to be more centered, calm and relaxed.
· Physical and mindful practices that can bring you back to center and be done anywhere, no matter what is happening around you.
· Tastings (including recipes) of tried and true adaptogenic herbal preparations to enhance your resilience to stress
· New ideas to support and encourage graceful adaptation to change and less reactive to stress
We all need encouragement and new ideas to support us as we move through our fast-paced, stress-ridden world. Reserve your seat now as space is limited at! Saturday, February 29, 2020 ~ 10am-12pm ~ $15 ~ includes lunch and small drink of your choice / Limited to 12 participants.

Interview about Octabusy & Other Things on Lisa Jakub’s Embrace Your Weird podcast!
It was my honor and pleasure to have a conversation with Lisa Jakub about the seduction of busyness and ways of navigating it on her fantastic podcast, Embrace Your Weird. Please listen, share, review and spread the word! Go here to check it out!

Support local retailers by buying Octabusy
at New Dominion Bookshop on Charlottesville’s downtown mall (, 434-295-2552,
and at The Telegraph Art & Comics
and at the beautiful Nourish Louisa shop in downtown Louisa! Go here for more. I’ll be sharing more soon on events at this super-cool spot!
And just this week: both Buddha Cat and Octabusy are now available at the lovely Wine & Country Shop in Ivy! Please check them out here. It’s an amazing store full of wonderful finds, not just super-cool books!
You can also order signed copies of Octabusy (including discounts on multiple copies) now on my website at
and get Kindle and paperback editions on Amazon!
(And wherever you buy it, please leave a review there!)

As always, please let me know if you have questions or how I can help more.
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan sig

Monday, Jan 27, 2020, 1045am ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Spinning the Wheel 6:24 George Michael
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020, 840am ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

Thursday, Jan 30, 2020, 11am at the Studio at Dancing Water ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

Nature Boy (Live) 8:51 Beautiful Chorus
The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

If I asked you to list your senses, most of us would go with the obvious five: touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight. These are huge, for sure. To deepen mindfulness and awareness, these are rich and important to pay attention to.

There are, however, two additional sense systems that are essential to our healthy, integrated functioning: Proprioception and Interoception.

Proprioception is the 6th sense: the body’s ability to sense itself in space. It’s a fascinating system that resides largely in receptors in the joints and the hands and feet. It’s the system that allows you to scratch an itch you cannot see, to move without looking and to move fluidly. I love playing with proprioception and I’ve written about it before.

For a deep dive into it, please go to The Secret Sense post from Nov 29, 2015. For proprioceptive practical particulars, please check out Art In Action: 4 Ways to Strengthen Proprioception from Dec 1 2015.

The 7th sense is Interoception: your ability to sense yourself from the inside. Interoception is what allows you to feel your heart beating and tells you when you are thirsty, hungry or need to go to the bathroom. Interoception also allows you to feel your emotions. Many of us don’t pay close attention to these sensations and can confuse them. Ever eat when you’re actually thirsty or bored or stressed? That’s just muddled interoception. (This great article about Interoception and Autism isn’t just for people on the spectrum, I certainly find myself having similar experiences as those described here.)

The practice of mindful movement invites us to pay attention to both proprioception and interoception with focus and clarity. Strengthening the 6th and 7th senses allows us to move through the world with more ease and grace.

the music of the 6th Sense

Proprioception was everywhere this week. A student came to class with her hair in intricate clips along the back of her head. Proprioception allowed her to do make that happen! Another student recalled skiing in white-out conditions – basically feeling her way down the mountain. Yep, proprioception. When preparing lunch with a friend this week, she reached for a box on the counter that she thought was full and jerked it up. Proprioception, just off a little!

I hope you find the exploration of our secret sixth sense as fascinating as I do. If so, here’s a great article about the history and function of proprioception (thanks, Lisa Kimball!).

Below are all the playlists for the week. You can listen to all the playlists for free on Spotify ? Sign up for free, follow me at “susanmcculley” and you’ll find my public playlists ~ just click and listen! No matter where you are, we can listen and dance together!

Here are some cool things you want to know about:

• Embracing Darkness: A Special Winter Class with Mary Linn & Susan ~ Friday, December 11, 6-7pm at Buck Mountain Episcopal Church Parish Hall in Earlysville

As the dark edges closer and closer to our doors, we have a choice about how to approach this time of year. We can huddle and steel against it, we can glitter and holly jolly over it, or we can embrace it. Please join Mary Linn and Susan for a special class of movement and music that invites the whole-hearted embrace of the darkness that is essential to growth and life. Rich instrumental, gospel and live vocal music underscores the focus on peaceful mindful presence we can choose to cultivate. Pay what you can (proceeds go to the Health & Wellness Ministry at Buck Mountain Episcopal). No experience or spiritual practice needed. All are welcome.

• dance. sit. write. draw. Saturday, January 23, 2016 – Registration happening now — we’re a quarter full!

We’re dancing, sitting and writing again and this time, we’re drawing, too! Join me for a day of exploration at the intersection of movement, stillness and creativity. Find all the information at and register at on

As always, please let me know if you have questions or how I can help more.
Dance on. Shine on.

Susan sig

*** PLAYLIST NOTE: My playlists can also be found on Spotify by following “susanmcculley” (no space) and look for Public Playlists. Sometimes music is not available on Spotify so I may replace with another version or skip songs . ***

Monday, Nov 30, 2015, 1045am ~ Proprioception: The Secret Sense

Orange Sky 6:11 Alexi Murdoch
All I Ask 4:48 Rae & Christian
Good Life 4:13 OneRepublic
Braided Hair 4:03 Neneh Cherry/Speech
Sometimes 4:06 Michael Franti & Spearhead
Two Princes 4:17 Spin Doctors 5
Shadowman 6:36 Afro Celt Sound System
Ooh La La 3:24 Goldfrapp
Yahoo 7:33 Veeresh & The Humaniversity Sound
Drive 3:53 Incubus
Where the Story Ends… 5:44 Shantel
Somehow Familiar 3:40 Fabrizio Paterlini

Tuesday, Dec 1, 2015, 840am ~ Proprioception: The Secret Sense

Orange Sky 6:11 Alexi Murdoch
Center Of The Sun 5:01 Conjure One Feat. Poe
Freedom 6:31 George Michael
More Than This 4:07 10,000 Maniacs
Sometimes 4:06 Michael Franti & Spearhead
Ghosts in My Machine 3:33 Annie Lennox
Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi) 4:23 Janelle Monae
What I Be 4:45 Michael Franti & Spearhead
Facing East 3:48 Thievery Corporation
Rivers 5:45 Big Blue Ball featuring Vernon Reid, Márta Sebestyén, Karl Wallinger

Wednesday, Dec 2, 2015, 11am ~ Proprioception: The Secret Sense

Dunya Salam 2:55 Baaba Maal
My Culture 5:39 Maxi Jazz/Robbie Williams
Dubuasca (with Michael Kang) 6:55 Bassnectar
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Don’t Say 5:47 Deep Dive Corp.
After the Rain Has Fallen 5:03 Sting
Braided Hair 4:03 Neneh Cherry/Speech
Shakin’ It Up 6:15 Ganga Giri
Fire to Me 4:36 Hyper/The Crystal Method
New Morning 3:44 Alpha Rev
I See Fire 5:01 Ed Sheeran
Somehow Familiar 3:40 Fabrizio Paterlini

Thursday, Dec 3, 2015, 9am ~ Proprioception: The Secret Sense

Dunya Salam 2:55 Baaba Maal
My Culture 5:39 Maxi Jazz/Robbie Williams
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Don’t Say 5:47 Deep Dive Corp.
Braided Hair 4:03 Neneh Cherry/Speech
Birimbau 6:12 Cirque du Soleil
Passion 5:46 Michael Franti
Yahoo 7:33 Veeresh & The Humaniversity Sound
Persistence of Memory 4:29 Afro Celt Sound System
A Stream With Bright Fish 3:57 Brian Eno & Harold Budd

Saturday, Dec 5, 2015, 1245pm ~ Hands and Fingers

Human 3:04 Dionne Farris
Hero Dead And Gone (Discotheque Mix) 4:55 De-Phazz
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Corazon Espinado 4:38 Santana
Break The Chain 4:32 Tena Clark
One Billion Hands 4:05 Lourds Lane
Love and Hope 4:24 Ozomatli
Back To Me 3:31 Kathleen Edwards
A-Punk 2:18 Vampire Weekend
Birthday 2:45 The Beatles
Inner Membrane 5:19 Govinda
Let Go 4:11 Frou Frou
Wiarthul 5:55 Geoffrey Gurrumul



For more information about Nia and this rich system of training and learning? Everything Nia is at…
If you’re traveling or moving, you can find a teacher or classes wherever you’re going.
Interested in teaching or deepening your practice? Check out the Nia White Belt Training. They are offered all around the world so you can find one near you or where you may want to go!

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!

proprioception the secret sense 112815
Right now, as you read this, you have a secret sense at work in your body. Right now, this secret sense is allowing you to hold whatever position you’re in, to manipulate the device you are reading on, scratch an itch while you are reading, and even to speak, gesture, and tell someone how awesome this post is and that they should be reading it, too.

Proprioception is the secret sense that gives your body a sense of itself. Sometimes called the hidden sense or the sixth sense, proprioception is what allows the body to find itself in space and time but more than that, proprioception allows us to be embodied. [For a great explanation of proprioception, check out this excellent post by Todd Hargrove.]

Proprioception is so essential to our physical functioning and sense of ourselves that most of us take it for granted until it goes off track. Proprioception calculates where your body has been, where it is, and where it’s going. A common example of mis-propriocepting is when you think there is one more step at the top of the stairs and do that awkward-wackadoodle-over-stepping thing on the landing. Proprioception also calculates how much stretch and strength is needed for an upcoming movement. So when you see a box that you think is full of books but when you lift it find that it is actually full of tissue paper, you’ll lift wildly and probably toss the paper across the room.

But to get a true picture of how integral proprioception is to our physical functioning, imagine what would happen if a body lost it entirely. In his case study, The Disembodied Lady (from his brilliant 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat), Oliver Sacks writes fascinatingly about just that. He tells about Christina who, when given preoperative antibiotics before gallstone surgery, lost her proprioception. This young, athletic woman suddenly was unable to move, sit, speak or use facial expression. When she began to regain some movement, she could only move body parts she could see and even then movement was drunken, flailing, and wildly awkward.

In his early observations of Christina, Dr. Sacks writes

the collapse of tone and muscle posture, from top to toe; the wandering of her hands, which she seemed unaware of; the flailing and overshooting, as if she were receiving no information from the periphery, as if the control loops for time and movement had catastrophically broken down.

As Christina herself describes it

I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself… It has no sense of itself.

Truly, the proprioceptive sense is indispensable for creating the normal, easeful, graceful movement that most of us do automatically.

The body’s sense of itself comes from three systems: vision, balance organs (the vestibular system), and proprioception. Usually the three work together and should one system fail, the others can compensate. It is for this reason that Christina could use her eyes to create movement since the body had gone “blind” and couldn’t “see” itself.

For a deeper understanding of the connection between vision and proprioception, watch even a few minutes of the amazing 1998 BBC documentary, The Man Who Lost His Body.* The film tells the story of Ian, a man who lost his proprioception at the age of 20 and his miraculous rehabilitation to near full-functioning. Like Christina, in order for Ian to move, he has to see himself do it. His vision is so utterly tied to his ability to move that when the lights went out suddenly in a power outage, he completely collapsed to the floor.

Why do we care about this secret sense? Unlike Christina and Ian most of us have fully functioning proprioception. (Whew, right?) So why is it worth knowing about a system that is working without any input from us?

First, we can strengthen proprioception through movement, awareness, and body-mind exercises. By strengthening our secret sense, we can avoid injury and improve balance, agility and grace. Who wouldn’t like a little more of that? (On Tuesday, in the Art in Action post, I’ll talk about specific things you can do to boost your proprioceptive skills.)

Second, understanding the fundamental, hidden power of proprioception is like noticing your habits. By taking proprioception out of the shadow of unconsciousness into the light of awareness, it gives us and a deeper understanding of what our bodies and brains are doing for us in every moment and we can then make choices to bolster it.

Not least, understanding proprioception gives cause for celebrating miracles. Miracles like touch typing, scratching an itch in the middle of your back, and walking without looking at your feet. And that can transform the secret sense into secret sauce.


* [RABBIT HOLE ALERT – I was only going to watch a few minutes of this documentary to see what Ian’s movement looked like, but got completely fascinated and watched the whole thing.]
BBC Documentary The Man Who Lost His Body (1998)
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

%d bloggers like this: