“Proprioception:- from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual”, and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement” – Physiology of behaviour.
Despite not being in my word processor’s dictionary, proprioception is perhaps our most ever present sense – were you for some reason floating weightless in a pitch black, silent, dark and scentless chamber you would still be receiving constant sensory feedback from within your own body. We could not function without it and yet we take the fact that we can feel our own body’s internal movement very much for granted. Research is beginning to show however that some of us are much better at it than others. Also that some of us are much more adept at feeling some parts of our bodies than other parts, and that we can even lose this sense completely from some parts of our bodies. In fact most people today suffer from some degree from what Thomas Hanna called ‘sensory motor amnesia’ or the loss of the sense of what it is we are actually doing with ourselves.
When you try and tell them this most people reject the idea or assume that they must be one of the few with complete control of their faculties (as well as assuming that you are clearly a terminal case), despite the fact they probably complain of some of it’s symptoms – Muscle and joint pain, inflexibility, some forms of arthritis, poor balance, lack of energy, tinnitus, headaches, digestive problems – you name the malady there’s a real possibility it’s cause lies in a breakdown in communication between the muscles and other tissues of the body and the central nervous system. In fact many doctors, scientists and physical therapists over the past century have been coming to the conclusion that much of what is traditionally viewed as the unavoidable side effects of ageing is in fact due to the atrophying of our proprioception out of neglect.
The truth is, unless we are athletes or similar we don’t really need to think about how we move our bodies anymore. Modern lives are becoming more and more cerebral and less and less rooted in the felt experience of our body interacting with our environment. Our bodies and minds evolved to necessarily be in constant communication with our environment through our senses. Without a well developed proprioceptive sense we would have ended up stumbling through the brush scaring away game and letting every nearby predator aware of an easy meal. Hunter gatherers to this day move with great skill because they have to. They live immersed in their bodily experience, there are times when each footstep counts so the attention they invest in it is immense.
Over the thousands of years we have spent on two legs different peoples have developed ways of walking that are suited to their environment, and most of them have different walks for tailored for different situations. The Apache Americans for example had fox walking and weasel walking to name two. Both involve letting the foot come down on the outer edge of the ball of the foot first and slowly rolling the rest of the foot down while feeling what’s underneath the foot before even moving any weight onto it. They did this so they could move quietly and not to disturb the wildlife around them and they are still taught today for that purpose, but it probably also helped them develop exceptional balance and poise in all their movements. Watch people walking down your local high street and you’ll see plenty of different ways of walking, but watch closely and ask yourself if they look comfortable, suited for the environment and the individual or do they look a little awkward, tense or at worst painful? Despite the seeming technological drive to make it obsolete, walking is still our primary means of personal transport. Much of our early lives are spent trying to get the hang of it but once we’ve got the basics these days we pretty much leave it at that.
Imagine though if we carried on refining the way we move throughout our lives, what sort of a level could we take it to? In many settled cultures when the physicality of survival becomes less relevant this proprioceptive development was fostered beyond early childhood through different practices like martial arts, dance or yoga. Many of these arose directly out of earlier walking styles (like The Chinese martial art Bagua Zhang which is based around Chinese mud walking) or from careful observation and embodiment of animal forms and movements (Like many poses of yoga or animal styles in kung fu) and so at the same time fostered a strong connection to the natural world. What they also have in common however, which is what makes them such excellent forms of physical education, is their emphasis on felt bodily experience rather than abstract attainment such as championships and record times. Our modern approach to physical education even from young ages is very much attainment focused, which straight away disconnects us from our sense of our own body. When we are thinking about whether we might win the race or whether or not we’ll make our parents proud, we are not feeling how the rotation of our hips and spine is driving our legs along the track.
This early disembodiment of physical exercise sets the path for most of us neglect our sense of self in relation to our environment that leads to the deterioration of our bodies and our relationship with the rest of the world. Fortunately it’s simple to turn the process around, all we need to do is tune in to our own sense of our bodies, our proprioception. It doesn’t necessarily have to be during exercise or part of a specific practice, just next time you’re walking really try and feel the movement in your joints. What can you do to make your gait smoother? Could it be more suited to the terrain you walking on, even if it’s just the pavement?
I love walking barefoot, feeling my weight shift from foot to foot, letting my feet conform to the shape of the ground and trying to get around as effortlessly as I can. If I tune in to it, I can feel the movement in my hip socket and the way the slight rotation of my spine travels out to move my fingertips. Try it in Your local park and take it slow enough that people start giving you funny looks, you’ll notice more that way, you might even persuade them to slow down and tune in a little more! I think it’d be great if taking the time to really pay attention to such a simple but primal experience wasn’t such a strange thing in our society. I was once stopped by the police while practising in the woods – though I eventually managed to persuade them that I was okay and not on drugs, I don’t think I persuaded them I wasn’t a little crazy. I’m hopeful however, that with our growing understanding of the importance of proprioception our institutions will someday encourage that sort of behaviour!