By learning to feel your body you learn to feel the relationships between the different parts.
Learning to feel your body goes hand in hand with learning to control it. Sensitivity and control are two sides of the same coin. Together they give you coordination.
Two important qualities that you can work on to give you better sensitivity and control are space and stability.
In the case of feeling your knees the relationship you are feeling is that between your shin bones (the fibula and tiba) and the thigh bone (femur.)
Feeling whether your pelvis is tilted forwards or backwards, the relationship you sense can be that between your pelvis and the earth if you are sitting or between the pelvis and your legs while standing.
Feeling the bend or lack of bend in your spine, you are sensing the relationship between adjacent vertebrae.
One way to feel your body is to use your connection to the earth (your foundation) to feel where your center of gravity is.
By learning to use your foundation to feel where you center of gravity is you can sense the relationshp between your center of gravity, your foundation and the earth. You can use this sensitivity to keep your center over your foundation so that you stay balanced... so you can stay upright. You can then feel and maintain your relationship with the earth no matter what type of yoga pose or posture you are doing.
Using this same awareness you can change the shape of the pose that you are doing whilst keeping your center over your foundation. You then deliberately change your body while continuing to maintain control.
Feeling your foundation you can notice the way one part of it presses into the earth and the way other parts of it have less pressure. The difference between a lot of pressure, a little pressure and no pressure at all tells you the position of your center of gravity with respect to your foundation.
For example, standing on your feet if you feel most of the pressure in the fronts of your feet and through your toes, that means that your center of gravity is over the fronts of your feet.
If they aren't already lifted, you can lift your heels because your weight is balanced on the fronts of your feet. By feeling your feet you can feel the part of your feet that your center of gravity is over.
Gravity doesn't just help you to feel your relationship with the earth. You can also use it to sense other relationships within your body.
By first learning to recognize the signals that gravity gives you via your foundation, you can then begin to learn how to recognize other signals throughout your body.
You can then use gravity to help yourself to feel your body and know what state it is in.
Connective tissue is the stuff that binds our body together. It connects bone to bone via ligaments and muscle to bone via tendons and aponeurosis (a type of tendon.) It also holds organs in place, suspending them from each other and from muscles and bones. It transmits tension when muscles contract and when they relax. It also transmits tension when parts of our body are allowed to hang from other parts, like a relaxed arm and shoulder hanging from the ribcage. You can feel your body by feeling the tension in the connective tissue of yur body.
When muscles contract, connective tissue transmits this force from muscle to bone. When muscles relax, connective tissue transmits the force of the weight of the bones that are free to hang down because muscles are relaxed.
The meridians offer a simple way of learning part of our bodies connective tissue network. They are housed within the connective tissue of our body and can be used as a guide to stretching the body and strengthening it. They can also be used as a roadmap for learning to feel your body.
Gravity is a force generated by the mass of the earth. The earth has a lot of mass. Hence it is able to keep us attached to its surface. It pulls us downwards towards it's own center and we can learn to become aware of this pulling force.
Our muscles can also generate force. They create it by contracting.
By first learning to feel the pressure and tension that gravity causes we can then also learn to feel pressure and tension caused by our own muscles. (Or we can start by learning to feel the force generated by our muscles and from that understanding then learn to feel gravity.)
By learning to recognize when there is tension between parts of your body and when there is not, you can tell what state that part of your body is in.
To make it even easier to feel your body you can focus on deliberately contracting muscles and then relaxing them. You can then focus on noticing the changes in sensation caused by repeatedly relaxing and contracting your muscles.
One way to relax and contract muscles is to breathe. The muscles you relax and contract are your respiratory muscles.
By focusing on feeling these muscles you can develop your body awareness and learn to feel your breath (as well as feel your body.)
Everybody tells you to feel your breath. Actually, no they don't. But perhaps you've heard theses expression or similar expressions often enough.
"Just feel your breath."
"Focus on your breath."
Do they do anything for you?
Maybe if you've got good concentration those instructions help. And if you breath naturally (i.e. you haven't got any breathing problems or unatural breathing habits), then again it may help.
But what if you don't?
A better instruction and the basis for some exercises to help you feel your body is to "feel the muscles that you breath" with. Or feel the results of the actions of the muscles that you breathe with. Feel the tension that these muscles create when they activate, and feel the absence of tension (or the reduction of it) as they relax.
Muscles can create tension and or pressure by contracting. When they relax, the tension that they create dissapearss. You can learn to feel this.
To "feel" your breath, you don't even have to focus on inhaling and exhaling. By directly controlling your respiratory muscles and using them to expand and contract your lung volume, your breath will happen naturally (because your are consciously expanding and contracting your lung volume.)
All you have to do is feel your breathing muscles and control them.
As an example, you can use your spinal erectors to bend your spine backwards and at the same time expand your ribcage using your intercostals.
For more details on this breathing method, check out Costal Breathing.
The spinal erectors are pretty easy to feel. When active they create a "contracted" feeling either side of your spine. Once you get this feeling, you can deepen consciously deepen their contraction to bend your spine backwards even more. Then you can release them and allow your spine backwards.
You can accentuate this back bending action by also expanding your ribs by using your intercostals. These muscles may be harder to feel. However you can activate them by focusing on lifting and expanding the front of your ribcage. Focus on opening the spaces between your ribs as you inhale. And feel your ribs opening as you do this. Relax your ribs as you exhale. As you do so, feel their weight as gravity pulls them downwards.
If you work at making both actions smooth and slow you'll find that you'll be better able to feel both your spine and your ribs. And since these movements can be used to cause inhales and exhales, you'll also be feeling your breath..
And what if you feel out of breath or slightly uncomfortable? Then speed the movements up slightly but keep them smooth. Or slow them down if you desire. You can also work at deepening your inhales by trying to increase the back bend of your spine and the expansion of your ribcage.
Deepen your exhale by bending or sinking downwards more whilst increasing the compression of your ribcage. In this case you can use your intercostals (there are two layers that work in "opposing" directions) and your abdominals to help.
Once you've got the hang of feeling your ribcage and spine you can apply the same awareness to twisting poses like Seated Twist since it uses some of the same muscles as in easy breathing.
You can use table top yoga pose to help activate your shoulders and to stretch them. (You may find it a good stretch for pectoralis minor, serratus anterior and the rhomboids.)
In bridge pose you can learn to use your thigh muscles to push your pelvis upwards. You can also learn how to press your shoulders down into the floor to help lift and open your chest. In this respect it can be a handy preparation for shoulder stand. For that reason I'd suggest that you learn to feel your shoulder blades and learn to use your rhomboids to pull them towards each other.
If using bridge pose as a prep for wheel pose, I prefer to reach the arms back (behind or over the head) as opposed to towards the feet. (Or use both options.) This is because in wheel pose the arms reach up and back over the head. You can focus on getting the same feeling by reaching your arms back while your shoulders are on the floor in bridge pose.
Have you ever been doing Tai Ji or some other exercise and your instructor tells you to relax your shoulders.
"They are relaxed!"
"No they are not!"
"Well I don't know how the hell to relax them" you think to yourself!
How do you learn to feel tension and then its absence? By doing exercises or actions that create tension and then release it. While you do these exercises you pay attention to the feelings that occur. And so you learn to recognize tension and its absence. You are learning to feel your body.
This can be an enjoyable process, because you'll learn how to feel one part of your body (shit i never knew I was so tense there) you'll learn to control it and feel it. And you can enjoy that new found freedom. And then you have to focus on another part of your body.
You can continually improve body awareness, sensitivity, coordination and control. You can continually improve your ability to feel your body.
But back to the shoulders… A very simple way to learn to relax your shoulders is to lift and lower them. But wait a minute, what does "relaxing the shoulders" mean?
More often than not I'm going to guess that it means relax your trapezius. These are the muscles (along with levator scapulae) that lift your shoulder blades. They attach to the neck. So your goal, the goal in learning to relax the shoulders is to relax these muscles.
You may also find that your sternocleidomastoid muscles (SCM) are a cause of shoulder tightness as well. This muscle attaches to both collar bone and sternum and from there to the skull below the ears.
It is the portion that attaches to the collar bones that is of interest with respect to tight shoulders.
When doing the shoulder raising exercise below you may find that you can learn to activate and release this muscle by focusing on feeling your collar bones as well as your shoulder blades as you lift and lower your shoulders.
Before relaxing your shoulders focus on first using your trapezius and SCM to lift your collar bones and shoulder blades. You may find this is easier if you first focus on lifting them one at a time. Then Work at doing both sides together.
Slowly lift your shoulders, hold, and then lower them. (Feel your collar bones lifting as well!) And even when your shoulders are at the "bottom" of their range of motion, continue to let them sink down. Let their weight sink downards so that you relax your traps and SCM as much as possible.
Keep your neck straight, especially when lifting your shoulders. Pull your head back and up!
I get the best feeling in this exercise when I focus on pulling my shoulders all the way up and then squeezing my trapezius to pull them even higher and then when relaxing I focus on continuing to let my shoulders sink down, even beyond the point where I think they've hit bottom.
That's when I finally experience truly relaxed shoulders.
To get the best feeling while focusing on lifting collar bones and shoulder blades together, you may find it helpful to focus on moving the acromion processes of both shoulders slightly forwards or back.
You may find that moving them slightly forwards allows you to feel your collar bones lifting and you may also find that you can then feel your sternocleidomastoid activating also.
The acromion process is the bony point at the top of each shoulder. (It's where the collar bone connects to the shoulder blade.)
Another way to relax the shoulders is to have your hands on the floor behind you and then let your ribcages sink down. I use this as a preparation position for Table Top Yoga Pose. It's also a great way to feel your body.
Once you've felt the sense of relaxation that accompanies totally relaxed trapezius, you can easily recognize when your shoulders are tense. And with practice you can learn to relax your trapezius at will. You are callibrating your awareness. You are learning to feel your body.
What, your shoulders still won't relax?
Then pull your head back and up and your chin in prior to lifting. It may be that because you sit in front of a computer all day (or for other reasons) you tend to sit or stand with your head forwards. Guess which muscles activate to help support your head in this position. Your traps and your levator scapulae. If you pull your head back far enough that you can balance your head on top of your spine then these muscles may more likely relax.
Rather than just pulling your head back, you can do it slowly while feeling your body at the same time. In particular, if you slowly pull your head back can you feel your neck (the cervical vertebrae) straightening, like they are being stacked on top of one another. When you relax, can you feel them falling forwards, one off of the other? Now if you straighten your neck again, can you feel your chest, your front ribs in particular, lifting as you do so. Maybe you can feel your thoracic spine straightening, your upper thoracic that is.
For more on learning to feel and control your shoulders, read about moving and feeling your Scapula. If you haven't done so already, you can also read about feeling and moving your collar bones in Table top Yoga Pose.
I mentioned balancing as a way of learning to feel your body. When you learn to balance one of the things that you learn to do is feel and control the relationship between your body and the earth.
And while in other relationships you can choose to separate from your partner, our relationship with the earth is a hard one to leave.
In exercises like shifting your weight forwards and backwards you can maintain your relationship with the earth while changing it slightly. You can do something similar with your spine.
Your head, pelvis and ribcage are all parts of your spine and you can learn to feel and control how these parts relate.
One way in which you can change the relationship between ribcage and pelvis (and between head and ribcage) is an exercise called ribcage "slides." While seated (and then while standing) you can move your ribcage to the left relative to yoru pelvis without tipping it. Instead you give your spine and S-shaped bend. You can then return to center and move to the other side. While doing this exercise you can focus on feelng your spinal coluns. You can also focus on feelng the relationship betwen your ribcage and pelvis.
Focus on feeling their centers. When you return to center see if you can "center" your ribcage over your pelvis from left to right.
Then do the same exercise but moving your ribcage forwards and backwards relative to your pelvis. And then again, center your ribcage from front to back relative to your pelvis.
You can do the same exercise with your head relative to your ribcage.
Once you are familiar or comfortable with these exercises you can then focus on feeling your body in other ways. For example, can you feel your abdominals activating to "slide" your ribcage to either side or forwards or backwards? When sliding your head can you feel your neck muscles activating? When you center your ribage and your head can you equalize the tention on both sides of your body making both sides feel the same.
Do you know the difference between bending forwards at you lower back and tilting your pelvis forwards? A lot of people don't. Part of learning to feel your body includes learning to feel your hips and pelvis. Once you can feel your pelvis and your hip joints, differentiating between those two actions is simple. And even it you have tight hamstrings or tight hips you can then work towards increasing their flexibility because you can feel what you are trying to do.
One good starting point for learning to feel your hip joints is learning to open them. By "opening the hips" I don't mean doing pigeon pose or a forward bend. I mean create space between the thigh and the pelvis at the hip socket. Our bodies are equipped with muscles that do just that. You can activate these muscles while sitting by focusing on reaching your knees away from your hip joints. You may feel some muscular activity at the top of yoru legs near your pelvis. That is a good indication that you are doing it right.
Because these "hip opening" muscles are located close to the hip socket you might be able to fine tune this muscular control by focusing on pulling the top of the thigh bone or head of the thigh bone out of the hip socket. Then relax.
More often than not I often teach this action as a prelude to forward bends. The usual instructions I give include first practicing opening the hip joints and then relaxing them. Then I have students lengthen their spine at the same time as they open the hip sockets. The feeling is like your whole body is expanding outwards. And then you relax.
For a very easy way to learn to tilt your pelvis forwards, read Easy Seated Forward Bend.
For more on the anatomy of opening your hip socket check out the Hip Joint.
For instructions in using this action in a forward bend check out Janu Sirsasana.
I've already talked about tilting the pelvis forwards and backwards. Another important action is tilting it from side to side. Of course, also important is learning to feel when your pelvis is tilted to one side. With your pelvis tilted to the side you can feel your body even more by noticing how the weight of your upper body helps to push your hip down. This sideways tilting pelvis action is useful in standing poses like triangle yoga pose and side angle pose, both of which are standing yoga poses.
Teaching standing poses in general, one of the first things that I set up is the feet.
The idea is to use the muscles that that cross the ankle joint and bones of the foot to shape the arches of the foot while at the same time stabilizing the feet, ankles and shin bones. With practice you can learn to feel the muscles that cause these actions.
Doing triangle yoga pose, one you've activated your feet, the next action can be do drop one hip. When doing this allow your spine to tilt to the side. With your spine tilted to the side you can then use the weight of your body to help push your hip down as mentioned above. From there you can then bend place you hand on your shin or on the floor while keeping the side tilt of your pelvis.
Other ways that you can practice feeling your body in triangle pose include focusing on allowing the "upper" side of your waist to relax so that your ribcage can sink down. You can also focus on keeping your ribcage in the same plane as your legs.
In side angle pose you can also use this side tilt of the pelvis. The difficulty is keeping it while bending the knee. It helps if you can feel your pelvis. And so one way to practice feeling your pelvis is to hold the side tilt with both knees straight and then to slowly bend your knee while focusing on feeling your pelvis and keeping it tilted to the side.
While holding the pose you can focus on feeling your body by keeping your lifted arm and straight leg in one straight line.
You can use an awareness of your pelvis side tilt in Warrior 2 also.
I only recently began to play with Mula Bandha, in part because I couldn't find consistant good instruction on it and also because I was too busy learning to feel other parts of my body.
What I am finding now is that my understanding of mula bandha (new found as it is) is helping me to feel my body even more and even more exciting it is giving me better control in handstands, particularly when lifting up, backbends and even forward bends.
My understanding of mula bandha came about in part from reading about the SI Joint, pelvic floor muscles, the tail bone and kegel exercises.
By learning mula bandha you can learn to feel your SI joint, your sacrum and deepen your awareness of your pelvis. You may find it allows you to better feel your deep hip muscles.
Note that there is also some information on the SI Joint in the article on Bridge Pose.
Another way of learning to feel your body is to focus on your joints.
Take for example your knees and elbows. You can learn to feel when they are fully straight.
Practice slowly bending them and straightening them. With your knees you can do this while sitting so that there is no weight on your legs, and you can try it standing so that you legs are supporting your weight. With your elbows, you can do the same, with weight and without weight.
You can also learn to feel them when they are slightly bent or when they are bent completely.
In both cases, if you want to learn to feel your elbow or knee joint and be able to identify without looking when it is bent or straight (or to what degree it is bent) practice slowly opening and closing, and put your awareness in the joint that you are moving.
One of my favorite ways to practice feeling the knee joint (in a good way) is by using pigeon pose (or a lunge) to practice feeling and controlling the knee.
Generally what I have people doing while they are in pigeon yoga hip stretch is to focus on feeling their back foot as they press it into the floor. If you press the top of your back foot into the floor slowly and gradually you may feel the muscles at the front of your thigh activating. For now, keep your knee on the floor. Relax.
Slowly press your foot down to the point you can feel your knee just beginning to lift off of the floor.
Think of a tug-o-war team "Taking up the slack." If you press down with just a little bit more pressure your knee will lift off of the floor.
To improve body awareness, and your ability both to control and feel your body, see if you can lift your knee a little off of the floor. Feel the skin on your knee or the hairs or the fabric of your yoga pants. Feel the change in pressure as the skin of your knee leaves the floor. And stop. Then feel the change in pressure again as you lower your knee and your knee touches the floor. Then relax completely.
I get pleasant results from this exercise when I do it in clearly defined stages.
Once you can lift you knee a little bit off of the floor, then practice slowly straightening it.
One final method for learning to feel your body and become more body aware is to practice standing meditation.
I prefer standing meditations because it is easier to stay "aware". Also it can be easier to generate a "mental map" of the body. In terms of feeling your body, one possible meditation is to focus on feeling or visualizing the bones of your body. Another is to visualize your muscles. To do both of these meditations it is helpful if you have an understanding of your anatomy.
Other meditations can include focusing on your meridians and your chakras.
Other tools that you can use to learn to feel your body include deliberately contracting your muscles and then relaxing them. This can be useful for both stretching muscles and strengthening them while at the same time helping your to learn to feel and control them.
Two methods for contracting muscles (so that you can then release them) include contracting to work against your stretch. Then as you release let your self go deeper. Another method is to work with the stretch. In this case contract muscles that help you go deeper.
You can also read about learning to control your body by practicing Balance Poses.
Why improve muscle control?
Muscle control not only helps you to control your body, it also helps you to feel it.
Muscle activation creates the tension that not only moves your body, but helps you to "sense" it.
With better muscle control you can use your body with less effort and make it easier to balance, improve flexibility and deal with pain and poor posture.