A few years ago I got into a heated discussion on the best starting place for learning full body awareness. The author's contention at the time was to start with the feet since they are the foundation for most of our upright activities.
While I agree that the feet are an excellent starting point for developing body awareness (I use them often as a starting point when teaching balance) they aren't the only option.
As an example, you can start developing full body awareness by first focusing on the pelvis in a seated position. From there you can expand your awareness to include the lumbar spine, thoracic spine, ribcage, neck and head.
Students can learn to feel their spine first (or elements of their spine) while sitting or they can focus on feeling their feet while standing.
Posture awareness (and body awareness) can start with your spine and radiate outwards, or it can start from your feet and radiate upwards.
In either case they begin to learn to feel their body.
But what if someone has flat feet, miss-aligned ankles or knees?
Then in that case the feet, ankles or knees would be a good place to start. However, it isn't the only place you can start. It may be that it will take a while to straighten out the feet knees and ankles. Or a student may need a rest from working on them.
The point is, there are options.
I've got flat feet (collapsed arches actually) and one of the exercises that I often teach as a prelude to standing poses is how to activate feet and use the feet to feel where one's center of gravity is.
However, I often have my students start sitting.
While sitting I teach them to feel their pelvis first, then their spine, then their ribs, then their head.
Then when they are standing I have them feel their feet.
Sometimes context matters.
If we are going to be doing handstands or arm balances or other inversions, like headstand, I often have them learn to use their shoulders first. I'll start with scapular awareness execises.
However, prior to that I'll start with thoracic awareness execises.
The point is that if we learn to break the body down into bits we can learn or teach any piece we like first. And if we are working towards a particular pose or action, then that action can guide how we start becoming more body aware.
What's most important for becoming more body aware is that you start your body awareness exercises somewhere.
While the context of a class can help guide that decission, ultimately, the goal is to be able to swich body awareness on at any time, not just in a yoga class.
You could start a body awareness execise session by first focusing on the neck. It's what babies start of learning.
I'm not saying here that everyone should start with the neck because babies do, but it is a reasonably starting point.
I often start a class of with neck bends and twists and while doing those neck stretches have students focus on feeling and moving the vertebrae of their neck (as well as the head or skull itself.)
Another starting point for becoming more body aware could be breathing.
Again its not the only starting point.
It's not the most important starting point.
It's one possible starting point for becoming more body aware.
I sometimes use the breath as a starting point for really good posture by teaching students to breath by controlling the movements of their spine and ribcage.
It's not the perfect type of breathing method but it teaches people how to feel their ribs and thoracic spine and better yet improves mobility of them both too.
More recently I start of by teaching students how to feel and move their spine and ribcage, independent of their breath. By bending the spine backwards and forwards slowly and smoothly the breath tends to follow naturally. And then to make the breath smoother, and slower, I simply instruct the students to do the spinal movements smoother and slower.
Posture and breath awareness then are bonuses of this simple body awareness (and body control) exercise.
One of the nice things about teaching people how to feel their breath is that they can then radiate that awareness outwards to the rest of their body. But what if people have difficulty learning to feel their breath?
Then I start them off with learning to move slowly and smoothly.
As an example, I might first start people shifting their weight from both feet to one feet. Or even simpler, have them start of by leaning forwards and then returning to center.
And so that this becomes an exercise in body awareness and a foot awareness exercise I have them focus on feeling their feet and ankles as they move.
Why? Because when you shift your weight back and forwards or from side to side, their are changes in sensation in the feet.
Shifting weight forwards the fronts of the feet and toes have to become tense to keep you upright and you can learn to feel that increase in tension as you rock forwards. If you rock back so that your weight is between forefoot and heels or just in front of the front of your heels, you feet can relax.
And so if you rock forwards and backwards slowly while feeling your feet and ankles you can notice these changes in sensation. And then having become more aware of the feet this awareness can then be expanded or moved to other parts of the body.
And that is the point of starting a body awareness exercise anywhere within the body. Once you have a starting point, a beach head, then that awareness can be expanded from that point outwards to include the rest of the body.
I should point out here that I focus on teaching people to feel and control their body and I also take the time to explain what they have to do.
As an example, if I tell a class to rock forwards and back but then notice someone isn't doing it then I'll explain to that person or stand beside them and show then what I mean.
If it is obvious to me that someone doesn't understand then I try to clarify the explanation or I modify the exercise to the point that it is something that they can both understand and work towards. (Sometimes I have to just leave them alone and let them figure things out for themselves.)
When teaching beginners to become more body aware, I make the exercises simple enough that they can focus on doing them.
If they can't do the exercise then I re-explain it or redefine it to find an exercise that they can do.
Some people are more sensitive and have better body control than others. However, in all cases it can be something that continues to improve over time.
And so depending on the people, I'll start with the feet in some cases, the spine or the breath (or something else) in others.
An important point for becoming body awareness, once a starting point has been decided on is to move slowly and to move smoothly.
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.