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  • Improving Proprioception and Control by Creating Space (and Stability)

    One of the paradoxes of controlling posture is that the better ones posture is, the easier it is to control the body.
    And so a goal in setting up any yoga pose, or action is first setting up the body so that it is easier to feel and control.

    One general principle I try to adhere to that makes the body both more feelable and more responsive is that of

    • creating stability where required.
    • Another aspect is creating space where required.
    • And yet another aspect is creating relaxation where required.

    Interestingly enough, (well, I find it interesting) for someone studying how to design aircraft there is a subject area called "stability and control."
    That deserves an article in and of itself but one quick note is that an aircraft can be designed so that it is very stable.
    The sacrifice is maneuverability and responsiveness.

    And so if a plane is designed to be responsive, then the pilot not only has to work to control the plane i.e. choosing direction to travel in and orientation of the craft, he or she also has to make the necessary control actions to keep the craft stable.

    With respect to our bodies we can be like a pilot of an aircraft that isn't stable. We can make the necessary control inputs to create stability as well as to control the direction or action of our bodies.

    With a better ability to feel and control our body, we can use that sensitivity and controllability to create stability, space and relaxation.
    All of these are things that we can learn to control and learn to consciously perceive (so that we know our body is responding to our "control" efforts.)

    And the reason for creating stability, space and relaxation is that these in turn make it easier for us to feel our body and control it... with less effort.

    In my own teaching endeavours I sometimes focus on space and relaxation first and worry about stability later.
    To that end I'll often start with seated poses because stability isn't such a large critical factor.

    However, if I start with standing exercises, say if my focus is on balance to begin with, then I'll focus on stability and relaxation and worry about the creation of space later.

    In both cases, what I tend to work on is either:

    • Creating space and then relaxing and repeating or
    • Creating stability and then relaxing and repeating.

    Both types of movements can be turned into rhythmic movements and as they are repeated what we can tune in to are the feelings of creating space and the feelings of relaxation. With enough experience of these two extremes we can then explore the realm between them, finding a balance between relaxation and the creation of space.

    Balancing the Creation of Space with Relaxation

    Note that the creation of space has a couple of roles.

    • One is that it adds tension to the connective tissue network simply by creating space between adjacent structures.
    • In turn it also gives adjacent structures room to move relative to each other.

    Where practice is required is finding the balance between too much space or too much relaxation.
    With too much space we may actually create excessive tension or take the part we are moving to the edge of its range of motion.

    Balancing Stability with Relaxation

    Where the creation of space may rely more on connective tissue tensioning, the creation of stability may be more a result of muscular tension.
    Here too balance is required. Too much stability (i.e. opposing muscles working against each other) may be tiring and wasteful and can also deaden proprioception of parts of the body outside the contraction of muscle. Too little muscle action may mean that stability isn't actually achieved.

    Tension Control and Improving Conscious Proprioception

    As just mentioned, two main types of tension that we can learn to feel are

    • muscular tension, both in activation and relaxation,
    • connective tissue tension.

    Muscle Tension

    Large muscles with larger/thicker muscle bellies or numerous closely grouped muscle bellies are easier to feel than thinner, smaller or sparser muscle fibers.
    Since the muscle action of smaller muscles is difficult to feel what we can instead learn to feel is the tension in the connective tissue that is created by their activation.

    In general, the key to improving proprioception (In my experience) is to repeatedly vary tension, whether it is muscular tension or connective tissue tension.

    With muscle tension movements can be used that turn muscles on and of. If done smoothly and slowly enough and if the practitioners attention is directed to the rough location of the target muscles they may then be able to discern the different sensations that occur as the muscle is activated and then relaxed.

    An example in the exercises that follow is learning to feel the spinal erector muscles activating and relaxing when the spine is bent backwards (spinal erectors active) and then the back bend is released (spinal erectors relaxed.)

    Connective Tissue Tension

    With connective tissue tension, movements are again used, but instead of focusing on the muscle being used (which may be too small or too thin to perceive) the focus is on the movement of the bones and any change in sensation that accompanies those movements.

    An example of this is feeling the ribcage as the spine is bent backwards and forwards and noting the sensations in the chest and ribcage as it lifts and lowers.

    A general tip on creating connective tissue tension is to work on creating space, make the body "feel big" or "expansive." (But not too expansive.)

    Below are some of the basic conscious proprioception exercises that I used during my classes.

    Create Changes in Sensation

    The basic technique that I use to train conscious proprioception is to use movements that create changes in sensation, which in turn is generated by changes in either muscular tension or connective tissue tension or both.

    Generally these two extremes can be created and moved between by creating space (which generally also creates tension) and then relaxing (which releases tension.)

    Changes in tension can also be created by moving between stability and relaxation.

    This I generally teach via "weight shifting" as in shifting back and forwards in mountain pose or shifting from one leg to another while learning to balance on one foot.

    One of the basic exercises that I use for experiencing changes in tension is bending the spine backwards and then relaxing (explained below.)
    This can also be turned into a very basic breathing exercise, particularly for those having a hard time breathing.
    However, rather than focusing on the movement of the breath (into the body and out of it), for conscious proprioception I tend to focus on feeling and controlling the muscles and bones that create the movement of breath.