If you've ever tuned a guitar or a violin, if you've even tightened a bolt using a spanner or wrench (or tried using your fingers) then you've had a taste of proprioception. If you've ever tried opening a jar of pickles or tomato sauce (yes I buy pre-made!) and the lid was really tight, then you've also had a taste of proprioception.
It's that feeling of muscles activating. It's also that feeling of connective tissue tension, the pull in your fingers as you grip both the jar and its lid tighter.
Even notice how the tighter the lid is, the more effort you have to exert? That effort is how you measure how tight the lid is. Your muscles have to work harder. Your connective tissue is tightened with greater tension. And you can feel or notice all of it.
This is proprioception at work. And it's generated by your muscles. Read more about it in proprioception and Conscious proprioception. And read more about your muscles as force sensors in muscles are force sensors.
What is mindful muscle control? It's feeling your muscles while you turn them on and off. Or at least that's one way of doing it.
On a trip to Malaysia, my mom, sister and I were staying at a hostel in my mother's hometown. I was laying on my bed napping, or trying to, when my mother starting flipping light switches on and off. There were a lot of lights in our room and a lot of light switches. To figure out which switch worked which light, she had to play with them all.
Learning mindful muscle control is much the same. If you repeatedly turn your muscles on and off and you can begin to notice where they are. For more on this read mindful muscle control and proprioception.
By now you may be beginning to get the idea that muscles allow us to feel our body as well as move it. And while that is important, what's also important is having something to decide how we use our muscles both to feel our body and move it. A smart phone without all the apps it can run is simply an expensive piece of hardware. It's the apps that give that hardware purpose. And likewise, when running our body, it's important to have an idea of what we are doing in order to guide the way we use our muscles both to feel and control our body. You can read more about this in Conscious proprioception and change.
Proprioception is how you feel your body. How do you learn proprioception? Put another way, how do you learn to feel your body? My own preferred method is little bits at a time. The method is very similiar to how I've learned to write Chinese characters. I break the down into brush strokes, and I focus on painting a few brush strokes at a time until I can do them without having to think about how to do them.
Learning to feel your body, you can use the same technique. One advantage of this is, as you learn to feel your body, (or paint Chinese characters) you can get into the flow at the same time! For another look at this same idea read yoga pose brush strokes. As for the rough equivalent of brush strokes with respect to our body, that could be our muscles. To understand more about this have a look at anatomy as a guide to better body awareness.
Most breathing exercises are exercises in proprioception. Generally when doing breathing exercises you are focused on "feeling your breath". However, unless what you are focused on is the flow of air through your nose or past your lips, what you are feeling is the repeated activation and relaxation of your respiratory muscles. Muscle control is just an expansion of this same concept to include all of the other skeletal muscles of your body.
To understand a little more about how breathing relates to proprioception and to understand more about proprioception in general, take a look at understanding proprioception.
Tensegrity and how it can relate to proprioception and flow
I've written a number of articles that relate to tensegrity. The central tenet is that the joints of our body act as tensegrity structures. You can read more about that in fluid tensegrity joint anatomy.
For a rather less long look at tensegrity check out this article: tensegrity. It's based on the notion that postures and movements don't have tensegrity (unless we give it to them, i.e. we create it).
How do we create movements and actions that have tensegrity? I try to answer that in tensegrity, motor control and proprioception. For more on this you might also want to read creating tensegrity in yoga poses. Another article in this vein is tensegrity basics.
A very simple way to think of tensegrity is that it is a balance between tension and space. I go over that in a bit more detail in space and tension.
Two other articles on tensegrity to wrap this section up are articulated tensegrity systems and liberated tensegrity defined. This last article is how having joints that have tensegrity gives us the choice of whether or not (or when) we configure our body (or parts of it) to have tensegrity.
In closing of this section I should point out that the ability to imbue parts of the body with tensegrity and other parts not is one of the key attributes when playing tai ji.
One way that I've used (and continue to use) muscle control and proprioception is to manage pain and poor posture. I should clarify. I'm not managing pain. Instead I'm learning to use my body in such a way that the the conditions that cause pain (or poor posture) are no longer present. Actually, what I've been doing is using muscle control.
With muscle control, you can try different combinations of muscle activation to see what makes your pain (or poor posture) go away. In the process you can learn to better feel your body, control it and understand it.
For more on this read pain and poor posture.
As a side note, one of the things that is important to learn to recognize is when a sensation. This is versus sensations we could call pain. It seems one of the best ways to learn the difference is through experience. So a question would be, how do you go about gaining that experience? Find out more in the article: push into discomfort.
For more on improving posture, check out the improve your posture page. For pain, check out the body part category (knees, hips, low back, shoulders) that pains you.
A big part of body awareness is not relying on formulaic approaches. And this ties in closely to the idea of being present and getting into the flow. With body awareness, you can feel your body as it actually is, you can feel what is actually happening. As a result you can respond more effectively, or learn to respond more effectively.
Here's a more in-depth explanation of why you should improve body awareness: Why improve body awareness.
And here's a look at how you can work towards full body awareness.
Be aware, it will take time. The nice thing about working on body awareness is that is it like taking a trip. This is a trip where you get to experience the scenery inside your body, by feeling it.
If you want to be lazy and do yoga, one of the best ways to go about that is by learning to feel your body. The better you can proprioceive, the easier it is to find the easiest way to do what you are doing.
If you like being a caveman or cavewoman, then this article might not be for you. (I must profess, I do have my moments also). If you want the option to act intelligently and be lazy at the same time, check out yoga for lazy people.
This is one of my more recent articles, but it focuses more on the connective tissue side of the proprioceptive equation.
While you need muscle activation of some sort to proprioceive, connective tissue tension is also a very important part of proprioception. You only get it though when connective tissue is being stretched. And it's easy not to feel connective tissue tension because the signal from the activation of larger muscles tends to drown it out. And that's one reason why relaxed stretching in particular might be a good way to improve this aspect of proprioception. Read about this and more in can stretching improve proprioception.
Related to some of the ideas from the previous section, the hip crease is a reference that I started using a few years back and then tabled for a while to work on other things. Now I've been practicing (and teaching it) again. The hip crease is the line that separates the belly from the inner thigh but more than that it's also a really handy reference for both controlling and feeling the hip joint. For an overview read the hip crease.
For how to use the "opening the hip crease" action in bound angle pose and the "closing the hip crease" action in seated wide leg forward fold, read opening the hip creases, bound angle pose.
A key part of learning to flow easily is understanding two different modes of consciousness. One of them is thinking and the other is flowing. Another part of getting into the flow, particularly when doing things that involve skill is understanding the idea of pre-thinking. All of that and more in learning to flow.
To get into the flow, know what you are trying to do.
One simple rule for getting into the flow is knowing what it is that you are trying to do. That's one reason for the title of the book, Know to Flow. When you know what it is that you are trying to do, getting into the flow is so much easier.
If what you are trying to do is complex, then you can know what you are doing by breaking the complexity down into simple elements that are clearly defined. You can then focus on doing those simple things without thinking.
All of this and more is covered in my ebook Know to flow.
A good question to ask is what does being in the flow have to do with yoga? I'll say that being in the flow is yoga. It's when you are focusing on what you are doing. And that basically means, not thinking. Learn more about this particular view of yoga in what is yoga?.
Bruce Lee told us to be like water. To be like water it helps us to understand water and in particular why it flows. Here's a look at understanding why water flows and how we can use this understanding to be like water (and flow).
An important idea I learned from practicing Tai Ji is the difference between substansive and insubstansive. One transmits change readily, the other, not so much. What's the big deal about these two "states"? The better you understand them, the easier it is to become aware of change. And that in turn makes it easier to get into the flow. Read more about managing change.
No mind is how the Japanese refer to being present or being in the flow. You could think of it as "not thinking". Be careful not to mix this up with not knowing. Another way to think of no mind is as "know mind". Read more about this state of consciousness in no mind.
To understand more about consciousness I've written this rather lengthy article. It's more or less a condensed version of my book Know to flow. Read understanding consciousness. And if you'd like a copy of my book, click here on Know to flow.
Dance of Shiva
I've included dance of shiva in this section on proprioception and flow because it is a really good practice for understanding the concept of flow as well as it's opposite or compliment, thinking.
One way to think of Dance of Shiva is that it's a little like doing a math puzzle, but instead of using a piece of paper, you are using your body. And part of the process of learning Dance of Shiva is learning the movements well enough (and the positions) so that you don't have to think about them in order to do them.
You can find out more about it and get a taste of the arm movements and positions of the dance of shiva here: Learning the basics of the dance of shiva
Note that there are benefits to the dance of shiva from the proprioceptive angle also. In dance fo shiva, the hand positions are simply, and clearly, defined. And so while doing the movements you can focus on feeling your hands to make sure that they are in the right position. This isn't quite as easy as it may sound because the hand positions require shoulder flexibility. So as well as having to feel, and control, your hands you'll also do well to feel and control your shoulders and elbows and even your spine. This focus on proprioception, or keeping your hand in the right position, is also one of the ways in which dance of shiva helps you get into the non-thinking state of mind called flow.
Here's the link to begin Learning the basics of the dance of shiva.