This Easter break we took our kids down to north Cornwall, to a place that I had holidayed at as a child. We went down to a bay near Bedruthan Steps and spent a happy half an hour boulder-hopping. I say ‘we’, but it was mainly the children that were springing merrily from rock to rock. My husband and I were slightly more warily maneuvering ourselves, and I realised how even with my regular yoga practice, I was less gung-ho than when I was younger.
I’m not alone. The sure-footedness that we have as children decreases with age (and practice), as our awareness of the body in space, known as proprioception, gets less and less. But what exactly is proprioception and why is it important?
Proprioception and balance
The term was coined by the Nobel-prize winning, English neurophysiologist Sir Charles Sherrington. It is a word to describe how we know what our limbs and joints are doing in relation to our trunk – our sense of our body in space. This links closely to balance, as without having bodily awareness, we are less able to maintain and control balance.
As we age, various factors mean that our proprioception decreases. A decreasing sense of proprioception can cause all sorts of problems. Firstly, it negatively affects our sense of balance, which leads to falls, a high cause of death and serious injury in the elderly. It can also lead to a deterioration in joint health because when we are less aware of our limbs in relation to our bodies, we can develop bad habits that cause more wear and tear on the joints, leading to arthritis and other chronic joint conditions.
Can you improve proprioception?
Yes! Proprioception can be improved through conscious movement and exercise. Physical activity can positively affect the central nervous system by building new and stronger connections among neurons, as the brain responds to repeated stimuli. So, that repetitive yoga practice that you do, is important not only to build muscles and maintain joint movement but also to rebuild your nervous system in your muscles.
Yoga methodologies that focus on alignment of the body are particularly helpful for developing and maintaining awareness of the different parts of the body in space and in relationship to each other. This effectively preserves that precious sense of proprioception over time.
What yoga poses help with proprioception?
Proprioception is about being aware of our bodies in space. The most extreme versions of this are when we turn our worlds upside down in inversions. Inversions are incredibly important for re-calibrating the body and the mind. By turning ourselves upside down, the body learns to become hyper-aware of which parts of the body relate to others. We are also taking balance to the extreme by finding that central point of balance – a small, coin-sized space on the top of the head. Practice sirsasana (headstand) daily to improve your body’s proprioception.
It’s also really important to strengthen the joints. The standing poses, e.g. the virabhadrasana poses (warrior poses) strengthen the joints and muscles of the legs and help to maintain proprioception.
And what about balance?
Balance starts with the feet. When we walk, we are moving our weight from one foot to the other through a swinging motion. This is a complicated action, or dynamic posture, that involves a huge amount of sensitively interpreted signals from the feet and ankles. As children, we are, first of all, lower to the ground, and less afraid. Our sense of our bodies in space might not be fully developed (hence the terrifying lack of fear that most small children display) but they are reading the world around them with their entire bodies all the time.
As we age we get further from the ground, and we very rarely walk without supportive shoes on. This means that the subtle muscles and neural receptors in our feet and ankles are less sensitive to external factors, leading to a less reliable sense of balance.
Poses such as vrksasana (tree pose) are really important for improving balance. As we learn to balance on one bare foot, the sensory nerves, muscles, and tendons are strengthened and our awareness heightened.
If you struggle with balance, standing in tadasana (mountain pose) with the eyes closed is a good way to realise how much we use our sense of sight to balance, and by taking that out of the equation, the sense of touch suddenly goes into overdrive to keep the body steady.