It is a long word! Proprioception. I’d never come across it until I’d been doing yoga for some time. But now I see it as a vital component of our yoga benefits toolkit. I wrote about in my recent book, The New Yoga: From Cult and Dogma to Science and Sanity. But when I picked up the book with the curious title, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, I realized it is more important than I thought: as important, in fact, as any one of our five senses!
But unlike taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight, this sense is hidden from view, says Sacks. Proprioception – our sense of where our body and limbs are in space without using the eyes is so deeply embedded in our sense of ourselves, we don’t even notice it.
“What is more important for us at an elemental level than the control, the owning and operation of our own physical selves?” he says. “And yet it is so automatic, so familiar that we never give it a thought.”
Sacks tells us about a patient of his who had a rare infection that destroyed her proprioceptive sense. She was unable to lift an arm or a leg without being able to view the part of her body she wanted to move.
So, proprioception really is our “sixth” sense. And yoga is one of the best tools to make us, become aware of it and to train its ability to guide us accurately and gracefully through life.
I often refer to it in yoga classes, drawing students’ awareness to their body position in certain poses where they are unable to check alignment with their eyes. In Warrior III, for example, knowing whether their hips are level; judging whether the back is concave, convex or flat in forward folds.
Wikipedia explains in more detail how proprioception works: “Proprioception is mediated by proprioceptors, mechanosensory neurons located within muscles, tendons and joints. There are multiple types of proprioceptors which are activated during distinct behaviors and encode distinct types of information: limb velocity and movement, load on a limb, and limb limits.
The central nervous system integrates proprioception and other sensory systems, such as vision and the vestibular system, to create an overall representation of body position, movement, and acceleration.
Proprioception: Our Imperceptible 6th Sense