Have you ever been in awe of a gymnast who can do a backward somersault and land perfectly on a balance beam? Do you watch Yo-Yo Ma play beautiful music on his cello and wonder how he can do it without even looking at his instrument or his hands? If so, you would be marveling at two examples of people with an extremely finely tuned body awareness, or sense of where their body parts are in space.

Have you ever wondered why a client cannot tell if their lower back is sagging in a quadruped leg arm reach? The answer is that this client likely has poor body awareness. Body awareness, or kinesthesia, is derived from a variation of the sense of touch: proprioception.

 

What is Proprioception?

Just be forewarned: there will be some big words coming your way in this explanation. Fear not, it’ll make you sound so smart in front of your clients, and at dinner parties too!

Proprioception is the ability of your brain to understand and use the sensory input coming from a number of internal stimuli. These stimuli include: the static position of joints as well as joint movement, the speed of movement, and the force of muscular contraction. This information is culled from sensory neurons in the body’s tissues.

The sensory neurons that are most important for Pilates instructors and other movement specialists are the mechanoreceptors. These are special nerves that detect changes in mechanical forces (such as tissue stretch, compression, relaxation, and fluid tension) in joints, muscles, and skin. Basically, your mechanoreceptors are like the GPS in your smartphone, which senses the position and orientation of your smartphone in space at all times. These can be interpreted with the right app, of course, just like our human nervous systems make sense of all of the stimuli it receives.

The information from the mechanoreceptors is sent up the spinal cord and into an area of the brain called the cerebral cortex. In this part of the brain, the information is mapped out onto the brain’s internal representation of the body, known as the homunculus (Latin for “little man”).

Homunculus

On this map that is the homunculus, certain areas appear larger than others. Since we have more sensory neurons on body parts that require more precision, like our hands (to manipulate objects), lips, tongue and face (to speak, eat, kiss, and grimace while doing the leg-arm reach), these are represented in our brain as much larger than areas that do not require a lot of awareness or dexterity, such as our elbows.

What is interesting about each person’s homunculus is that it is adaptable and can change based on which body parts we use and which ones we don’t. For a professional strings musician like Yo-Yo Ma, the fingers on his left hand will have a much larger representation than his right hand, as his left hand presses the strings on the fingerboard and his right hand holds his bow. Yo-Yo Ma’s left fingers on his homunculus can be 100x bigger than yours or mine, because he requires exquisite sensitivity to play cello with such proficiency.

Conversely, a volleyball player with a sprained right ankle will, over time, have a homunculus in which their right ankle is much smaller than the left one. Because of pain, tissue swelling, possibly an ankle brace on the right side, and disuse due to the injury, the player has decreased use and thus decreased awareness of that right ankle and where it is in space. For your client with the sagging back, she has less awareness in this part of her body, and it will appear smaller in her homunculus.

Whew, that was a lot of technical stuff. Do you feel smarter yet? If not, or if you still have questions, please ask them in the comments below.

 

What is Kinesthesia?

Kinesthesia, an aspect of proprioception, is the ability to sense the relative position of body parts in space and to navigate those body parts through space in a conscious way. Basically, it is an awareness of how we move. Some people have this in spades; others keep bumping into coffee tables. For ease, I will refer to kinesthesia as body awareness.

 

Reasons For Poor Body Awareness

Less proprioception equals less body awareness. A number of factors can hamper the ability of our bodies to sense where our parts are in space. Pain, joint stiffness or injury, muscle tightness or looseness, joint hypermobility (laxity), a sedentary lifestyle, aging, and muscle atrophy all contribute to decreased sensitivity of the mechanoreceptors in joints, muscles and skin. Additionally, anything that prevents the sensory information from moving up or down the spinal cord and into the brain will decrease proprioception, such as spinal cord injury, intoxication, some types of migraines, and various neurological disorders.

As Pilates instructors and movement specialists, it is important to remember that when a client does not use a body part, the representation of that body part in the homunculus and the ability to activate and control that body part diminishes. For that client with a stiff and painful lower back, it is not just that they cannot do a pelvic tilt because they are tight. They also literally cannot conjure up how to do it, because their perception of that body part is diminished in their mental map.

 

Why Is Body Awareness Important?

Firstly, it helps us align our instruction with Joseph Pilates’ theoretical framework, which includes principles such as concentration, control, precision, fluid movement and skeletal alignment. All of these principles are beautifully integrated when someone has good body awareness. The movement looks and feels almost effortless.

Secondly, let’s face it: we can’t have clients at the Pilates studio with us 24/7. Our goal is to help the client to create integrated, smooth and efficient movement that they can eventually do unconsciously. This is only possible if they are able to self-correct, and self-correction is only possible if they can feel where their body parts are in space. In addition to this, body awareness is critical in helping a client prevent re-injury, particularly where joint laxity is the culprit. Our client with the saggy back needs more body awareness to do the arm leg reach properly. In the upcoming Part 2 of this article, learn about 8 strategies that can help her, and your other clients, be more body aware.

So, to sum it all up:

  • proprioception is our ability of the brain to detect information from our joints, muscles and skin and send this information to our “little person” in the brain
  • kinesthesia, or body awareness, is our ability to take all that information and use it to consciously move our body parts in space
  • these are important for our clients so that they can self-correct and thus do Pilates (or any other movements) more smoothly and effectively, and also prevent injuries

 

Please feel free to comment on what you’ve just read and ask any questions about the content above.