Monday, January 14, 2008


Jane Brody had an interesting article in last week's NYT Science section on balance (Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance). It was mostly about what determines your sense of balace and some exercises to improve it(nothing about yoga, tho, hmph). She writes that there are three main sensory contributors to balance: vision, cilia in the inner ear, and proprioceptors on the bottom of the feet. These decline with age, but there are ways to maintain these elements through various balancing exercises.
I was intrigued by proprioceptors, since I had never heard of such of thing. According to Wikipedia it is "is a third distinct sensory modality that provides feedback solely on the status of the body internally. It is the sense that indicates whether the body is moving with required effort, as well as where the various parts of the body are located in relation to each other." Nerve receptors in the muscles send information to the brain so that it understands where the body is located in space without using visual information. This is how you can walk in the dark without falling over or, with a little practice, touch the tip of your nose with your index finger while your eyes are closed. Or type without looking at your fingers, or drive without seeing your feet on the pedals. Important stuff.

Like most motor skills, it is one that can be learned. So I thought I'd post a little exercise to bring awareness into the soles of the feet. Where you go from there is up to you...Vrksasana (Tree Pose), Garudasana (Eagle), Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Standing Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). If you really want to challenge yourself, try them with your eyes closed!

Grounding Thru the Foot Bones
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Lift all your toes at once, and feel the rest of the foot settle into your mat. Now lower just the big toes. Now lift the big toes and just lower the little toes. Now lower the big toes, but keep all the toes in between lifted. Is this easy or hard? You can help yourself a bit, by mimicking the actions of the toes with the fingers (I don't know why this helps, but it does). Now lower all toes, so that each one has its own space to settle and notice how much more solid your stance is.
I like to start all my standing poses with this exercise, just to get the feet grounded, but also to help make my toes more coordinated. I even try to drum my toes, little to big toe--one at a time--in imitation of my son. I notice my 3 1/2 year old has so much mobility in his toes, he could play the piano! I'm not looking to add more digits on the keyboard, but I suspect that drummable toes equals well-tuned proprioceptors.

Ankle and leg strength also play an important part in your ability to balance. But the sole of the foot is the starting point. Give it a try and see!


jensmith98 said...

Great post! I also liked your recent YJ article on rejuvenating your teaching by incorporating other interests. I think I've always done this subconciously, but since I began studying martial arts a year ago I've used lessons and techniques more intentionally.


Elizabeth said...

I'm fascinated by how my students think they are aligned and when I align them, they feel crooked. Kinesthetic, proprioceptive and interceptor feedback is constantly shifting and readjusting. Just wanted to share some info from one of my favorite books, Embryogenesis by Richard Grossinger: "Each realm of tissues develop its own proprioception and at the same time contributes to the collective proprioception of the organism. We are an event that sustains a particular lifestyle. We are a complex biological process that has many realms of living and experiencing."

Kevin Kunz said...

Proprioception is my favorite word. Proprioception explains a lot of what we do and why. Proprioception helps to develop our sense of being. It is a long neglected sense. It is how we develop an inner sense of movement intelligence. Proprioception also explains the reason why we lose movement intelligence as we age. It also explains a lot of the workings of reflexology.

Great post and appreciate the NY Times article.

All the best,
Kevin Kunz

Complete Reflexology For Life

Reflexology: Health at Your Fingertips
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Linda (Sama) said...

love this post, in fact, I was talking about proprioception with my students this morning. I like to refer to it as "knowing where your body is in space."

over the years I have found that people are increasingly cut off from their bodies, especially young people (I teach to college students, age range 18-23.)

my own theory for their lack of awareness about their bodies is the huge difference in physical education from when I was a kid (over 40 years ago) compared to now.

in my area, many schools do not have PE, so kids grow up without running, without skipping (a middle school teacher told me once that she has kids that literally do not know how to skip!), without falling down, without jumping rope, without climbing a jungle gym (school districts fear of lawsuits!), etc. etc. etc. in other words, they do not know how to use their bodies.

nothing is learned by trial and error. seems like as soon as a girl can walk, she's put in a ballet class, or a boy is put on a soccer team....everything is SO STRUCTURED instead of cultivating movement that is freeing.

just my 2 cents!