I talk a lot about body awareness, about how sports, fitness, and yoga all help to develop it. But what is it, really? And how do you know if you’re good at it?
At a basic level, it’s knowing where your body is in space. This is proprioception, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “the reception of stimuli produced within the organism.” I like the MedicineNet description better:
“The ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion, and equilibrium. Even if a person is blindfolded, he or she knows through proprioception if an arm is above the head or hanging by the side of the body.”
This is mostly an unconscious awareness (which feels like an oxymoron), but if we put our attention on it (so, where is my arm right now, anyway?), we get it.
Where body awareness gets interesting, for me, anyway, shows up a lot in yoga.
“Sit up straight,” for example, means different things to different people. For the most part, this is fine, because “straight” will look a little different on all of us depending on how our bodies are put together, or because of how long we’ve been slouching.
Because of weak muscles or an ingrained pattern like slouching, someone might not be able to sit up completely in an L position for staff pose, for example:
But if you asked, they would say they were sitting up straight, because that is what their awareness of “straight” is.
Still with me?
This is deeply illustrated when I adjust poses, either verbally or hands on. I might ask that the hips stay level in a pose like Warrior III. Sometimes I see no effort in the students to make that adjustment, which tells me they believe their hips to be level already. Sometimes an attempt is made that results in another movement, which tells me they know their hips aren’t level but they aren’t sure what to do to make them so.
All of this is okay. The great thing about yoga (or any physical activity) is that it will teach you body awareness as you go. That’s part of why working with a teacher is so important. If no one ever points out that you’re holding your right hip higher than your left in that pose, you might never know that, and your body will learn to say “THIS is level.”
Developing (and Changing) Awareness
As a lifelong athlete and yoga teacher, I always thought I was pretty body-aware, and I could feel my awareness improving the more I taught and practiced. But more than six years ago, I met my boyfriend, who is a chiropractor, and I started getting regular adjustments. Suddenly, my awareness changed again. I had imbalances I was not aware of before they were corrected, because my body was used to them and worked with them.
Body Awareness in Daily Life
Awareness helps you maintain good form while you exercise, which is important for efficiency and safety. Where are your knees in that squat? Are you rounding your back? Do you take a longer stride on the right than the left? Continued lack of awareness can lead to imbalances that can cause pain or damage to your spine or joints.
When we’re aware of our bodies, we also get a lot of clues about what we need and when as far as food, water, and rest. You become aware of when you’re hungry (rather than bored) and when you’re full, and even what type of food your body really wants. We notice the signs of a cold or other illness before we’re laid out on the couch sniffling. (I don’t get colds very often, but I got a couple of them this winter, so it’s fresh on my mind. Before it hits, I always feel a little bit weak, and there’s a certain feeling I get in my head when I workout that tells me a cold is on the way.) You notice when something feels “off.”
Our bodies are always changing, so I imagine it would be quite a feat to be 100% body aware. However, we can keep up and continue to get better at it as we go, as long as we’re paying attention.