How to Get Into Your Body

A client with their hands propping them up below their shoulders, their left foot extended to the right also propping them up, and their right leg extended out and lifting beyond that with Katie standing on the client’s left touching their left shoulder

“Feel what’s going on in your body.” “Listen to what your body is trying to tell you.” “Get out of your head and into your body.” You might have heard these esoteric exhortations from yoga instructors, dance teachers, coaches, physiotherapists, chiropractors, or doctors. But what do they really mean? How can you “feel” your body? After all, it is always attached to you. How do you know what you are feeling? The answers to these questions lie in your proprioceptive sensory system. In day-to-day life, proprioception can help you balance a tray of soup, avoid slouching for prolonged periods at your chair at work, or stand straight when carrying a bag down the street. 

Terminology

Proprioception: The ability to know where your body is in space; e.g., the sensation of the position of your hands even when your eyes are closed. 

In each of your muscles, you have thousands of receptors that report its length and tension. These sensations help us to build what is called proprioception. Proprioceptive information is constantly being funnelled into your brain, even as you sit and read this article. Using proprioception in conjunction with your inner ears, eyes, and tactile senses, you can produce a pretty good idea of where you are in space.

How do you know if you are using your proprioceptive system actively?

Do you ever wear a watch and then forget that it is even there? How about your sunglasses? Even though they are there, you might not notice them all the time. This concept also applies to the proprioceptive receptors in your muscles. Just like the pressure sensors in your skin telling your brain that you are wearing a watch, your proprioceptive receptors are always firing, but that doesn’t mean you are actively listening to them. This is because you have a lot of other things to listen to. You may be looking for patterns in traffic, intently listening to a podcast, or savouring your morning coffee. You have other priorities in these situations, so you stop listening to your proprioceptive system.

Why do you want to start listening to your proprioceptors and building the concept of where you are in space as a whole? 

What if you were able to feel everything going on in your body? It would be like having your smartphone on you at all times. With your smartphone, you can get your schedule, reminders, and check the weather in a few seconds. When you are not listening to your body, it is like going without your smartphone for a whole day. You get home and turn it on to realize you have 5 missed calls, 12 emails, and you forgot to pick up groceries. When we are not aware of these signals it can lead to overwork, overstress and even injury. Think: what if your knee tried to signal you 5 times during the day that something was wrong after picking up a box in a weird way, and then you went to play soccer that night not thinking anything of it. There is an element of risk that you missed knowing about. 

So how do you start listening to the signals in your body? Try the following exercises.

Exercise for kinesthetic receptors:

Lay down on your back in a comfortable position. (Bend your knees if your lower back aches.) Place one hand on your belly, and one on your chest. Breath deep into your body. Can you feel your breath moving into your chest and belly? Which one is moving more?

Progression: Can you take your hands off, and still feel your belly and chest expanding?

Progression: Now place your hand on your heart and try to feel its beat in your chest. Then take your hand off and see if you can still feel your heart beating.

Explanation: You are constantly breathing, and your heart is beating to keep you alive. You can feel these sensations any time you choose. Your hands contain more receptors than your chest, so it is easier to feel your breath or your heartbeat if you put your hands over your chest. You can train yourself to listen to other proprioceptors, too, including the stretch sensation in your lungs and the length of the muscles of breath (diaphragm, intercostals, etc.). You can also hear and feel air going in and out of your nose or mouth. You can learn to feel how your clothes move on your skin as you expand your stomach and chest. If you find it challenging to tune in and feel your breath and heart, all you need is a little practice!

Exercise for light touch proprioception:

Close your eyes and feel your clothing. Can you feel the exact place where your shirt ends? Your socks? Your pants? Can you feel where your jewelry is? Do you feel your hair moving around in the breeze, or settling on your head and neck?

Explanation: we have receptors that are “fast adapting” meaning that we sit on our chair and we quickly adapt to knowing it is there, we can then just start thinking about work. We can also use “top down” functions to ramp them up a little bit more, to go looking for sensation that we previously have adapted to. 

Exercise for muscle tension proprioception:

Touch your biceps with your opposite hand. Contract your bicep, then relax it. Contract it again. Can you contract it 50%? How about 25%? It’s hard to tell, right? But practice, and you can control the amount of “tone” in the muscle. It is easy to do with big muscles like the quads and biceps, but harder with muscles that are smaller or more awkward to touch, such as the muscles of your back. You can practice this premise with any muscle, and gain conscious control over the tone of that muscle. (This is assuming you do not have neurological dysfunction, such as nerve conduction dysfunction, MS, or stroke. For more information, please see my article on how to turn a muscle “on.” in the resources section of the website).

Explanation: you can build an increased neural control of a particular muscle, meaning your brain can get very specific about how many groups of muscle fibers it takes to contract to reach a desired outcome. I.e. darts is a very specific and precise motor pattern, it takes us a long time to gain the precise control of where the dart will land on the board vs just trying to whip the dart at the board in the first place. Our brain will start to gain the ability to turn on some clusters of muscles vs others. Similarly, I can smash a fist on a piano vs using individual fingers to play. We can learn that, it just takes practice. 

Track your progress:

Find your baseline; i.e., how much you can feel now, before you have trained your proprioceptive system. Then practice these exercises regularly, and try to increase your sensitivity. For instance, see if you can go from feeling your heart with your hand to feeling it without your hand. The more you can feel, the more you can notice when something is awry i.e. when you have a sharp rock under your heel, you don’t want to keep walking on it because it could cut open your skin if you left it in there all day, so you notice it, and then remove it.

Most athletes have great proprioceptive ability, which allows them to react to information their body is giving them and change their position to improve the outcome of a given scenario. As mentioned before: proprioception can help you balance a tray of soup, avoid slouching for prolonged periods at your chair at work, or stand straight when carrying a bag down the street.  In sport, we see this as knowing where you are in relationship to other players, the ball, the surface you are moving off of, the wind that could affect the trajectory of what you are throwing etc. The more proficient you are at listening and controlling your body, the less likely you are to become injured, and the quicker you will recover from injuries. Getting into our bodies allows us to be able to notice where we are in space and to then decide where the best place for us to be at that time. It gives us a choice in the matter, rather than just being driven into positions that over time could cause damage, or injury. Getting into our bodies lets us know when it is also time for the need for rest, so we don’t over train. Or eating, so that we have enough energy to continue on with the day. Our bodies hold valuable information and in a sense data, that allows us the freedom of choice of the best outcome.