Lessons from the Accident Prone

I once had a roommate who frequently, inadvertently, injured herself. When I first met her, she didn’t have any eyebrows – she’d burned them off lighting a big gas stove at a campsite. A few weeks later, she came home with her arm in a cast and sling – she’d fallen off of her bike.

A couple of months after that, she was using crutches – she’d twisted her ankle dancing. 

This went on and on.

She joked about how everyone knew she was an accident prone klutz.

But it wasn’t until many years later, when I started to study the science of movement, that I began to understand that a technical term for “accident prone klutz” maybe actually something more like “proprioceptively challenged.” My roommate had poor proprioception – or the ability to feel where her body was in space.

And because of that poor proprioception, she often had accidents.

Proprioception is often called “The sixth sense” – the 5 others being seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. This sixth sense helps us to know where we are and what to do with our bodies at any given time.

It’s fast!

Here’s an important thing to understand about proprioception – it’s fast!

Fast-firing myelinated (myelin is the fatting sheath around nerves that makes them conduct signals very quickly) mechanoreceptors send messages to your brain (which means they are afferent nerves). Your brain quickly sends messages back to your body in order to adjust your position and keep you upright regardless of what you are doing.

Let’s say you’re riding on a bumpy bus and, although it may be uncomfortable, you still manage to stay upright – without a lot of conscious effort. For that you can thank your proprioceptors. In fact, if you are just sitting here reading this and you’re not falling off your chair, you can thank your proprioceptors.

It’s easy to find examples of well honed proprioception, just watch elite athletes like Megan Rapinoe play soccer!

One of the main reasons proprioception is important (beyond sports skills) is because it keeps you safe. You can walk down the street, stay on a bicycle, balance in tree pose, and mostly avoid the emergency room because of this system.

Yoga helps to optimize proprioception because you get to practice all sorts of different ways to stay upright, balanced and safe in lots of different positions. Fast or slow, whatever kind of yoga you do, proprioception benefits.

A Seventh Sense

But there’s also a seventh sense – interoception.

Whereas proprioception is about where your body is in space, interoception is about how your body feels. Do I feel hungry, have to pee, feel hot? When you are tuned in, you make appropriate (and often unconscious) behavioral decisions in order to return to homeostasis – i.e. you eat lunch, go to the bathroom, and turn on the A/C.

It’s slow!

Much of interoception is governed by low-threshold mechanoreceptors that are unmyelinated. The messages are slower and require more time to process.

Most interoception happens below the level of consciousness in order to bring homeostasis to the whole system. However, practicing  cultivating interoceptive awareness brings interoception up into the cortex and this may have numerous health benefits.

(thanks to Susan McCulley for this great graphic! More of her lovely art here: http://www.susanmcculley.com/)

A primary benefit is that good interoception helps to dissipate unconscious muscular tension in your body – holding patterns you may not even know that you have! When you start to unravel these patterns, you diminish the effects of stress on your system. And that’s always a good thing. In fact, some researchers have suggested that poor interoception lies at the heart of many chronic diseases – think about it – if I work too hard, I don’t have time to exercise,  I don’t pay attention to my diet, I don’t manage my stress, and then, surprise, I have heart disease!

That’s how ignoring your body’s signals ends up in chronic conditions.

Unfortunately, we are often taught in our culture to ignore internal messages from our body – even in sports! (Just do it! No pain, No gain!) This attitude may benefit proprioception, but it does not benefit interoception.

Sense of Self

Perhaps an even more important benefit of developing interoceptive skills is that good Interoceptive awareness creates a stronger sense of identity – the interoceptors interface with a brain region – the insula – which plays an important role in our sense of self. As you improve interoception, you improve your sense of self. As you improve your sense of self, you get clearer about the meaning and purpose of your life. Think of it this way – if you know how you feel, you know who you are, if you know who you are, you know what to do.

How do you practice interoceptive awareness?

By slowing down, going inside, and noticing. Slow mindful movement is an excellent way to develop this system.

We have a lot of focus on sports and movement in western culture, so we have many opportunities to develop proprioception. But we have very few places in our culture to develop interoception. Yoga class can provide a great opportunity for us to hone this very important skill.

So teach your students the difference between proprioception and interoception – it will help them to understand the unique value of slow, mindful yoga practice and why they time they spend with you is just as important (and maybe more so!)as any other self-care activity they engage in.

Like this stuff? Want more? Please check out my course, The Science of Slow, here