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.
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.
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.
Kristin, I’m really grateful that you not only research and teach the science of slow, but that you also share it with such clarity and eloquence. Thank you!
Aw thanks so much Annie, that means a lot to me and I’m so happy that you’ve found something useful here!
Very impassive work, I’ll be in touch to learn more. Thank you for finding me.
Thanks Ria! I am glad you enjoyed the blog and found something useful!
This is wonderfully helpful. Thank you so much!
Thank you. This is great information for Yoga students of any age.
Yes I agree! Many younger people really need to slow down and find greater sense of inner peace and contentment.
Great article Kristine, me encanta tu trabajo
Thank you Daniela! Muchas gracias y creo que ustedes también están haciendo un buen trabajo.
That is so beautiful. Do you offer online classes with a focus on proprioception and interoception? Love and light, Silke
Hi Silke, Yes ALL of my online courses focus on both – but mainly interoception – here’s a free ebook https://go.subtleyoga.com/5-secrets And check out my website for courses. https://subtleyoga.com/online-courses/
I love the graphic and your explanation. Question: I wonder why it is called the 6th and 7th senses. When I think of sixth sense, I think of intuition.
Hi Margaret – thanks so much for your comments! I love that graphic too. Susan did a lovely job – great artist! http://www.susanmcculley.com/
I think the sixth sense as intuition comes from the yoga and New Age worlds. I learned about something called the “pranendrya” in my studies of yoga – a 6th sense that helps us to organize prana (it’s located in the heart center) and provides an intuitive sense. So yes, there are many ways of organizing and thinking about senses for sure!
So much truth here – great illustration and discussion. Thank you!
This is such in-depth, helpful information Kristin, thank you!
Thanks Debbie – I think it’s stuff that’s pretty crucial for yoga teachers to better help our students. xoxo
This is excellent. Great content, clearly delivered and made relevant.
thank you Jenni!
I have learned from the best-you! Been teaching Subtle yoga for five years, meditating daily for 47 years, eat a clean diet for all those years( except the sugar and too much cheese during 40 yrs vegetarian) . Studied Tai Qi, Qi Gong…yet last year accidents and “ conditions” arrived in abundance. Why?. How could that be? Aren’t I doing the best I can do? Well…move away from supportive community to care for parents and grandchildren, start burning the proverbial candle at both ends, put others’ needs up front, feel unhappy, resentful, overwhelmed and Wham! I don’t guess I need to say much more….
Aw thanks Carol!
Hi Kristine, as an occupational therapist and fellow yogi, I love that you are bringing these additional senses to light. As an OT specializing in sensory integration, we have long espoused 7 senses: the 5 we all grew up learning about in school plus proprioception and the vestibular sense. In sensory integration theory (based on the work of A Jean Ayres), the basis of typical development includes the ability to integrate proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile input. In the last few years we’ve incorporated interoception into our awareness. Here’s a link if you are interested: https://www.aota.org/-/media/Corporate/Files/Practice/Children/Resources/FAQs/SI%20Fact%20Sheet%202.pdf
I use lots of yoga with the kids I work with in OT and also see the effects yoga has on the sensory system with the adults I teach to yoga to. I love how you are bringing it all together! I’m hoping to one day be able to take your Subtle yoga course – I so respect the work you are doing!
Thank you for comments and the link – i look forward to checking it out!
And yes, I often think of proprioception as a part of vestibular so it’s interesting to see them separated.
Since I published this blog I’ve had a few folks from different professions tell me about other formulas for senses beyond the traditional 5 (for example Stephen Porges’ Neuroception – the ability to feel safe). I love the holistic approach of OT! Such an excellent complement to yoga – I hope to meet you some time!
I find your method of teaching to be easy to understand and absorb. Thank you!
Thanks Lorraine! I really appreciate your kind comment and I’m so glad that my teaching resonates with you! xoxo
Thanks so much Lorraine – so glad to hear that you have found something that resonates with you!
GRATIDÃO!MUUITA GRATIDÃO por nos disponibilizar ensinamentos tão importantes!!Estudar e entender estes ensinamentos têm me ajudado muito na aulas de Yoga e em minha vida!Que Deus continue te iluminando cada vez mais!Grande abraço nesse seu lindo, generoso e amoroso coração!
GRATIDÃO!MUUITA GRATIDÃO!!Seus ensinamentos têm me ajudado muito!!Que Deus te ilumine cada vez mais!Grande abraço nesse seu lindo, generoso e amoroso coração!
?????? não sei o que aconteceu!!Eu disse outras coisas e saiu isso aí rsrs
Eu disse que seus ensinamentos têm me ajudado muito!Grande abraço no seu lindo, generoso e amoroso coração!
Thanks so much for this simple explanation of our 6th and 7th senses. I’m teaching slow mindful yoga to young people in a summer enrichment program and this is an excellent topic to incorporate into a practice. Developing interoception can support these young people in learning to make life affirming decisions.
That sounds lovely Linda!
Very informative, I have been familiar with both terms for some time now but this article has brought more depth to my understanding of the subject.
oh that’s great Kevel! Glad you enjoyed this!
This is just what I needed today. Going to bring this level of awareness into my classes during the mountain pose, as a start.