"Don't think, Feeeeeel! It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
~ Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon
Proprioception is elegant in it's simplicity and yet gives rise to one of the most complicated and profound phenomena in our human experience. Proprioception creates the experience of embodiment. It frames the parameters by which we understand our relationship with the outer world. It may well be a significant component of consciousness. While the above is the realm of neuroscience and philosophy one thing we know for sure is that without proprioception it would be impossible to navigate the world safely.
But how does it work? Distributed throughout muscle, joint & skin tissue are tiny receptors that measure subtle mechanical changes like stretch, amount of tension and pressure. These sensors are linked through the vast network of the central nervous system which communicates information about the state of the tissues in the body to the spinal chord and from there on to the brain. Specifically this information is processed in a part of the brain called the Cerebellum. Folded like an accordion the tissue of the cerebellum is densely packed with neurons in a small space enabling it with a large processing capacity. Located at the base of the brain very close to the main channel of communication with the body, the brain stem, the cerebellum is largely responsible for motor control. Out of a constant cacophony of signal from receptors throughout the entire body the Cerebellum recognizes patterns, interprets them as joint positions and creates a mental map of how all the various parts of the body are oriented in space. We experience this process as the sensation of our bodies in space and the feeling of movement.
To understand proprioception it can be helpful to visualize it on a small scale. Visualize an individual muscle in your arm. Contained within that muscle tissue are many very tiny mechanoreceptors. These sensors measure and transmit information about the amount of stretch the muscle is experiencing. If you can picture a coiled wire you are not far off the configuration of the protein that resides inside the mechanoreceptor. When the muscle stretches because the arm is contracting while holding something heavy the coiled protein inside the mechanoreceptor stretches as well. The mechanoreceptor then sends a signal through the central nervous system to the cerebellum saying "hey! Were stretching X amount." This message in combination with all the other sensory information is processed and interpreted by the cerebellum to very accurately predict the position of all the joints in real time giving rise to our sensory experience of body position and motion.
Proprioception not only helps guide movements but contributes to our sense as well aided with two other important systems. These are the visual motor system and the vestibular systems. If your not familiar with how the visual motor system aids in balance and situational awareness while performing sports I highly recommend visiting the website eyeQ.com and learning about Dave Picket's fascinating and extensive work on the subject. The Vestibular system is something you will have at some point in your life become acutely aware of if you have ever become dizzy from spinning.
Located in the inner ear are fluid filled rings internally lined with small cilia hair like projections attached to sensors. Depending on the orientation of the head the fluid will move and the brain is generally very good at interpreting the stimulation patterns created by the moving fluid to inform balance. When we we spin and suddenly stop the fluid continues to move with the momentum of that action for a short period of time. The brain thinks you are still spinning but this conflicts with the eyes telling the brain that the spinning has stopped. This conflict in communication between the two systems is experienced as dizziness. With practice anyone can become more accustomed to these mixed signals, figure skaters for example, who practice high speed spins repeatedly report no longer experiencing dizziness as the brain has adapted to the conflicting sensory information over time.
Proprioception is so ubiquitous to our experience of reality that we can completely take for granted that it is happening all the time subconsciously. Right now you know where both your right and left big toes are in space regardless if you can see them because you feel where they are. Try this experiment. Massage just the right toe for one minute. Then observe the difference in sensation between your two big toes. Because you have stimulated mechanoreceptors in the right big toe the neural pathway for the right big toe has been activated and the proprioceptive sense for that part of the body awakened. You will feel your right big toe more acutely than your left for a short period of time.
Motor Sensory Amnesia
Conversely there are situations where proprioception can be weakened and our mental map of our bodies in space made more vague. This is called motor amnesia. The first instance where this takes place is simply with lack of use. If you were a really active child skipping rope and swing from monkey bars as easily as walking down the street but in your adult life you have become primarily sedentary trying to repeat those movements will feel a little robotic and malcoordinated at first. If you were to pick up those activities again however and practice them diligently for a few days the same neural pathways from proprioceptors to cerebellum would be re-strengthened and you would restore your youthful grace in those movements all it would take is time and practice.
The second situation where our mental map can be distorted and our ability to perform movement efficiently impeded is when we sustain an injury. Pain combined with an effort by the body to stop using the injured tissue so it may heal literally atrophies it's sensory neural pathways. A commonly explored example of this is spraining the ankle joint by rolling over the outer edge of he foot. The injury to that tissue is compensated for by the other foot for a period of time and the sensory system that communicates to the brain the position of the injured ankle joint is weakened over time. It is quite likely without substantial effort to rehabilitate this injury completely the joint will be prone to a repeat of precisely the same injury due to motor sensory amnesia. It becomes a vicious cycle of injury leading to reduced ability to sense that part of the body making it vulnerable to injury yet again and so on.
The case of motor sensory amnesia that I see the most often as a Ski Instructor and Yoga Teacher is that which arises from joint range of motion limitations. If the muscles surrounding a joint are excessively tight and impede the joint from moving through it's full range there are receptors within the tissues of the joint that will never be stimulated leading to black spots in the mental map. Tight people literally can not feel the entirety of their bodies. They don't know what they are missing.
This is what Mr. Lee was talking about in Enter the Dragon. "Don't concentrate on just the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." In the same way, don't concentrate exclusively on strengthening just the parts of the body that are considered most important in your particular sport and neglect stretching those same tissues as well as strengthening and stretching all the other parts of the body. Not only will you blind yourself to the full extraordinary sensory experience your body is capable of. You will cripple yourself from being able to quickly learn, internalize and refine new movement patterns. You will miss all that heavenly glory.
Kinesthesia & Learning Movement in Sport
When it comes right down to it skiing, like all sports, is about learning to feel body movements that produce desired outcomes so they may be repeated. Enter the process by which we learn how to perform movement patterns for the first time and store that memory for future use. The eighteenth century physiologist and neurologist Henry Charlton Bastian first gave this process a unique name calling it Kinesthesia. This term describes our conscious awareness of the sensations associated with performing movements.
A good example of Kinesthesia at work was when I finally learned how to ski with a stance that was appropriately wide. I remember it had a recognizable sensation. I felt it mostly in my hip muscles and described it as uncomfortable. Really it was just foreign. I was stimulating mechanoreceptors in a novel pattern and it was completely new and slightly awkward. The consequence of that body position was that my turns felt more stable. Once I knew those key target sensation, the discomfort in my hips, and the sensation of a more stable turn as if by magic I could suddenly recreate that more aligned stance at will.
As a teacher of movement I still marvel at these eureka moments when I witness my students having them. A student has a unique combination of learning style, cultural influences, body configuration and life experiences that influence her interpretation and communication of movement sensations or movement vocabulary. This can vary widely between students and event day to day or moment to moment within one student. Therefore, as a teacher of movement I have necessarily become a part telepathic and part movement linguist. Like most sport instructors I fortunately poses a Rosetta stone of movement vocabulary. I acquired it during thirty years training in various movement disciplines combined with a strong ability to empathize with students and many many hours carefully observing student responses to different instruction.
However, I know enough know to know that I am just a guide in the loosest sense of the word engineering the conditions for learning to take place. Ultimately the student must experiment with information I give her in the environment until they stumble upon the sensation for themselves and define her own movement vocabulary. It is a challenging art to be a teacher who can create the right blend of environment and instruction at the right time to guide a student towards the right epiphany. As a student it is equally challenging
Often kinesthesia and proprioception are used interchangeably. It is important to understand that while operating from a common mechanism they are not the same thing. Kinesthesia is a behavioral process. It has to do with learning movement. It corresponds with things like developing muscle memory and hand eye coordination. Proprioception is largely automatic and unconscious. It describes our sense of our bodies in space and informs our sense of balance.
Kinesthesia and learning movement
Kinesthetics sense can be with practice or allowed to weaken with disuse. Kinesthesia is how we learn movement patterns that are effective for helping us achieve certain outcomes for example learning how to swing a bat to hit a ball or how to navigate a mountain by turning skis on snow. Performing basic movements while reflecting on their corresponding sensations of the movement connect you into a rich sensory scape where physical literacy is gained. Learning how to pay careful attention to sensations associated with movement is one of the hallmarks of yoga practice.
Tapping into the four parts of the foot
In yoga asana practice one of the foundational standing postures is Tadasana or Mountain Pose. How appropriate for a discussion about yoga for skiers to reflect on the many benefits of Mountain Pose. The posture itself involves simply standing with feet parallel and hip distance. The goal is to stand with perfect posture so the breath can be full and unrestricted. Outwardly it appears incredibly simple and yet internally there is a lot going on. When teaching this posture I give many alignment cues from the ground up.
The first cue is to become aware of four key points on the bottom of the feet. These are the distal end of the 1st metatarsal or the fleshy mount just back from the big toe, the distal end of the 5th metatarsal or the fleshy mount just back from the pinkie toe, as well as the inner and outer edge of the Calcaneus or the heel bone. If there is even pressure on these four points chances are the rest of the body above the feet is aligned.
The second cue is to broaden the toes. The purpose of separating the toes is it makes more pronounced the sensation of pressure on the 1st and 5th metatarsals helping the practitioner tap more into their kinesthetics sense to find balance. All the remaining cues are to activate specific muscles that will support and strengthen that beautifully aligned posture.
Most yoga practices start with a series of linked postures called Surya Namaskara or Sun Salutations. Pose number one in the sequence is Tadasna, Mountain Pose. I marvel at the elegance with which the ancient yogis crafted this practice. Mountain Pose is the perfect kinesthetics sense builder. Starting the sequence with this posture helps the practitioner tap into sensing the alignment of their bodies through the litmus test of feeling even pressure on the four points of the feet. It primes them to become more receptive to sensations arising in the body that inform alignment to create effortless balance.
So to in skiing there is a specific point on the feet that we want to pay attention to but it is even smaller. Ski Instructors often refer to this spot on the foot as the front of the heel the back of the arch. It is the intersection of four bones in the feet which are the Calcaneus, Cuboid, Navicular & Talus. A circle, approximately the size of a quarter, marks the sweet spot of the foot. I have a custom footbed in my ski boot with an arch support that helps me feel this spot on my foot.
Feeling pressure on the sweet spot of the foot is the result of bending and extending the hip, knee and ankle joints to precisely the correct degree and in the right order. The result is that the body weight lands right on top of the sweet spot of the ski, just back from the mid point in-between the toe and heel pieces of the bindings. When this happens the ski turns almost effortlessly. Voila! Just by learning to feel pressure on a specific point of the foot aligns the body creating balance. With balance all things become possible.
Next Week: Experiments in kinaesthetic training: My first pigeon pose I thought I was going to die
"Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand"
~ Chinese Proverb
It was the mid nineties. I was 15 and knew everything there was to know about skiing, or at least I thought I did. I was leaving my little river valley hill and the Brazeau Race Club based in Drayton Valley Alberta for a slightly larger river valley hill outside Devon Alberta called Rabbit Hill. I along with a fellow teammate mate from Drayton Valley traveled the hour and fifteen minutes one way three times a week to train with certified coaches, our parents generously taking turns to drive us there.
My coach, let's call him Bob, realized he had his work cut out for him getting me caught up with the team mates. First problem, my stance was from the 80's as were a couple of the uncertified volunteer coaches who generously gave up their weekends to teach us at my local hill. Bob explained to me rather unceremoniously "there's no daylight between your legs." With the inner edges of my ski boots literally touching I made turns like a salsa dancing upright inchworm, my entire body would shimmy and my legs would thrust out to the side. The problem was, that using my entire body generated a lot of excess momentum that went well only under extremely favourable conditions like when I had heaps of room to make a turn and no obstacles to avoid. Not terribly adaptive for navigating plastic poles on an icy rutted pitch.
Bob tried to explain using very practical terminology to get me to widen my stance like "imagine your riding a horse." I would take this information into consideration think that my stance was so far apart that I was about to split the crotch of my ski pants and when I would check back in with Bob he would shake his head and say not wide enough. I thought I was widening my stance but I couldn't feel it. The honest truth was I had absolutely no sense at all where my legs were in space. In my mind my feet were so wide they may as well have been heading in opposite directions but this was unequivocally not the case.
I was also a slightly obnoxious teen and relentlessly stubborn so I sort of didn't believe my coach that my feet weren't wide enough. I can only infer that he was on to me based on what happened next. In a bold move one day after exhausting his entire repertoire of analogies to describe a wide stance Bob resorted to mechanical modification. He Duct Taped a volleyball in-between my shins. The humiliation of having to hop and shuffle my way to the front of the T-bar line with a volley ball Duct Taped in-between my shins provoked a little soul searching. It took about 15 seconds to get down Rabbit Hill but it took nearly a minute to ride that T-bar up. That was a lot of seconds to ponder my assumptions about my stance.
With the volleyball in-between my shins for an entire afternoon, perhaps 30 times up and down that small pitch, I had to re-learn how to turn. My upright inch-worm technique did not work at all. Most significantly however, my legs were hurting in a new way as I recruited muscles that were not previously being used. When I sheepishly asked Bob if I could remove the volley ball he warned that if I didn't keep my stance wide I would have to repeat the exercise. That wasn't going to happen. I knew what sensation to look for and I was really really motivated to feel for it. From that day forward I skied with a reasonably wide stance. My body adjusted. Aches and pains were replaced by a new sense of normal. I enjoyed the increased stability and balance that the wider stance brought. It was the first in a long list of changes I had to humbly adopt in order to pull my self out of the bottom of the race results list and ultimately into the top 10.
With my students now I see the same thing. While they are standing still I often ask them to copy my demo. In some cases I ask if I can actually position their bodies in the shape I want them to feel. While at a stand still my students can bend and turn their legs to a very specific degree no problem. Once they start sliding down the slope however, that often goes out the window. The movement patterns they executed very successfully only moments before while standing still can not be repeated to the same degree while moving.
So why is this the case? Skiing is an open sport meaning the variables that influence the experience are constantly changing. External things like speed, terrain, snow conditions and obstacles provide a huge amount of sensory date for the central nervous system and brain to process. Throw on top of that all the internal information, the sensations arising within the body that give the skier a sense of where his limbs are in space, and it's easy to become overwhelmed.
We are built to turn our senses outward so as to anticipate threats in our environment so that we can respond appropriately. It is really hard, while in what one perceives as a potentially threatening environment, (ie. skiing) to pay attention to those subtle cues coming from within the body. The latter is precisely what is needed to become aware of the sensations associated with movement patterns. And yet this type of awareness remains elusive to most athletes until extensive practice where eventually the external stimuli stop eliciting a fight or flight response.
And, ORRRRRRR........ you could try yoga. Yoga has, as a key component of it's system, a practice that trains the practitioner to turn attention inwards. This is called Pratyahara which loosely translates to mean sense withdrawal. This does not mean emptying the mind as many people mistake it to mean. Rather it means developing the capacity to switch focus from being alert and aware of the outside world to becoming hyper sensitive to the inner world.
The inner world is an entire universe of sensation that is, for most of us, going on all the time just beneath the level of conscious awareness. Try for a moment closing your eyes and feeling your heart beat. In-spite the fact that this is a substantial muscular movement happening within your chest all the time it's awfully hard to feel. Try again with your fingers on your wrist monitoring your pulse, eyes closed and pay specific attention to the chest. Before long you will feel the rhythmical pulsations of the heart in time with your wrist pulse. Then remove your fingers from your wrist and practice paying attention to the sensation of your heart beating within your chest. If you do this often you won't need to place your fingers on your wrist anymore. You will simply be able to feel your heart at will by shifting your attention inward.
Another practice that is powerful for cultivating this skill is walking meditation. While performing a mundane task like going for a simple walk. Practice paying as much attention as possible to the changes in sensation through the bottom of your feet. You will notice each step becomes an entire epic drama when you pay enough attention to it. You will undoubtably notice differences in-between the left and right step. You will start to become aware of how pressure on different parts of the foot correspond with different subtle movements of the leg bones, the balance of the pelvis, even the way your turn your head. If you do this for just a couple minutes ever day for a period of time, eventually the way you walk will change. You will become more efficient, more event, more graceful just by paying greater attention to the internal world.
In Hatha Yoga we practice each posture with our attention inward focussed. In this way each posture is deeply felt and held for at least 45 seconds to a minute. Over time the yoga practice gifts the practitioner with an acute sensitivity towards inner world. This becomes a tool the practitioner can use to navigate life with a little more clarity, less pain as a result of poor posture and inefficient movement patters and much more grace.
When we ski a lot we progressively desensitize ourselves to the outer world. At first it happens on Green runs and then progresses to ever more difficult terrain. This desensitization means the fight or flight reaction is no longer triggered and we are relaxed enough to start paying attention to the inner world while we ski. The sensations that arise within the body that tells us how we are moving through space become obvious and modifiable. This is motor sensory intelligence. If we have a very strongly tuned capacity for inner focus the intersection of desensitization to the external stimuli and heightened sensitization to the internal stimuli creates a very unique scenario.
We become masters of movement. The lines between the inner and outer world start to blur. We are no longer just reacting to the external world while skiing, we are creating and responding to the external world simultaneously. We learn to move with precision utilizing the terrain to create the path down the mountain rather than just follow a path down the mountain. This is where skiing gets juicy. This is the realm of Spiritual Skiing.
Next Week: Cultivating Feel, Proprioception & Balance
"Exercises are like prose, whereas yoga is the poetry of movements. Once you understand the grammar of yoga; you can write your poetry of movements."
~ Amit Ray
The best Yoga for Skiers is of an intensity that is appropriate to the activity level of the season. It should cultivates structural balance as well as physical, mental & emotional balance. It should be personalized to the practitioner.
As skiers we are seasonal people. Our lives revolve around the coming and the going of the snows. For every season there is an appropriate type of yoga to support optimal physical conditioning and mental focus. A yoga practice that is inappropriate for the level of activity of the season is likely going to be counterproductive at the least but it could even be injurious. There are many different styles of yoga each one emphasizing different aspects of the original teaching. There are as many types of yoga as there are practitioners and the practice can be and should be customized to an individuals needs.
In the winter and spring when a skier is spending a lot of time tearing up the mountain a hot sweaty core power flow class is likely not the best choice. Skiing is a strength sport. There is not a lot of cardio involved in resort skiing. Energy is spent in short bursts in-between periods of rest riding lifts. However, a lot of muscular strength is required to resist the forces acting on the body while skiing. The lower joints of the hips, knees and ankles in particular are under great strain. While it might make intuitive sense to replicate these conditions in a yoga class so as to make the body strong enough to perform these actions in practicality this only serves to deplete the skiers energy and make the body less stable.
Skiing is not a symmetrical action. There are muscles on one side of a joint action that are being strengthened disproportionately to their antagonistic counterparts. For example when you ski you have probably noticed your thigh muscles burning. The quadriceps are responsible for extending the knee joint and the centre and superficial most quadricep, the rectus femoris, is also involved in hip flexion.
When we ski gravity is pushing us downward towards the mountain as we essentially fall down the slope. We turn to break, or slow down. The action of breaking generates other forces that have the effect of compacting the body. In order to keep from folding like an accordion we engage the quadriceps to extend the knee joint in order to resist these forces.
Think of descending stairs. If when your foot landed on the lower stair if the quadricep muscles were not active the knee would buckle under the strain of the rapid deceleration as gravity pulled your bodyweight down towards the platform of the lower step. Those quadricep muscles stay slightly contracted so that when the foot lands on the lower step gravity is resisted and the body stays upright and a constant speed is maintained.
If you practiced a lot of yoga poses that strengthened the quadriceps during the height of the ski season those muscles would no doubt become strong but their effective range of motion would shorten. The shortened muscles would be really ineffective if one day you were skiing moguls and needed to rapidly bend the knees to absorb a large bump at speed. That action would likely cause injury because your quadriceps have become overspecialized for resisting gravity and not adaptive to unexpected but necessary movements like bending deeply at speed to absorb a bump. Not only is this a recipe for traumatic knee injury it is a sure way to develop wear and tear injury over time.
Yoga asana practice is uniquely beneficial when it is used for cultivating structural balance and stability in the body. This means strengthening and stretching the muscles on both sides of a joint action evenly. The super bendy yogis are really doing themselves a disservice if they continue to stretch to their end point without ever strengthening the muscles. They too are likely to experience traumatic and or long term injury.
A good yoga practice will over time establish perfect posture and liberate the full healthy range of movement of all the joints. the muscles will be both strong and pliable and the nervous system will be highly tuned so that the body can be reactive and adaptive finding stability, equilibrium and effortlessness in all situations.
This is where personalization of practice is absolutely key. If you already know or discover while practicing yoga that your quadriceps are really tight you need postures to lengthen those muscles and the connective tissue that surrounds them. Through the course of this blog series I will introduce four yoga concepts and explaining how these concepts pair beautifully with the efficient performance of key skiing skills.
The very first concept is the most important to personalizing the practice. I call it feel. You will need to feel your body in a way that may be new or foreign to you. It won't happen right away but I promise that with regular practice you will learn to become very sensitive to what your body needs and how to provide that. There is of course no replacement for a good teacher guiding this discovery. However, the teacher is just that, a guide. The practitioner bears the responsibility for knowing her body and giving it what it needs. Only then will the practice really work.
Holding the postures for at least 45 seconds to one minute is absolutely critical in strengthening the ability to pay careful attention to feelings arising within the body and mind. Fast moving flowing sequences of postures are very beneficial on many levels but often do not allow enough time in each pose for the beginner to properly sharpen the tool of attention. I recommend Hatha, Iyengar and Anusara style classes for their slower pace and emphasis on introspection and alignment.
Yoga cultivates feel through strengthening our capacity to willfully focus our attention on sensation. It also develops structural balance in the body giving the practitioner the full use of her body and the capacity to recognize optimal alignment. By teaching the principle of balancing effort and surrender the yoga student learns how to resist and release forces to generate power in the turn. Finally by blending breath movement and focus the yoga practitioner turns flowing on the yoga mat into flowing down the mountain.