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What do you notice about your body in space right now? If you close your eyes, can you feel the movement of air on your skin and the position of your head? You can detect these sensations because of proprioception, your awareness of posture, movement, and changes in equilibrium.
Proprioception is known as the “sixth sense” because it is your understanding of the position you are currently in and of your body in relation to objects around you. It is an internal sense and connectedness that allows you to identify the position of your hand even when it is behind or above you, for instance, and out of your line of vision.
Yoga and proprioception have a symbiotically beneficial relationship. The practice improves your proprioception, and enhancing proprioception can make yoga asanas more accessible to you. Because we practice asana in a multitude of different positions (upside down, sideways, backwards and more!), we are flexing our sense of proprioception when we practice yoga.
How does proprioception work?
Your sense of proprioception is initiated in the complex nerve networks surrounding your joints, connective tissues, muscles, and skin. Signals from the peripheral nervous system send data to the central nervous system. This generates reflexive responses from the spinal cord and higher processing through your cerebral cortex—the part of your brain responsible for cognitive functioning and other high-level brain functions. It is an intricate system that helps you move more precisely, especially when it comes to the fine motor control needed for tasks such as buttoning your clothes or flossing your teeth.
Sensory receptors and signals from your peripheral nervous system and central nervous system enable you to live and move within your environment without always using visual, auditory, or touch feedback. Proprioception is what allows you to step on the brake pedal when you see a red light. You are not looking at your foot, rather you are sensing where your foot is in space. Ever wonder how people learn to type on the computer or play the piano without looking at the keys? That, too, is proprioception.
How can you improve proprioception?
Anytime you learn a new physical skill—including a new yoga posture—you are exercising your sense of proprioception. Just like you can work to rewire the brain and improve habits, you can also train to enhance your proprioception. Here are a few ways:
1. Repetitively participating in proprioceptive exercises while adding on challenges.
2. Using a variety of sensory inputs and mindful stimuli, activating awareness
3. Participating in balance training, especially while using unstable surfaces
4. Practicing dual task training (without visual feedback) in which you do two or more things simultaneously, such as walking and talking, or carrying something and skipping.
Another way to improve proprioception is to tune out your sense of sight. Doing so heightens your other senses. Furthermore, practicing yoga with your eyes closed allows you to be more introspective and intentional with your movements. You’ll notice when you diminish your reliance on visual feedback, you can tune into your breath, and really feel embodied in your yoga practice.
7 yoga poses to practice with your eyes closed
Warm up for this sequence with a Cat-Cow and Sun Salutations. As you move, see if you can bring more awareness to where your body is in space. Also, for the following poses, be sure to have a wall or chair handy so you can lean back or place your hand on a steady surface in case you lose balance. And because repetition is important for improving proprioception, feel free to practice each pose several times before moving on to the next, or repeat this sequence 3-5 times before resting in Savasana.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
How it helps with proprioception: One of the best ways to bolster your sense of proprioception is to walk or stand on an unstable surface, such as foam yoga blocks. This allows you to notice how turning off your sense of sight changes your relationship with balance.
How to: Step one foot onto a foam block and let the other foot dangle down to the side, while keeping the top of your pelvis level. Stand next to a wall or use a chair so you can reach out with your hand to steady yourself if needed. (It’s OK to need help. This is part of the learning process.) Close your eyes and become aware of your body in space. Try to keep your eyes closed for 3 breaths and then switch sides.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
How it helps with proprioception: Tree is always a nice pose to practice when challenging your balance—and even more fun with your eyes closed because it allows you to tune into both your proprioception (where is your standing leg in space?) and your kinesthetic sense (where is the lifted foot touching your standing leg?).
How to: Stand close to wall, facing away from it, so you can lean back into it if you lose balance. Come into Tree Pose and stay here for 1-2 breaths, bringing awareness to the slight sway of your body. Then close your eyes and remain here for 3 more breath cycles. Did the sway increase or change? Open your eyes, shake it out, and switch sides.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)
How it helps with proprioception: Another great way to work on proprioception is changing the planes in which you are moving your body. Moving your torso sideways while keeping your eyes closed trains your brain to register when you are no longer upright or level.
How to: Stand with your back against a wall for support and have a block within reach. Come into Half Moon in whatever way is comfortable with your eyes open. It can help to rest your bottom hand on the block for support. Stay in the shape for 1-2 breaths. Press strongly through the ball of the raised leg, then slowly close your eyes. If possible, stay here for another 2 breath cycles, but if this is too disorienting, open your eyes as soon as needed or before you come out of the pose. Repeat on the other side.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose )
How it helps with proprioception: My third grade teacher had eyes on the back of her head, but most of us don’t. We have no idea where our back leg is while practicing Warrior III. By practicing this pose with your eyes closed, you learn to keep your suspended leg steady while also increasing spatial awareness of your arms, head, and torso, which may help you feel more stable in the pose.
How to: Come into Warrior III with your eyes open and blocks under your hands to assist with balance. Engage your core and expand your chest. Press firmly through your raised leg and notice which muscles engage to keep it lifted. This action can help you “locate” your leg and aid in your balance. When you feel steady, close your eyes and notice where the balance challenge shifts. Is it in your standing leg, raised leg, or both? If you like, you can take your usual arm variation. Stay here for 2-3 more breath cycles. Feel free to bring your hands back to the blocks at any time. Open your eyes as you lower your leg and stand upright. Pause for a few moments and then repeat on the other side.
Vasisthasana (Side Plank)
How it helps with proprioception: Balancing in Side Plank with your eyes closed may feel a bit less vulnerable than the previous poses because you have less distance to the ground if you fall out of the pose. Interestingly, eliminating your sense of vision allows you to tune into your core strength with more integrity and focus. Additionally, being aware of the side-to-side, front-to-back teetering in your trunk and supporting arm enhances your proprioception.
How to: Come into Side Plank on your forearm. Feel free to come into any supported variation of the pose. Stay here for a few breaths and then close your eyes. If this feels comfortable and stable, consider practicing on your hand instead of balancing on your forearm. Stay here for 2-3 breaths on each side.
Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose)
How it helps with proprioception: Another interesting way to improve proprioception is with dual task training, which means doing two things at once. Try practicing Boat Pose with a block between your hands or feet. By adding a prop to the pose, your awareness of your body as a whole increases.
How to: Start by coming into Boat Pose with your knees bent. Place a block between your feet and hold it there. Reach your fingers toward your feet and stay here for a few breaths. Then close your eyes and notice where your focus is directed—to your feet or your core? When you are ready, open your eyes and come down onto your back.
Savasana (Corpse Pose)
How it helps with proprioception: Proprioception was one of the first lessons I learned in yoga. A friend had me lie down and asked me if I felt that my spine was straight. I answered yes, but apparently I was all off. She realigned my head and pelvic positions and moved my arms so they were equidistant from my body. Savasana is a great way to figure out how strong your sense of proprioception is, but you’ll likely need someone to tell you if your limbs and head are actually where you think they are. We often have a slight tilt to our head, or one shoulder or hip slightly shifted higher than the other.
How to: Lie down onto your back and ask your teacher or another student in class to help you get positioned, and then allow yourself to relax in proprioceptive accuracy.
About our contributor
Ingrid Yang is an internal medicine physician, yoga therapist, and published author. She has been teaching yoga for over 20 years and is the author of the books Adaptive Yoga and Hatha Yoga Asanas. Dr. Yang leads trainings and retreats all over the world, with a special focus on kinesthetic physiology and healing through breathwork, meditation and mind-body connection. Find out more at www.ingridyang.com or on Instagram.
Our model, Anuja Vyas, M.D. is a pulmonologist, critical care doctor, and enthusiastic yogi! She loves attending Ingrid Yang’s international yoga retreats, growing fruits and vegetables in her garden, and. practicing yoga with her eyes closed!