Kinesthetic Awareness and Proprioception

Proprioception and kinesthetic awarenessKinesthetic awareness and proprioception are two different concepts that are often conflated. Proprioception refers to the internal messaging (the central nervous system) that drives our movement. My finger doesn’t go to a hot flame because sense organs within the body register heat and  provide a warning signal for me to stop the approach of my finger. Proprioceptors are sensors in our joints, muscles, and fascia, providing information needed to produce coordinated movement.

Kinesthetic awareness refers to our ability to navigate space and the awareness of how we move. I used to ride my bicycle in Manhattan all the time. That habit has gone by the wayside as my family has moved deeper and deeper into the heart of brooklyn. When I was biking no one would accuse me of being a road warrior. Moseying through the congestion was more my speed. But I would marvel at the bike messengers who would squirt through the skinniest passages between trucks and cars without ever stopping or scraping. They did things I would never try. The confidence they had was born of repitition and is the essence of kinesthetic awareness.

Kinesthetic awareness and proprioception work as partners to get us through the movements of our lives from the inside and the outside of the body. Muscle memory is a kinesthetic concept.  So many things that we do without thinking— such as walking, whether we do it correctly or not— is a kinesthetic experience based on proprioception, which provides the awareness of our joints and body in space.

An example of proprioceptors are the muscle spindle which is a stretch receptor communicating with the brain about how much a muscle can stretch, and the golgi tendon organ, a stretch inhibitor, putting the brakes on a stretch that seems to go too far.

When I teach people to stand and walk I always start sessions but asking them to stand up straight. And then I put them into my version of straight which isn’t always perfectly straight because very often getting the body straight from the neck down forces the head forward.

This fascinates me because it happens with so many people. There are two things going on:

  1. Our perception of standing up straight is skewed.
  2.  We sacrifice the positioning of our body below the head so that we can feel that our head is situated correctly.

When I put people into my version of straight they often say that feel like they are falling forward. This is because their head has moved forward in space even though everything else is lined up correctly.

If I say go back to where they began, clients and students both invariably lean backwards moving the head into a better position. This is really a trip because my basic take is that we sacrifice good posture so that our head feels better positioned in space.

Our proprioception and kinesthetic awareness have both been habituated to this bad posture that spites the body to accommodate the head and needs to be retrained.