Most of us give little thought to how our bodies move on a daily basis, or where we are physically in space. We move through our days at a hurried pace, focusing on the future or the past, instead of fully immersing ourselves in the present moment.
But what if we did?
At a glance, kinesthetic awareness can be defined as how we sense our body and the way it moves. Similarly, proprioception can be defined as our perception of where we are in space, including our ability to balance.
These two concepts are closely intertwined, but have a few key distinctions that become significant when we consider them in practice. Think of kinesthetic awareness in the context of a yoga class – feeling the muscles that contract and expand to support your practice, noticing tension in different areas of the body, and checking your alignment as you move between poses. Proprioception, on the other hand, would involve your sense of balance and awareness of where your feet are on your mat, or perhaps where you are relative to the entire yoga studio.
And both of these aspects of “body sense” are important when it comes to embodiment, or present moment awareness.
We’re all trying to find balance – between work, and life, and everything else. But when it comes to our physical well-being, we rarely think about balancing our nervous systems – which is crucial for maintaining homeostasis throughout our entire bodies.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which have opposing functions. The sympathetic nervous system is activated during periods of stress, known for its “fight-or-flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with higher levels of inflammation in the body, which can contribute to a whole host of diseases and imbalances.
Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulating common body processes, as well as restoring balance after stress reactions that increase the heart rate, raise blood pressure, and trigger inflammation. Training the parasympathetic nervous system can help protect against sympathetic nervous system dominance, which is closely correlated with chronic stress and its various effects.
That’s exactly why using the breath to engage the parasympathetic nervous system supports homeostasis throughout our entire bodies. And finding that balance starts with focusing our attention and awareness, both physically and mentally.
Mindfulness can be defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. Applying mindfulness-based practices can enhance our ability to sense the internal state of our body, which is called interoception. Physical sensations we perceive through interoception include our heartbeat, breath, and any emotional effects of the autonomic nervous system – such as stress or relaxation.
Intentionally focusing our attention mentally centers us and physically grounds us in the present moment – allowing us to show up as our most empowered selves and lead truly vibrant lives.
Not sure where to start?
1. Practice breathwork. Working with the breath can be a powerful tool for training the parasympathetic nervous system, releasing tension in the mind and body, and alleviating stress and anxiety.
Start by softening your belly and deepening your breath, so that you feel sensations all the way from the top of the chest to the low belly. Begin to lengthen your inhales and exhales, allowing that space to perceptibly contract and expand. Maintaining your inhales at a count of 4, continue to lengthen your exhales for as long as possible with each round of breath. This technique, called a progressive exhalation, allows the body to physically relax as the parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
Notice the physical sensations as you work with the breath, especially any parts of the body that seem to release tension as you continue to draw your awareness to your physical being.
2. Complete a body scan. A powerful way to practice present moment awareness and improve kinesthetic awareness is through a body scan, which can be completed anytime, anywhere.
Sitting or lying down with your eyes closed, begin this meditative practice by noticing the sounds and smells around you, without judgment. Notice any textures that come into contact with your skin. After grounding yourself in your environment, turn your attention inward.
Start at the top of the head and slowly guide your awareness down the body, focusing on any areas that might be holding tension, such as the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Ask yourself “how am I feeling?” – without judgment – as you move from the hair, scalp, face, and ears all the way down to the toes. Consider the back, sides, and front of areas like the neck and torso for a comprehensive body scan.
For any areas that might feel discomfort or pain, imagine yourself sending the breath to those places to alleviate tension and enable relaxation. As you complete this practice, allow your awareness to fully tune in and notice your breath throughout. Any time you find yourself distracted, come back to the breath and allow it to center you in the present moment.
Spend about 5 minutes completing your body scan in stillness. Practicing this level of awareness allows us to connect with our body’s subtle cues, which enables us to deepen our connection with our mind and body in the present moment.
3. Challenge your balance. Practicing balancing postures and exercises – especially with eyes closed – can be an excellent way to enhance proprioception.
Bird Dog: Begin in table top position, with hands and knees on your mat. Hands should be just under or in front of the shoulders, and knees should be under the hips.
Stork Pose: Standing with legs hip-width distance apart and grounding through the bottoms of your feet, mentally shift your weight to the right foot.
Warrior 3: Start with legs hip-width distance apart, grounding through the bottoms of your feet and engaging the core.
Understanding kinesthetic awareness, proprioception, and interoception can become a gateway to deepening your sense of self, as well as your awareness in the present moment. Perhaps you find yourself more conscious of your entire being, aware of triggers that create stress or anxiety in your mind and body – but equipped with the tools to restore balance.
Regardless of where you are now, exploring and experimenting with these concepts can serve as a catalyst for personal discovery and transformation – leaving you empowered, fulfilled, and fully engaged with the world around you.