Finding Your Place In Space

Finding Your Place In Space – Image: Stephanie Meshke

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Recently I heard a story about a meditation teacher addressing a class.  He asked his students to demonstrate how they feel space. Immediately every student raised their hands into the air.  The teacher laughed.  He said, “You don’t need to put your hands in the air.  You are already feeling space.”  Think about it.  Space is all around us.  And not just outside our bodies, but inside our bodies also.

Your body’s ability to sense its position in space is part of what we call “proprioception”.   The term also refers to recognizing the relative position of each limb in relationship to other parts of the body as well as the environment.  Proprioception is important in all movements of the body since it enables us to know where our limbs are in space without having to look.  When I teach chair exercise classes and ask participants to move their feet, everyone looks down.  This always makes me smile.  For most of us, our feet will move whether or not we are watching them.  But somehow we feel the need to help them along by looking.  I often ask my yoga students to close their eyes when standing in Mountain Pose and bring their feet to a parallel position.  Then I’ll ask them to open their eyes and see how they did. Surprisingly most do pretty well!  This demonstrates the ability to sense the position of one’s feet in space and each foot in relation to the other.

Of course, this is not true for everyone.  People with certain neurological conditions may have difficulty with proprioception.  It is also one of those senses that tends to diminish with age.  Several years ago I read a book called “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain researcher who had a stroke.  While she was actually experiencing the stroke she was somehow able to marshal her knowledge of how the brain works and recognize what was happening to her.  The book describes her experience both during the stroke and in recovery.  As the stroke was happening, one of the indicators for her was that she became unable to distinguish where her body ended and other objects began. Every time I trip over something I think of this.  Even though I see the object and should be able to get around it, somehow I lose my ability to recognize where my body ends and the other object begins.  Thus we collide.  As my husband would say, “No – you’re just clumsy”. Point taken.  But I still prefer the other explanation.

Any of you who have ever had nerve damage to a limb will know that one of the goals of physical therapy is to restore functional mobility.  In an article discussing proprioception in physical therapy, author Brett Sears, P.T., describes how different nerve endings in your limbs relay information to your brain about the relative position of your limbs and the direction and speed of movement.  This process enables us to move in space without actually watching the movement.  Think of yourself walking.  Generally, you can move your arms and legs in space without looking at them and also usually manage to keep them from bumping into each other.  When this communication between brain and limb is disturbed, it needs to be retrained if possible.  Most of us understand the need for practicing balance, but proprioception is equally important.  The two senses work together to help us move efficiently.

So how can we work on improving proprioception?  One way is to create balance challenges.  Try standing on one foot.  You may notice that your standing foot starts to wobble.  If you pay attention you may recognize that the part of your foot that is wobbling changes minutely from moment to moment. This is your body adjusting to subtle shifts in your center of gravity.  For example, perhaps you are also moving your arms or maybe without even realizing it your body is tilting forward or back.  As these changes in positioning occur, your proprioception abilities are called upon to help you stabilize.  You will probably not be surprised to learn that both yoga and Pilates help to train your senses to respond to the constant changes occurring as you move through space in normal everyday activities.  These and other mind-body disciplines help practitioners to develop awareness of their bodies in space and the space in their bodies.

Moving through space requires more than just internal control.  We need to be aware of gravity and other forces that impact movement like momentum, uneven surfaces, and elevation changes as well as obstacles in our path.  Pilates in particular focuses on strengthening from your core or center.  Exercises help you to stabilize the center and move from there.  The concept of “oppositional lengthening” is emphasized so that movements from the center are balanced in all directions.  This does require attention and practice.  But as you learn your own body’s individual idiosyncrasies you begin to train your body to become better at making those subtle adjustments enabling you to move more easily through space.

Learning to move from our center can help in other ways as well.  We all know what it’s like to feel “off-center”.  This is usually a sign that we are stressed and losing balance in our lives in general.  Thoughts become scattered and unfocused.  Even routine activities can seem overwhelming.  Our mental muscles and nerves begin to lose their ability to adapt to changing experiences, internal and external.  This can easily translate into physical discomfort as well.  Fortunately, mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates can also help with these feelings. Breathing practices can help bring us back to our center, reminding us of what is really important in our lives.  Coming back to our centers and retraining our brains to adapt to shifting energies both internal and external can help us restore balance and ease as we move through space and through life.

Prioritizing Time

 

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By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

Custer, SD – It happened again this week.  There were several tasks I had committed myself to and as I strove to complete them the afternoon wore on. Before I realized how much time had elapsed the shadows were beginning to lengthen.  My plan had been to go for a walk that afternoon, but the day was quickly getting away from me.  The days are shortening now, but fortunately the mild temperatures are mostly holding and daylight still extends at least until 6:30 or 7:00.  So despite the late hour, there was still time to get at least half an hour or 45 minutes worth of walking before the light expired.  But I was in the grip of inertia.  In case you’ve forgotten your high school physics, the basic law says that a body at rest tends to stay at rest and a body in motion tends to stay in motion.  We’ve talked many times about how hard it is to get moving again after we’ve stopped.  This applies to the short-term also.

My tasks had kept me sitting in front of the computer and now all I could think of was all of the things I had not finished and still needed to do.  But I forced myself to get out of the chair and put on my walking shoes.  “I can finish all this later,” I thought and repeated it like a mantra until I began to believe it.  As usual, within 10 minutes of putting one foot in front of the other I was so glad that I had gotten outside that all of those undone tasks quickly faded into the background.  My whole body responded to the movement, the air, the sunlight, the colors and smells of the great outdoors.  When I finished my walk I was so glad I had taken the time.  And, amazingly, I was still able to get everything done that I wanted to complete that day.  Anything left undone was really not so important after all.

Sometimes we feel the lure of perceived demands and deny ourselves the nourishment we need for our own mental and physical health.  You may have heard it said, “when I’m on my death-bed the last thing I will regret is not spending more time cleaning my house” or at the office or doing any number of mundane things that we convince ourselves are necessary.  Certainly completing these jobs can give us a sense of satisfaction.  In the case of employment-related tasks sometimes our income may seem to depend on their timely completion.  But how often does an extra 10, 20 or even 30 minutes really make a difference? Even when you imagine that other people are depending on you, surprisingly in most cases all those other people will find a way to manage on their own during your absence. If you get up from your desk and walk around the room, or go up and down the nearest staircase, or outside in the parking lot, or simply spend 15 minutes stretching, will you even remember next week, or next month or next year that you took that time off?  In the long run it really won’t matter.  Most of us expect a level of perfection from ourselves that is usually not required.   Unless you’re a surgeon.  But even then, you still need to take time off and recharge your own internal batteries or your skills will decline and that precision will fade away.  I certainly wouldn’t want that overworked surgeon operating on me!

Think about how you treat yourself if you miss a deadline or fall short of your own exacting standards.  Now think about how you would treat a friend if they did the same thing.  Chances are you would make allowances for the friend.  You might say, “Don’t worry about it.  You did the best you could.”  Would you give yourself the same leeway?  In general, we are much harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else in our lives.  Try letting yourself off the hook.  After all, you will most likely have another opportunity to do that same task at another time and maybe you’ll do it differently next time.

In the long run the time you take to boost your physical and mental will serve you well.  In all aspects of your life.  Not taking that time may be far more dangerous than any consequences that might arise when you take that time.  And here’s a surprising fact:  even if you don’t complete all the tasks you set for yourself, the world will still turn, daylight will still arrive on time and the people who care about you will still care about you.  I suppose there are always cases for argument.  But instead of wasting your precious time making those arguments, how about going for that walk instead.  Or build time for a class into your schedule.  Most of you know I teach classes so I consider myself committed to that time.  But just like everyone else I need my own renewal time in order to be the best I can for those who come to my classes.  I consider my “alone time” to be sacred space.  I try not to let anything encroach on that space.  Surprisingly it is really not that hard to schedule around the time you take for yourself.  It just takes a commitment.

Moving your body is a great way to nurture yourself and renew your energy.  No matter what it is you need to do, you will be able to do it better if you take care of yourself first.  Then, instead of berating yourself for your shortcomings, you can pat yourself on the back for making a positive difference in your own life.  What could be more important than that!