The human body has more than just the five commonly known senses. There are three categories of senses. The first is the “special” senses, which include sight, hearing, taste and smell. The second category consists of the somatic senses, normally referred to as “touch.” This involves our perception of pressure, heat and pain. The third category is less well-known. These are the interoceptive senses, which deal with information originating in the body itself.
Essentially there are three interoceptive senses. The first, balance, is a sense of the body’s alignment. This is what helps keep us upright and stable. The renowned ability of a cat to always land on its feet is also due to this sense. The second interoceptive sense is the organic sense, which alerts the body to its internal condition, telling us when we’re hungry or thirsty for instance. The third interoceptive sense is known as proprioception. This, put simply, is the brain’s knowledge of the relative position of different parts of the body in space.
To experience proprioception, close your eyes and extend your hand in any direction. Now identify in your mind its exact position and open your eyes. Note that your brain was well aware of your hand’s position, even though none of the classic five senses were being used to detect it. This is proprioception. Without it we would have no concept of where our bodies are, or how they feel when we move them, thus leaving us vulnerable to accidents and potential injury.
The proprioceptive sense is perceived using our nervous system. Connective tissue, i.e. our ligaments, tendons and fascia, is far more innervated than muscle, having ten times as many sensory receptors. For this reason proprioception is associated mainly with our connective tissue rather than with our muscles. This means that when you think you’re feeling your muscles moving, you’re more likely to be tuning in with the movement of your connective tissue.
Proprioception has another interesting property. It is believed that pain and proprioception cannot exist at the same time. This means that a person in pain is less aware of their body and as such, more susceptible to moving awkwardly or falling over.
For all the above reasons , it’s important to ensure our connective tissue is healthy, works well and that we hone our proprioceptive sense. Pilates, with its emphasis on executing controlled, flowing movements in alignment, can help us realise both these objectives. For example, lying semi-supine in neutral pelvis gives us feedback, or a proprioceptive sense of how our back is positioned. When we perform a spine curl, we can feel the pressure being placed at different points along the spine and across the upper back. When a leg is lifted to table top, or an arm moved in an arc over the head, we experience a change in the way the body’s weight is distributed.
When a beginner to Pilates is asked how their back felt when they performed a certain exercise, e.g. a roll down from standing, they often find it difficult to know how to reply. This is because their proprioceptive sense has not yet been honed. Indeed, many beginners associate pain with movement, insisting they can’t feel anything unless it hurts.
Over-time, a well-designed, well-taught Pilates class will help clients develop their proprioceptive sense, leading to a greater awareness of the body, how the different parts of it feel and move, thus avoiding accidents and potential injury.