Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tai Chi, Balance & Proprioception

Proprioception is a combination of senses that informs the central nervous system about where the various parts of the body are located and moving in relation to each other (Kinesthesia) and in relation to our environment, and that helps us keep our balance. Proprioception is what allows us to to walk in complete darkness without losing our balance. The main organs involved in proprioception are the inner ear, the eyes (sight), skin (sense of touch), and the stretch sensors located within muscles, tendons and joints.

With proprioception, you can estimate the position of your foot on the ground, the angle of your calf with it, and the amount of weight spread between the ball and the back of your foot.

Proprioception continuously gathers input from millions of sensors in your muscles, joints, and ligaments, combines that with input from sight and touch and uses it all to control your balance, coordination, posture, and movement.

Kinesthesia is the part of proprioception that is mostly interested in the localization of the body parts in relation to each other. The sense of equilibrium or balance involved in proprioception is usually excluded from Kinesthesia. An inner ear infection might degrade your sense of balance, which would degrade proprioception, but not kinesthesia. You would be able to walk by using your sense of sight to maintain your balance but would be unable to walk with your eyes closed.

2 simple exercises to illustrate the influence of the senses of sight and touch on proprioception. Try them.

Influence of Sight on balance.
Stand on both legs. Raise on foot at about knee level. Keep your balance for 10 seconds (count until 10). If you cannot hold it for 10 seconds, try to count how long you can hold it. Put your foot back on the ground.

Now close your eyes and repeat the same exercise. Unless you have already trained for it, you will find it much more difficult to hold on your balance with your eyes closed.

Influence of Touch on Kinesthesia.
Stand on both legs with your feet together. Step up to the front and right with your right foot. Land your right foot at 45 degrees to your front right. Slightly bend both knees. Very slowly, lift your right foot from the ground and bring it back toward your left foot and then to your right back. Land your right foot at 45 degrees to your right back. DO NOT touch the ground while doing so. Pay attention to how easy this move is for you.

Now repeat the same exercise but when you move your foot back, let your big toe gently slide on the ground. It should become much easier this way.

The reason why it is easier with your foot slightly dragging on the floor is that your sense of touch provides information to your central nervous system about where your foot is located. When your foot stays off the ground, the only organs that inform your brain are the sensors within muscles and joints. Once the foot slightly touches the ground, then the sense of touch provides an additional information, which makes things much easier. This information about the position of the foot is of course also helpful to help us keep our balance

Training can improve proprioception.

The ability to play piano or wield a sword requires a finely-tuned sense of the position of the joints. This sense can and needs to be trained to enable a person to concentrate on other aspects of the performance such as reading the music or seeing where the other opponents are.

Because of the low speed and stretching moves involved in their practice, Chi Gong in general and Tai Chi in particular are excellent ways to enhance proprioception for adults.

In future posts I will propose simple exercises to train and enhance proprioception.


Frederic Lecut said...

Thank you Jiryu for this important and relevant post. The slow movement of walking meditation (kin-hin) is also a good example of this kind of exercise. It can be like learning to walk all over again, properly done. I believe it was Matsuoka-roshi who said that kin-hin is the "first kata" of the martial arts.

The famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky also had something to say about it (related in his posthumous diary published by his wife); he said something to the effect that with the advent of leather shoes, we started walking differently. He advocated gripping the floor or ground with the toes, like a monkey, rather than plopping the foot down on the heel as we usually do, then rolling past the toes splayed out.

The native Americans walked toe-heel instead of heel-toe through the woods for silence.

As I have gotten older, I have found that going downstairs, in particular, is where we can aggravate the achilles tendon by not paying attention, proceeding flat-footed, heel first. If instead one reaches for the next step with the toes, gripping upon contact, then the heel follows naturally with more flexion on the tendon, and less likelihood of popping it.

Rev. Taiun M. Elliston, Abbot
Silent Thunder Order
Atlanta Soto Zen Center
(404) 873-3205 (home)
(404) 895-0123 (cell)

Frederic Lecut said...

Well, the above comment is on behalf of Elliston Sensei, Abbot of the Silent Thunder Order at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center - I copied it from an e-mail he sent me in response to the original post.
We'll have to go back on this saying of Matsuoka Roshi about Kin-Hin being the first kata of Martial Arts. The more I practice, the more I can see the truth of this statement !