VISION AND PROPRIOCEPTION
Balance is a multi-faceted, complex system designed to carry out the commands of the central nervous system. Balance is comprised of vision, proprioception, the vestibular system, posture, and the musculoskeletal system. The body is truly amazing; if one system is deficient, another system will compensate for it.
As a review from the last article: Proprioception is the body’s system for letting you know where you are in space. Imagine you are performing headstand. The teacher gives you the action of “extend up through your inner heels and take the pinky toe sides of the feet down towards the floor.” If you are able to feel and achieve this position correctly, then the joint receptors are doing their job. Now, what if you are not able to achieve the desired response?
Vision, a widely used system, can be used to compensate for the inability to achieve the desired response. You can use vision in the above example by using a mirror. We all know that performing a yoga pose in front of a mirror allows us to see and correct our malalignments. This can be helpful when first learning a yoga pose, or difficult action. However, it is a compensation and should not be relied upon. Once the desired action is achieved, the pose needs to be repeated without the use of the mirror. Only in this way can your proprioceptive system be trained. Otherwise, you will continue to compensate with vision.
Why does this matter? Vision, if relied upon too heavily, can give inaccurate sensory information to the brain. For example: Remember back to a time where you were waiting at a traffic light; you are stopped and a car next to you begins to move. You become startled and think you are moving as well! Propriopception is the most accurate system for letting one know where the body is in space. However, due to joint injury, or lack of use, the body increases its reliance on vision.
Here is another example of why one should not rely on vision: You wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. You are half asleep. The room is dark. There are clothes on the floor, a plush carpet, throw rugs, a change in surface from the bedroom to the bathroom; all of these things increase our reliance on proprioception. Therefore, if you are dominant in the use of vision, you are much more likely to take a fall.
When you are practicing yoga, notice if you tend to compensate with vision; are you looking down at your feet in standing poses? During the more challenging balancing poses are you staring at only one spot on the wall and not changing your focus or turning your head? During your home practice, or practice at a studio, are you relying on the visual feedback from a mirror to tell you where your body is in space? This is okay in the beginning to give you a reference of correctness. Once you have that reference, repeat it several times without looking and FEEL where you are and how you are moving.
Remember, that while it is fun to achieve a challenging yoga pose, the practice goes way beyond your time on the mat. Medicare spends billions of dollars each year on the consequences of falling; something that we all pay for in one way or another. When the benefits of practicing yoga transfers to your walking across the bedroom floor safely in the dark, then it is also transferring to all aspects of your life.
(Look for the final article on Improving Balance with Yoga Asana soon. The final article will include posture, the vestibular system, and the musculoskeletal system.)
Andrew Thorpe, SPT, Nationally Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor is currently pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy. He can be reached at Andrew Thorpe 973-222-5521