Body Awareness

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    Jun 16, 2007 11:43 PM GMT
    I just started swimming. I've never been a swimmer. For the past decade most of my swimming involved funoodles and beer.

    Back in school when I had to swim laps for PE, I hated it, and was an uncoordinated disaster.

    Today was the fourth day I've gone swimming. The first day, I was an uncoordinated mess, sputtering, choking on water, etc. But since then, I've read about proper freestyle form online and practiced it, and today I swam over a mile, including a third of a mile continuously, and feel great.

    I attribute all of that to my body awareness. I'm basically continually amazed by the positive effects of body awareness on my life, be it in sports or anything else, even just walking around. I get mine from my yoga practice, but plenty of activities teach body awareness -- many martial arts, ballet / dance, and Tai Chi come to mind.

    I think it's kind of weird that in the US, school Phys Ed focuses so much on team sports (which I see as a great way to foster denigrating competition, bullying, and cliques) but, in my experience, very little on body awareness.

    If I had my way, I'd replace every Phys Ed program in the country with a mix of activities that just teach body awareness, strength, and flexibility. Kids can do whatever else they want on their own time.

    Do others have active practice in body awareness? Any particular success stories? I find that, talking to friends of mine who've started with little body awareness and developed it strongly, it's a sensation like a blind person gaining sight, this transformative awakening.
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    Jun 17, 2007 10:59 AM GMT
    Not wanting to sound totally ignorant here, but could you please briefly explain what you mean by the term "body awareness"? Would it be a sense of the body as it moves through a range of motion, a sort of visualization of how the body looks as it properly performs an activity? I know that swimming gives me a sense of my body unlike what I have when doing weights or cardio, but it's really hard to put into words. I think I have also felt it on the rare occasions when I have done other activities--cross country skiing, for example. Any info would be helpful

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    Jun 17, 2007 4:17 PM GMT
    People who are not naturally athletic -- and some people who are -- I think require what you are defining as body awareness.

    A golf stroke is not just hitting a ball with a club -- it requires a precise and measured momentum achieved in a standing position -- a sweep rower's stroke requires a consistently synchronized and balanced movement of both the lower and upper body.

    Even working out with weights -- when done effectively -- requires that you concentrate on form, technique and the specific muscle group that you are targeting (hence all the mirrors in the gym).
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    Jun 17, 2007 5:26 PM GMT
    Denver: Oh, yeah, I totally should have actually described what I meant. I think it's basically what you're saying -- and what Starboard is talking about. I guess I'd just describe it as the ability to "know what your body is doing", in real-time. Like, on my very first yoga class I could follow this instruction:

    "Stand with your feet together and bend forward to touch your toes"

    ... but it was months before I could really understand a more complex instruction like,

    "Stand with the ball of your big toe and inner heel touching. Externally rotate the lower legs but engage the internal rotators of the thighs. Draw back from the big toe to the inner heel. Lift the arch while pressing out evenly through the toes. Bend forward and place the palms of the hands on the ground, and then draw the sit-bones up and apart; widen the lower back; lengthen the belly from pubis to sternum."

    What I mean by body awareness is the ability to listen to all of those things, understand what each one "feels like", to have the subtle motor control to be able to do them independently (like the golf stroke Starboard talks about) and then furthermore to be able to juggle that all in my head simultaneously. At first, I could only focus on one at a time. I'd think about what my feet were doing and boom, my thighs would stop working.

    I think practices that teach body awareness have a few qualities: first, they make it a primary focus, of course. Second, they scale to any speed, so you can start out slow at first and only focus on one thing at a time. Yoga, Tai chi, plenty of other martial arts, and dance all support this.

    Some sports can teach body awareness but don't necessarily, unless you have a really good teacher. Like Starboard says, lifting weights requires all this precise form, but tons of guys at the gym lift with very improper form. I think without body awareness, you can only focus on pretty gross movement, like, "Push this up" or "Pull this towards your chest." In the meantime, maybe they're internally rotating when they should be externally rotating, or they're putting all the weight in the heel of the hand instead of the lengths of the fingers, or whatever, and eventually they get nerve impingement injuries or whatnot.

    Of course, injury can teach body awareness too. I have a hundred times more awareness in my legs while cycling now that I injured my knee and realized I was not paying any real attention to what my legs were doing.

    God, I'm rambling on and on. Anyway, I guess I'd say body awareness is two things: first, it's discernment, the ability to perceive subtle details of your body's current alignment and motion, almost like shining a flashlight on a dark area of a room to see what's there. And second, a kind of breadth, the presence of mind to take in that level of detail for many body parts at once, like being able to juggle 8 balls at once.
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    Jun 17, 2007 6:51 PM GMT
    The word you're looking for is "kinesthetics." Some people consider it to be the seventh "sense."

    I've also heard it described informally as "athletic grace." I was recently at a friends & family event, watching a group of young kids at play. It was blindingly obvious that some kids had it and some didn't.

    I wish I knew where to buy it in a bottle, lol.
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    Jun 17, 2007 9:22 PM GMT
    Thanks much for the clarification, guys. Very helpful. And I can see where it would indeed be very helpful to have that kind of awareness in more of what we do. As I said, it seems to come more naturally for me in the pool, but I think I also used to have it when I ran (those days are long gone since disc removal surgery and aging knees!!) It seems like you hit a "zone" where your body is performing as it should for the activity in which it is engaged and you know what's going onwith it, even though you are not "consciously " thinking "Right now, this muscle is doing this, that muscle is doing that, and in the next moment I need to have these muscles do this." It flows.
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    Jun 18, 2007 1:41 PM GMT
    So you have mentioned the different types of activities where one can gain some "body awareness." I just thought I'd share my point of view as a ballet dancer.

    I started dancing when I was in 3rd grade, so I was about 8yo. It's funny as a little kid, how easily some things come to. I just remember loving going to class everyday. It didn't matter if it was tap, jazz, modern, or ballet. When you're that young you don't really think about what your body is doing. You just copy what the teacher is doing in front of you.

    It wasn't until 8th or 9th grade that things really started to change. In ballet you are trying to minimize the use of larger muscle groups such as the quads and the glutes. The whole point is to work in a very efficient way. At the age of 8 they don't tell you this, cause you wouldn't understand a word of it. The whole idea behind the physical aspect of ballet is that you keep your body properly aligned while trying to attain some very unnatural positions.

    Dancing also gives a person a great sense of spacial awareness. In most dance classes there are anywhere from 10-25 students all trying to accomplish the same thing. It's very annoying when the person next to you has no sense of their space, or yours, and keeps getting in your way.

    Then there comes a time when you start working with a partner. Suddenly you have to be aware of your body and theirs. I've always been told that I am a natural at partnering work, and I do really enjoy working with someone else. You have to make sure they are being presented well and know where they are at every second, and you also have to make sure that you are presenting yourself well.

    There's so much more I could write about this, but I thought I would just keep it brief.