Yoga for Athletes: Proprioception

The theme of proprioception helps to explain why there were so many balancing poses, as well as the focus on the soles of the feet, the pelvis (especially the sacroiliac area) and the head and neck in the Yoga for Athletes class on March, 11th.

These areas of the body (feet, sacroiliac area and neck especially) are “the three most richly supplied areas of the body with proprioceptors.” (Liebenson, p.515)” The theme of proprioception also explains why our practice included intervals of poses done with closed eyes and balancing on/off the mat and on/off of yoga blocks.

Given that proprioceptive training involves greater body awareness and movement efficiency, almost any yoga class has opportunities for increasing skills and understanding. In the Yoga for Athletes class, we purposefully worked on proprioception adaptation by including poses and activities that focused on balance, strength, coordination, and challenging the limits to a person’s perceived range of motion.

Teetering on a block while repeating some classic one footed balancing poses not only increased focus, reaction time, and spatial relations but also increased the intensity of the challenge and the novelty of the experience. “Proprioceptive rehabilitation focuses on training muscles to accelerate their ability to achieve maximum contraction. (Liebenson, p. 529)…By training on an unsteady surface, balance is constantly being challenged. The correct muscles must contract rapidly in order to counteract the forces that the disrupted balance is placing on the body. When muscles can respond quickly to perturbations, injury is less likely and performance is more likely to be enhanced.”

Another challenge to the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive systems included marking through repetitions
of standard sun salutations (along with variations) first with eyes open and then with them closed. To keep things more interesting and unexpected, the orientation on the mat was changed to “face” all four directions within a moving and linked “flow” sequence.

It was also insightful to see how on or off center students ended up when we used a benchmark of simply walking with closed eyes from the back of the mat to the front. There was surprise and inquiry in noticing how our internal compasses can have us veering strongly to the right or left even with a feeling moving straight ahead and on a center line.

The impetus for the theme on Monday evening, came from a series of conversations with a regular student about how he was focusing on using his little toes more and for that matter all 10 toes, the sole of the foot, the arches and ankles. The classic “yoga foot”.

“The ‘yoga foot’ helps to increase the sensory feedback to the Central Nervous System (CNS), therefore improving the stability of the body in the upright position. (Liebenson, p.518) Working with the yoga foot through poses will heighten the sensory feedback from the body, especially during balance poses during which the proprioceptive system is ultimately challenged. Via this challenge, great improvements to the system can be made.”

Those chats about the “yoga foot”, cross training, running form, and proprioceptive adaptationand along with this article about Yoga and Proprioception (written by Dr. Carla Cupido) served as the springboard for the class.

In the months to come, the Yoga for Athletes class will continue to explore themes suggested by students and/or common places or things of concern for both endurance athletes as well as weekend warriors. You do not need to consider yourself an “athlete” to come to the classes on Monday nights. There is a great mix of people, with a variety of interests, levels and abilities. All are welcome.

Suggestions for other class themes or targeted areas (such as “hamstrings”) and/or questions can be sent to

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