We often talk about a perfectly thin and toned body and its negative impact on body image. When most of us don’t fit the ideal body shape, we don’t feel good about our bodies, how we move, or how we feel physically in our bodies. In addition to body ideal and body image, body awareness can also guide our movement patterns. What is body awareness? Can it make us feel better about our bodies?
What is body awareness?
In his recent book, Re-choreographing learning: Dance as a way of bridging the mind-body divide Education (2022), Sandra Cerny Minton, a dance educator, highlights the role that body awareness plays in learning and performing dance. Her text, however, can be very useful for exercisers who want to feel better in movement.
The execution of all physical movements, Minton reminds us, depends on the human sensory system, which includes:
- Exteroception, which is used for awareness Environment through sight, hearing, touch, smell or taste. Vision is the most commonly used sense to create an action or a movement reaction. For example, we use vision when we follow the instructor’s body in a group fitness class or look in the mirror to assess our performance. We use the auditory sense when we follow verbal cues or use music as an accompaniment to exercises. We turn on the sense of touch when a personal trainer uses touch to guide our movement or when we use training equipment.
- Interoception, which is the ability to feel the internal state of the body. This is the least researched sensory system.
- Proprioception, which is the awareness of how one’s body moves. This includes awareness of gravity, joint shapes and body position in space. This is a kinesthetic sense that has receptors in muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments and joints. Through kinesthetic sense and proprioception, we become aware of how our body moves.
Source: Mariam Antadze/Pexels
How does it work?
Because proprioception reveals how bodies move in space, it directly informs body awareness. In fact, Minton argues that even simple everyday tasks would be impossible without proprioception, which makes us aware of our bodies. However, we tend to ignore this because the exteroceptive senses dominate our movement activities. For example, in a dance or group exercise class, we focus on a mirror image of our body or the teacher’s body—this uses vision—which can interfere with proprioception and body awareness.
For most of us, it seems easier to let sight and hearing guide our practice. Some would rather “switch off” completely and not focus on their exercise at all. Kinesthetic sensation and proprioception also operate unconsciously: we don’t necessarily have to think about how we move, because some of it is automated. However, Minton explains, body awareness is also a conscious sense of movement.
When we turn on body awareness, proprioceptors send messages to the brain. The brain then works to initiate and control movement. This means that our brains – what we think – and our moving bodies are in a constant interaction that can be consciously improved. Minton reiterates that, “recognizing and describing one’s bodily sensations requires payment attention or commit to them on a mental level. Otherwise, such feelings would remain outside one’s conscious realm and avoid recognition and subsequent description.” (p. 70)
In order to be fully aware of our body, we must pay attention to the inner bodily sensations. Unlike tuning in, a mindful focus on body awareness directs our attention to the positive feelings of our own ability to move. It can make us feel better about our bodies, feel better about our bodies, and improve our overall well-being.
Minton adds that “focused awareness” (p. 70) can be practiced. We can consciously focus our attention on a specific body part or movement. This requires deliberately engaging in the movement task and filtering out other potential “stimuli”. This type of mindfulness may already be familiar to practitioners of yoga or other Eastern movements or Pilates practitioners, but it can be used during any exercise or movement session to learn how to move more fully and efficiently.
Minton notes that attention span is important in dance when learning intricate technique or performing complicated choreography. Dancers are often credited with body awareness and movement skills. However, we can practice body awareness in any exercise setting to move gracefully, efficiently, safely, and powerfully.
How to practice body awareness?
Because body awareness takes practice, Minton offers specific exercises for consciously paying attention to how we move. We can try the following research, which I have slightly modified for the context of the exercise:
- To sensitize ourselves to body awareness, we can first explore it while we are still. Take time to lie down on a mat or soft carpet. Close your eyes. Scan your entire body for any bodily sensations you experience.
- Sit on the chair and lean forward. Stay seated while arching your back. Then assume a neutral position with your shoulders aligned over your hips. Which position seemed more comfortable to you based on your body sensations?
- Perform an exercise such as the hamstring stretch as you normally do. Use a mirror if available. Then turn away from the mirror if you are using one and close your eyes to shut off the vision. Do the same exercise. Consider your body sensations when performing the exercise in these two ways.
- Perform a series of exercises such as side pulls. Try performing the sequence in two different ways. First, perform it while focusing internally on how the movements feel in your body. For example, think about how your shoulder blades, elbows, and head moved. Did your abs, back muscles or leg muscles kick in? Was any aspect of the exercise more difficult than others? What other bodily sensations did you have? Second, perform a series of movements without attention to detail. Were your movement performances different?
Once we are sensitized to body awareness in these exercises, we can use it in all exercise sessions. Focusing on bodily sensations during movement can enhance the enjoyment of exercise, help us work more confidently, and make us feel better about our unique bodily abilities.
Minton, SC (2022). Rechoreography of learning: Dance as a way of bridging the mind-body gap in education. Taylor & Francis.