THE KINESTHETIC SENSE
Besides walking, stretching may be the easiest and most natural form of exercise. Exercise may not even be the best term for describing the stretching process. Most animals stretch and relax naturally in the course of their daily activities. An animal does not think in terms of this or that exercise is good for me so I’ll do it. Animals move and stretch because it feels right to them and they enjoy doing it. If they didn’t enjoy or get some satisfaction out of it, they probably would not do it. Animals have a kind of body wisdom that humans often lack.
Have you ever seen a cat get up from a nap? It will stretch out its front legs until its chest touches the floor, and then may stretch out its back legs till its belly touches the floor. Then, if it feels so inclined, it may arch up its back and hold the position for a second and then go about its daily business. What a quick and perfect treatment. No strain, no exertion, no need for special instruction, only a basic response to a felt need. What do animals know that we have forgotten?
The dictionary defines kinesthesia as “the sense whose end organs lie in the muscles, tendons, and joints and are stimulated by bodily tensions; the muscle sense.” Clearly here is another sense that we know little about and that we rarely consider when we count our other senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. We do not include or know about our kinesthetic sense because most of us have lost touch with this deep, inner sense. The kinesthetic sense is a lost sense that becomes conscious usually when tension or disease becomes so advanced that we cannot ignore it anymore.
The kinesthetic sense is often misconstrued to mean simply a sense of movement or else a sense of our body in space. These are peripheral aspects of the kinesthetic sense; in fact the “muscle sense” is most clearly experienced when the body is not moving but at rest or else moving quite slowly. Some discussions of this inner body sense even go so far as to imply that it is always unconscious. How far we have come from that simple cat feeling and responding to its bodily needs.
So what is this kinesthetic sense and what does it feel like? What is this new feeling, this unexplored territory of internal sensation, this life of deep feeling beneath our skin in muscles, tendons, and joints?
The kinesthetic sense is buried under thousands of years of civilization and human conditioning. Much of our conditioning within civilization has taken us away from an awareness of our physical depths towards an awareness and understanding of the world outside ourselves. We have become masters of the world and strangers to ourselves.
Eastern cultures have not totally forgotten this inner life, and so in India yoga has been developed and practiced for thousands of years. From China, Taoism and Chi Kung have preserved and explored this inner world of the kinesthetic sense. These Eastern practices characteristically call for a quieting of the mind and a turning in of consciousness towards the inside of the body.
What has come to be called the unconscious or even the id or libido in Western psychology is really only a vague and distant understanding of the flows and blocks of internal energy that yoga and Taoism have studied, in detail, for thousands of years. Unfortunately, the descriptions that have come down to us from these Eastern practices are not always clear or comprehensible. They are often in poetic or coded language, and they mean very little to a people steeped in the rigors of logic and scientific explanations. About all we can glean from esoteric Eastern literatures is that something is being felt inside the body and this feeling sometimes moves around inside the body. What is clear is that if we should learn to quiet the abstract mind and reduce the stimulation from our other senses, eventually this internal and physical universe will make itself known.
The grip of tension is often our first introduction to the kinesthetic sense. Our specific and real tensions rise up and fill our consciousness. Where we may first feel this tension is an individual matter. Some people feel it in their faces, some in their legs, others in the belly or the back. We may feel the tension as a gripping sensation that will not let go or else as a steady, heavy pressure on a part of our body that will not easily lift. At last we know something is very wrong and can actually feel the problem. This powerful sense of our discomfort, of our tension and stiffness, becomes a guide. Our lives may forever be changed by an awareness of the kinesthetic sense. We are not so fooled anymore. Our discomfort, mankind’s discomfort, becomes conscious and clear.
KINESTHESIA AS GUIDE
Discovering the kinesthetic sense is a breakthrough in yogic practice. Years can be spent in meditation or doing special exercises before the kinesthetic sense becomes conscious. We are so seduced by every other aspect of life (sights, sounds, thoughts) that our basic inner condition is really deep in hiding. Yet when the kinesthetic sense does finally dawn on us life is changed. We have found a true guide. The athlete learns a skill or practices a form that is external and that he tries to eventually master through practice. When the kinesthetic sense guides us, movement is motivated from internal feeling. Tension and stiffness become the cues we respond to so that our style of exercise or movement is a kind of ongoing physical therapy. Pleasure and relief from discomfort are the rewards. Increasingly, movement will be initiated from within, from a source of natural wisdom. One learns to move more smoothly; slowness can be a virtue. Speed and furious exercise will appear, if not funny, then a little insane. The ethics of hardness and drive are outgrown and softness in body texture and softness in personal style seem more in order. The inevitable good sense in relaxation and being one’s natural self becomes increasingly apparent, even unavoidable. The whole fabric and style of life becomes an expression of our bodies and the feelings we have of the inside of our bodies. This is certainly a new order of things when the body sense, the kinesthetic sense, becomes our guide.
INTERNAL AND SOFT TECHNIQUES
The techniques that are inspired by the kinesthetic sense are not exercises. Exercise works the muscles by rapid and repetitive movements, and it is performed in a spirit of mind dominating and controlling the body. We do push-ups and sit-ups because we were told they were good for us and the more we can do of them the better off we think we are. Exercise is usually a grim and mechanical way to use the body.
Internal techniques come from inner (kinesthetic) sensation. They are done in a spirit of relaxation and gentleness, and they allow the body to express its own wants and needs. Internal techniques are closer to physical therapy than to exercise. The sense of stiffness and tension acts as a guide; the body is treated gently and with respect. Instead of using force, the body is coaxed and eased into stretching and moving. Animals and young children move this way. Their egos are rudimentary or nonexistent and they haven’t lost touch with the wisdom of their kinesthetic sense.