Contrary to what you learned in first grade, you do not have five senses.
You have seven.
Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, yes. But there are two others. It makes a fair bit of sense not to teach them formally as concepts to elementary schoolers (though a good PreK-12 education system really should tacitly engage them), but if you’re an adult and you still don’t know, it’s time to learn a bit more about how your body actually works. I promise you’ll thank me.
Your remaining two senses are proprioception–your sense of where you are in space–and balance (I really hope you know what that one is, even if you didn’t know it’s a Sense just like the five you’ve always known). If you see dead people, that’s eight.
Unlike, say, hearing impairment, which you can’t cure even if you can treat it, senses six and seven are well within your grasp as far as honing and improving them. *I realize there are disabilities that may make that untrue, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume I’m speaking about people who don’t have physical impairments or Meniere’s disease
Techniques for balance are simple: just work on your balance. Stand on one leg, then stand on the other. Repeat. Play around with uneven surfaces, like BOSU trainers. Hop. You get the idea.
Proprioception? Time for a personal story.
Around midnight between March 17 and March 18, my life lowkey began to break down, like lighting the string of a stick of dynamite. Fast forward 16 hours later. It was just drizzling and trying to rain, and I was t-boned by an SUV. I spun around once or twice, who knows, and goodbye to my beloved late grandfather’s car. I was disoriented, terrified, and full disclosure, based on the awful evening before and the fact that I have chronic depression and bipolar disorder II, my first thought when I stopped spinning was please, can I just be dead so I won’t have to deal with any of this shit, and when I was dismayed to find that I still inhabited this mortal coil (*swoons dramatically*), I realized that my knee was on fire because it had smashed into the dashboard or steering column. A random woman from an office nearby came out, and she was the one who calmly talked to me and called 911, and when this pandemic comes to an end in 2035, I fully intend to bring flowers or chocolate to that entire office complex and walk into every suite and ask for Tammy until I find her so I can say thanks.
Anyway, the next week was when the dynamite exploded, and as I hobbled around my parents’ house–which, unlike the house I was living in, does not have stairs–I went through a romantic breakup that wasn’t just violently (figuratively, not physically) traumatic but also humiliating, and it was compounded by the fact that I then had to hobble up and down the stairs, packing and carrying boxes and moving out of the house.
Honestly, even though that was mid-March and it’s now mid-July, I just cannot even with retelling the whole story, plus it’s none of your business and you don’t care, and it’s not the point of this blog post, which I swear will circle back to proprioception in a hot second.
So my knee. Fucking destroyed, even though according to imaging, it was just fine aside from hella bruising, and externally it was literally hot to the touch for at least 10 weeks, which ???? who knew that was a thing!? Time for physical therapy, which has thus been my twice weekly social engagement during a period that has otherwise been responsibly socially distant.
Even though Hannah means “graceful,” I was not active as a child or particularly beautiful to watch at dance performances, so it was not until my late twenties that I gave a fuck about proprioception beyond pedantic, Jeopardy-style teaching moments and pop science books about neurology. And I have worked so. Damn. Hard. on it since then. Pilates was a big part of it, because it’s incredibly cerebral (and different from yoga; please stop assuming they are the same), but this is work I’ve done by paying attention to where my left leg is while I drive, what my posture is like when I use my computer, etc.
My fucked knee totally fucked me over in the proprioception department, and it’s not only an assault on my sense of self but just shitty because of how it has set me back in my fitness (career-wise and personally), which is unbearably, excruciatingly humbling.
I’m supposed to graduate from physical therapy this week, which will make it about three and a half months of rehabilitation for an injury that felt absolutely destroying but involved no casts, wheelchairs, hospital stays, or the like, which just makes it worse because I feel like a failure at being forcibly but temporarily disabled.
The perpetual pain, which had me pondering what a future might look like if I became a PhD version of Dr. House, has subsided. I’m allowed to progress to workouts that resemble the ones I was doing before (the low-impact ones; it feels like it’ll be ten thousand years before I can teach a cycling class or go to a boxing class again), but there’s a set of problems here:
First, my cardiovascular stamina is kaput. Even low-impact workouts, if you do them right, should amp up your heartrate, but given four months of very little engagement of my heart and veins (though I suppose crying jags and screaming at the emotionally abusive narcissist I no longer plan on marrying counts as raising my blood pressure), I can’t do those low-impact workouts for anywhere near as long as I used to.
Second, balance? lmaoooo You’d expect the injured leg (my left) to be awful at it, but it turns out, injury to one knee impacts even the “good” side! I’ve gotten a bit better since, say, week 9 of therapy, but holy shit, man. Even as a high schooler who did basically nothing in the way of exercise, I had great ankles and balance and once stood on tiptoe for about fifteen minutes straight for an aggressively obnoxious team building exercise that involved cramming a bunch of high school juniors onto one tiny rug because that teaches you how to get along or some shit. Miss me with those. When one side of your body is shit, both sides of your body are shit.
Third (I told you I’d circle back!), I feel as if I have no proprioception anymore. I have had seven senses since my mom taught me about them in primary school, and all of a sudden, I had five again.
Rehabilitative exercises at the physical therapist’s or “workouts” at home; it doesn’t matter. After years and years of putting in the work, I can no longer feel where my spine is or where my hips are or what position my neck is in. To be clear, I do not mean that in a neuropathy sense. I mean that in the proprioceptive sense. I cannot mechanically set myself up for exercises and movements. Everything feels wonky, so I’m not able to tell what is properly wonky and what is bad form wonky. I don’t know where I am physically, and with the pandemic stress and personal life stress, it’s not just humbling but terrifying. I’m starting from scratch and I fucking hate it.
A friend who is a physical therapist (but not mine for this injury) calls these people “motor morons,” which is a term I will not adopt when I speak out loud but is really apt–when you don’t have mental awareness of balance and proprioception, your motor skills are not refined. You might think you do a perfect deadlift or be totally at home on the soccer field, but unless you have spent at least some time cognitively connecting with these concepts, not just physically, you are a motor moron. I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that problematic phrase.
You absolutely should not feel ashamed, but you should definitely feel motivated to work on this.
There is something incredibly empowering about knowing how to feel your spine, your hip bones, your shoulders, and your ankles. It seems really granola to tune out your airpods and stop talking to your lifting buddy in order to think about those things while you do a leg press, but once you get over the Lululemon Karen-ness of it all, it’s dope af.
I’ll write another post and do a video about how you can do that, but in the meantime, take a hot minute to lie on the floor, preferably carpet or hardwood with a yoga mat, not uneven tile, and, like, move those body parts one by one and see what it feels like. Then remember that next time you do whatever workout it is that you do.