During an interview on Daniel Vitalis’ Rewild Yourself podcast, Tom Myers, creator of Anatomy Trains, brings up the concept of kinesthetic learning and literacy. He talks about the three modes of learning that neurolinguistic programming (NLP) can identify: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Specifically, he noted that of the three, kinesthetic is the most underused in our culture.
As I listened, it struck me that some of the processes I’d always thought of as kinesthetic learning actually weren’t. Watching your teacher and trying to imitate their movement is more visual than kinesthetic. Hearing cues that describe the movement as it’s seen, whether by an outside observer or by you observing your own body and position (e.g. “keep your knees over your toes,” “stand straight,” “bend with your back flat”, etc.) is auditory, but also based on a visual orientation.
Kinesthetic awareness, by contrast, is based on your internal sense of position, without necessary reference to visual cues. It’s knowing what a movement feels like, having an awareness of how your body moves, and being able to use that awareness to pick up new movement patterns and phrases.
The lack of focus on kinesthetic learning is a paradox—it’s both easier and more difficult to use. To teach using kinesthetic cues, you’ve got to know a movement well enough to verbally cue how it should feel to the student, rather than trying to get them to visually mimic the shape or movement. Even more effective would be to physically move your student into the correct position—a powerful method, but, due to the culture in the US around touch, rarely used. Myers references the case of a Balinese dance teacher who would drape themselves over and around their student to demonstrate a new position. It shifts the mimicry from a visual, outwardly focused one, trying to translate the way the teacher looks into your own body, towards mimicry through feel, with the teacher’s sense of weight and pressure conveying position and movement directly to the student.
Often, too, skills don’t feel at all like they look. Yuri Marmerstein observed that learning this movement was tricky for him because the feeling from inside the movement was completely different from how it looked. I’m noticing lately that this problem is particularly common with acrobatic skills, as the combination of speed and briefer contact with the ground leaves one with limited information to go off of.
All of this means that investing more time into developing your somatic awareness will improve the speed with which you can learn new movements. Pursuing a deeper practice of body awareness enables an ease of movement that comes from an embodied feel of posture and motion.
Learning kinesthetically is a critical piece in the journey of physical mastery. Why? Because you always have those kinesthetic senses (proprioception and kinesthesia, if you want the specific terms) available to you. Visual cues are often either difficult or impossible to obtain or actively detrimental to performing the movements. A perfect example of this is how dance is typically taught: in a studio, in front of a mirror. Your reflection is both helpful and distracting. It’s easier to fix subtleties of form with visual reference at first, because the internal awareness of what the ideal position or movement feels like isn’t there yet. But at the same time you can’t actually rely on a mirror to confirm your technique when you take that same dance to the stage or street. Moving from a visual to a kinesthetic understanding of the movement is essential to truly mastering it.