IN A RECENT YOGA CLASS I ATTENDED, THE INSTRUCTOR MENTIONED proprioception-a word I had never heard before-as part of an exercise. She explained that proprioception is the ability to sense or know where your limbs are in space without actually seeing them. For instance, when you put your arms behind your head you can't see them, but you can easily touch two specific fingers together.
Curious about the term and how it may relate to motor-cycling, I did some more research when I returned home from the class. The word proprioception has its roots in the Latin word proprius, which means "one's own," and, of course, perception. There is some dissent over the differences between proprioception and kinesthesia, but most of the references I found described proprioception as a feedback loop from a variety of sources within the body-including muscles, tendons, tissues and our sense of balance and equilibrium-that tells the brain the state of each limb, it's position and motion. The brain then makes decisions based on that feedback and returns commands to the limb.
The typical drunk test (not that I have any firsthand experience, mind you...) is a proprioception exercise: Start with your arms extended to the sides and, with eyes closed, touch your fingers to your nose. A more useful example is walking or hiking and how proprioception helps prevent (and recuperate from) a sprained ankle. It is what allows us, when putting a foot down on uneven ground, to quickly and accurately exert the correct forces in the correct areas of the foot so that the ankle does not twist. With practice, of course, this is accomplished without actually looking at the ground in front of us, nor with any conscious thought involved. The better your proprioception, the less you have to look directly in front of you (or even keep your eyes open, for that matter).
It seems to me that this extra sense would be a key element in riding a motorcycle. Consider the picture that shows John Hopkins in action on the Suzuki GSV-R. The kinesthetic part of it is that Hopkins is looking so far ahead that there is no way he can see the bike or the nearby track, let alone his arms and legs. Yet his limbs are in precisely the right position, the bike on exactly the correct line on the track. The proprioception part is not so readily visible: a tiny slide corrected with an equally tiny movement on the bars or pegs to redistribute the rider's center of gravity. A subtle relaxation of the arms or legs at exactly the right moment to help the chassis absorb a bump, all without conscious thought involved.
It was almost uncanny watching the MotoGP riders at the USGP this year; the bikes are leaned so far over, the riders' heads way to the inside of the track, and yet every lap the tires pass within inches-millimeters, even-of the curbing at the apex of the corner, at the razor's edge of traction and control. Is it a heightened sense of proprioception that allows them to repeat this, lap after lap, with such accuracy?
Luckily, proprioception is something that can be learned and improved through exercise. Obviously, experience helps. A person who hikes or runs regularly would learn to deal with increas- ingly difficult and uneven ground without having to look down, able to run faster over rougher ground with time-just as motorcycle riders gain speed with experience. There are a variety of common and not-so-common exercises that can be useful. Many involve balance, such as sitting on a medicine ball or standing on a wobble board; others combine balance and coordination. Tai Chi moves and-of course-yoga postures are generally cited as good for proprioception. The level of difficulty and the benefit of each exercise are increased if it is conducted with the eyes closed. Repetitious exercise, however-such as lifting weights or riding a stationary bicycle-does not improve proprioception, and it's interesting to note here the recent success of riders who train using road bicycling ("MotorCYCLE Training," April '07) as opposed to a workout in the gym.
Now I'm not saying that you should drop whatever exercise routine you have and start running down bumpy hiking trails with your eyes closed to work on your proprioception, but I found many references that indicated an improved sense of proprioception would be beneficial to riding a motorcycle. And it's at least something to think about when putting together an exercise program.