Learning Through Novelty

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Let’s look at two words that are often used interchangeably but mean different things: proprioception and kinesthesia. According to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, proprioception is “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body.” In other words, it’s the awareness of body position and location.

Kinesthesia is the “Sense perception of movement, the muscular sense,” meaning an awareness of how movement is performed. Proprioception is the result of sensory input throughout the body (skin, fascia, muscle, joint receptors), which then sends feedback to the spinal cord and brain.

Kinesthesia, however, is more behavioral in origin and your body is more actively involved in assessing movement patterns and making adjustments. In yoga and other movement disciplines, we need both our proprioceptive sense and kinesthetic abilities to execute tasks. In addition, the brain exhibits neuroplasticity, meaning that changes in nerves and synapses can occur, new movement skills can be acquired at any time, and there is potential for new neural connections throughout life, regardless of age.

As humans, we are often creatures of habit, often preferring repetition and predictability to novelty, from driving the same way every day to work, to performing the same set of sequenced asanas in a class or at home. Although there is still incredible benefit to be reaped from repetition and movement, creativity is what drives the brain, kinesthetic sense, and motor learning. With every new set of movement concepts or skills, there is a timeline of growth and acquisition that can be seen in the psychological model of the conscious competence matrix, used in many different modalities of learning:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: The student does not know or understand how to do something, and therefore does not know their own incompetence.
  2. Conscious Incompetence: The student does not understand how to do something, but sees their own deficits and is eager to learn.
  3. Conscious Competence: Student understands how to do something but is refining the movement and skills needed.
  4. Unconscious competence: Student is able to execute the skill with minimal effort and ease.

Let’s apply this to a movement skill that I am still refining: handstands. When I first tried a handstand, I was convinced that I could not do one (having not done them in my youth), and had no idea where to start, thus the unconscious incompetence phase. I later started to realize the strength needed in the shoulders, although my kick attempts were clumsy (conscious incompetence). A few years later, I was able to kick up to the wall, albeit not always gracefully, and able to refine my kinesthetic mastery of the movement mechanics, thus conscious competence. I think I’m still somewhere in the conscious competence phase in regards to handstanding, since it’s not yet second nature, but we’ve all seen people pike and float into handstand with no problem, thus unconscious competence.

Let’s tie this all back to yoga asanas – after a certain point, many of the traditional yoga asanas (vinyasa, downward dog, tadasana, warrior poses, etc.) become very familiar, thus unconscious competence. We may have a remembered rote sense of what poses usually “feel” like, and thus replicate a similar felt experience each time. We may no longer think about the way we execute the pose, and may be doing the pose on autopilot, with little felt sense of proprioception or kinesthesia.

The solution? Make poses and movement new again. My favorite way to do this is with Yoga Tune Up®, as it has many movements that originate outside the traditional yoga methodology, challenging the brain and body in bilateral movements, new pose orientations, and joint explorations.

Let’s look at a few exercises: the first, propeller arms, requires contralateral movement and shoulder circumduction (a movement rarely used in yoga). When most of us first try this, we had no idea this was even possible (unconscious incompetence) and are unable to make the movement contralateral and instead swing both arms in the same direction (conscious incompetence). How is this different movement from other movements? How is your proprioception impacted by the exercise? What do you feel in your shoulders? And are you able to refine your kinesthetic sense to execute the movement more efficiently?

Now let’s move to a movement targeting the spine, abdominals, lower back: sidewinder. Using a blanket on a sliding surface, this movement asks us to side bend the legs and torso while simultaneously maintaining contact between the pelvis, spine, and the blanket. This is an ipsilateral movement, but for many, this can be confused with rotation and other spinal actions, since we rarely sideband while supine. How does this pose challenge your kinesthetic sense? After you complete the pose, how is your proprioception affected? Are new areas of the body awakened?

Lastly, let’s look at a traditional yoga asana, uttanasana, and challenge our body in a new way, making the pose asymmetrical with the use of a block under one leg. For most of us, uttanasana is a pose we execute with unconscious competence throughout the course of a yoga class, but in this context, the block under the leg changes the plane of movement for the hips and spine, as well as the targeted tissues. How does changing the pose affect your bodily awareness? If this is a new movement, how was your experience of changing the pose?

No matter your movement diet, change and variability are essential for challenging the brain and creating new neural connections. Start to get creative with your practice, whether you’re a daily yoga practitioner or infrequent yogi challenge your brain and your body with new movements!

Enjoyed this article? Read Blanket Bonanza!



Kayleigh Miller

Kayleigh Miller, a recent addition to the San Antonio Symphony viola section, enjoys a varied career of performance, teaching, and yoga instruction. As a yoga instructor, she initially trained with David Vendetti and Todd Skoglund in Boston, and has completed additional trainings in working with children and modifying a yoga practice for cancer. As a professional musician, she has a particular interest in musicians' issues, which include postural disorders, overuse syndrome, tendonitis, and pain. She believes that a musical career can be pain-free, and that the methodology of Yoga Tune Up® can help musicians to play without pain. Kayleigh additionally brings her 15 years of experience as a musical instructor to her classes, and believes that yoga can be fun, challenging, and reflective. She is a new member of the San Antonio Symphony and is excited to start teaching YTU® in Texas. www.kayleigh-miller.com

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Ashley Vasas

The Conscious Competence Matrix is such a great way to explain the boredom that can come from repeating the same yoga practice over and over. Even if the poses are challenging, it’s easy to find yourself bored and your mind wandering. What a great reminder of how important changing things up is for both your body and mind.


I had never heard of the conscious competence matrix and find this concept extremely interesting . I will integrate into my practices. Thank you for sharing!


I am taking a teacher training for seven days. Conscious Competence Matrix makes the teacher in me sing! I have not taught yoga or any physical exercise, except informally. I have taught in HS & many adults in different settings. Frequently, the biggest challenge is to get the student to recognize the issue. I wonder how long it takes for someone to understand & move on to “conscious incompetence.” What then? No answer, just thinking through the difference between teaching the physical body & mind v just the mind.

Katherine Girling

This is a great example of how we can weave modern neuroscientific concepts into our practice of yoga (or any movement modality). Having tried all of these exercises for the first time recently, it was odd and comical to feel my own brain working hard to create new connections and expand my body map. It’s so easy to get into a movement rut – and so important to keep making ourselves just a little uncomfortable. Thanks for sharing!


This was a great post! I hadn’t heard of the Conscious Competence Matrix. It got me thinking about a lot and how thankful I am that so few yoga poses came to me “off the shelf” with unconscious competence”. Having had to work for all of them made me a way better teacher years later when I took my first teacher training. The YTU training made me fall in love with the learning process again and your post really drove home exactly why…for me that initial draw was in part tied to that rewarding feeling of growing through learning a… Read more »


There is nothing that takes me out of my comfort zone like trying something new or novel. One thing that I don’t love to do is learning something for the first time and being a novice. Although intellectually I understand that it is globally important on so many levels…it’s certainly not my favorite thing. For example, I recently started studying jiu jitsu and it is one of the hardest things I have ever done. As the smallest, lightest human in the room every class I strive to simply stay alive. So it is here where I need to remind my… Read more »

Kati Terray

I really like the idea of using the conscious competence matrix to assess where I and my students are at. I have definitely been working my way through the matrix with both propeller arms and sidewinder!


Novelty There is nothing that takes me out of my comfort zone like trying something new or novel. One thing that I don’t love to do is learning something for the first time and being a novice. Although intellectually I understand that it is globally important on so many levels…it’s certainly not my favorite thing. For example, I recently started studying jiu jitsu and it is one of the hardest things I have ever done. As the smallest, lightest human in the room every class I strive to simply stay alive. So it is here where I need to remind… Read more »

Amalea Fisher

So interested in this topic! We talk a lot about how to teach a movement but not much about students learning to move. I was reading a book recently that described learning something new as figuring out a puzzle and how the body needs new ways of moving to learn how to move. It makes me strive to keep adding variability into my workout and movement routines.

Rianna Reid

I love this! What a great measurement of self-assessment for teachers and students alike – in practice and in life! Thank you!


Love your explanation of the process of learning and growing into something new. I had never heard it described like this… What I love about this is that it makes learning more fun and less of a pass or fail situation. There are stages and it is a process!


I love the simple explanation of the difference between proprioception and kinesthesia. Both are so incredibly important – and it’s always a good reminder that change and variability are healthy for the body, no matter the age. Thanks for the inspiration to try put myself in a new context and try something different!


Thanks everyone for the positive feedback- and keep challenging yourself through movement!

Gail Portrey

What a great reminder to not take things for granted. Change and variability are certainly a key to keeping classes and your own practice fresh. Building a language of new tools is one of the most exciting components of Yoga Tune Up.

Karen Bulmer

Thanks for this Kayleigh! I am also a musician and use the competence matrix in both my music and movement teaching. I like how you breakdown of the difference between proprioception and kinesthesia and how we need both to improve our movement. And novelty… I have noticed that both yogis and classical musicians are often resistant to mixing things up in any way that might mess with the aesthetic…but this kind of play is so essential for learning!


As fitness instructors in any area (yoga or otherwise), I completely agree it’s vital to try something new ourselves. We are asking participants to “try something new” (and usually very out of their comfort zones) just about every time they walk in the door – especially brand new folks. We can’t expect them to do what we will not do or for us to help them achieve what they need when we’ve not stretched ourselves in some way. And the broader our experience, the more creative we need to get in order to find something new to experience. Doing so… Read more »

Jonathan McKinna

Thank you for sharing, Kayleigh! My Yoga Tune Up practice came in handy last week at the James Vincent McMorrow concert. I took those melodious hours on my feet as an opportunity to resist old patterns of movement (leaning to one side) and aimed for a neutral, natural pelvis and spine. I must’ve formed new neural connections during that 3-hour “immersion” because anytime one hip hints at sagging now (especially during long stretches of standing on the subway platform), a gentle alarm (like the sweet ding of a triangle) goes off in my head and I stand at attention. #awarenessisthesuperskill… Read more »

Juan Pablo

So true, switch it up is so important. It’s sometimes hard to do something new. But it’s amazing how the quickly the body can lean and adapt!


i love this! such a clear explanation and it has inspired me to revolutionize the way i practice on the mat 🙂

Samara Zelniker

I agree with needing to switch up poses in our yoga practice as well as patterns of behaviour that may occur in our lives in order to build neuroplasticity in the brain and continually be growing and learning.