When you hear the term imagery, you probably think of pictures in your mind’s eye. But an image need not be visual; it can be located in any one of your senses. Traditionally there are five senses: visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touch), gustatory (taste), and olfactory (smell). This list is not satisfactory for training alignment and for people involved in exercise, sports, and dance. Proprioception and its subelements must be included in the list as separate sensory modalities. Proprioception consists of the kinesthetic sense (movement), the sense of position, balance, muscle tension, gravity, and effort. These are all perceptions that need to be distinguishable and imaginable if you are to improve your alignment and movement skills. A dancer needs to be an expert at experiencing subtle shifts of weight, as does a gymnast, diver, and many other types of athletes. Other sensory modalities include rhythm and timing. Imagining the rhythm can be very helpful in improving motor control and accelerating the learning movement. A dancer or athlete may be strong and flexible, but if the sense of rhythm is awry, performance will suffer (MacPherson, Collins, and Obhi 2009).
Often the most powerful imagery is composed of several modalities that can occur simultaneously or in rapid order. This does not mean you should always use as many senses as possible when you use imagery; rather, you should use only the ones that create the best results for you. A dancer may rely on auditory and kinesthetic imagery, an athlete on the combination of visual and kinesthetic imagery. A cook will most likely rely mostly on gustatory and olfactory modalities. If you imagine yourself standing under a waterfall, you may have the sensory experiences of seeing and feeling the water pouring down your body, hearing it thundering all around you, smelling its fresh scent, and tasting it in your mouth. By using many senses, you begin to enrich the image, which may make it more effective. This is not always easy, because most of us prefer to use imagery in one or two senses. Notice which type of sensory imagery feels least comfortable to you and gradually add these elements into your practice of imagery.
The brain purposely gives a sense of completeness of your sensory world to make you feel safer. The senses send your brain information about your environment, registering what changes and what doesn’t. The nervous system does not supply you with all the information it gathers with its sensors throughout the body. If it did, you would be flooded with information. The sensations go through a filter, a gateway before arriving at the brain, much like the kidneys filter blood. Once the information arrives, the brain completes the picture, makes sense of it, and gives it meaning. An image localized in only one part of the body can powerfully influence the entire body. The image may be just one aspect of what is needed to change the whole. Trying to process all the information needed to make a change may be overwhelming, but give the brain just one hint and it can absorb the other changes below the level of consciousness.
Imagine you are in a dark room with a flashlight in your hand. If you shine the light in one direction, you can see a chair leg; if you shine it in another direction, you see a vase and a telephone. Although you see only parts of these objects, you still recognize them because your brain completes the information. If the flashlight emitted a ray of light as thin as a laser beam, this would be a good representation of how limited the senses are. Also, as you walk through the dark room, you may choose to focus your attention on subtle sounds, on hints of light, and on the texture of the floor under your feet. You are now opening these sensory gateways to increase your perceptions of touch and hearing. Turning up the volume on certain sensory perceptions is one of the keys to improving movement skills and alignment. If you are standing, you may not normally focus on the pressure distribution of your feet on the floor. By turning up the volume on tactile perception, you may be able to use this information to adjust your balance. If you regularly turn up the volume on feeling your body moving, the kinesthetic sense, you will also improve your skill at imagining movement kinesthetically because of the equivalence of the areas representing the perception and actual movement. The more you can develop the richness of your senses, the greater the impact of your images. Like a painter who needs to create the subtlest changes in hue, you need to hone the precision of your sensory images.
As you go through the following exercises, notice which of the senses is easiest for you to imagine. Is it feeling movement (kinesthetic-proprioception), visual, auditory, or other? Decide to practice more sensory imagery in the areas where you feel challenged to empower your imagery facility.
Proprioception (of which kinesthetic imagery is an aspect) involves the physical feel of a movement. It includes the sense of position, muscle tension, balance, gravity, and effort. For example, you may imagine how much muscle tension you are using to push your body into the air as you jump, how your body feels in the air as you jump, or how much effort you are using to plow through the water when you are swimming. Noticing subtle changes in proprioception is an important tool for aligning your body as well as for accomplishing any movement.
Tactile imagery is closely related to kinesthetic imagery. In fact, the two are sometimes combined under the joint heading of tactile-kinesthetic. I like to distinguish between the two because purely kinesthetic imagery need not be elicited by touch, but it is a prerequisite for tactile imagery. You might remember how you were touched by a teacher who coached you in an exercise. In this way, you can reinforce the image until it becomes ingrained in your nervous system. Practicing imagery with a partner is aided by specific tactile imagery of where, how, and when you touch or are touched by your partner. You may also conjure up imaginary massaging hands to release shoulder tension.
Auditory Imagery and Rhythm
Before they perform, musicians often use auditory imagery to hear the sound they want their instruments to produce. Dancers can hear the music in the mind’s ear while practicing certain dance sequences. Before a dancer performs a pirouette or an athlete throws a javelin, it is helpful to have the image of the rhythm of these movements. Jaclyn Villamil, former ballet teacher in New York, once suggested the auditory image of hearing an ascending scale as you raise your leg into the air. Perhaps a high jumper can benefit from this image as well. In alignment practice, you can “hear” the strength of your central axis, imagining it to be a powerful geyser. You might also remember the pitch and timbre of a correction you received in class and store it in your auditory memory for future use.
The sense of smell, very important for animals, is less important for humans than the visual and auditory senses. Yet olfactory images can be powerful because they have the most direct pathway to the brain of all sensory images. A smell can instantly conjure up the distinct ambience of a place visited long ago. Smells attract and repel humans like no other sensory stimulation. Try the olfactory image of moving through a space filled with the scent of a luscious perfume or flower and notice how it affects your posture.
Gustatory images govern the realm of taste. A good cook can imagine how a sauce will taste before mixing the ingredients, or how the taste of a soup will change depending on what spices are added. An actor might imagine the tastes his or her character encounters during a lunch scene. Clay Taliaferro, original member of the José Limón dance company who is famous for his role in Limón’s choreography of The Moor’s Pavane, directed the dancers at a workshop in France to be involved in the movement as if tasting it, as if chewing on a sweet, succulent