Achieving balance is not always easy
A colleague came into my office recently to share a picture on her phone of a little girl, maybe 3-4 years old, wearing roller skates.
“It’s me,” she said, explaining that she discovered it while scanning a bunch of family photos for safekeeping.
Wow, I said; you could skate when you were so little? She could; a skating rink was within walking distance of his family’s home. She and her brother spent a lot of time there.
With a bit of embarrassment, I told her that skating was not one of my childhood accomplishments. The balance eluded me: I couldn’t ride a two-wheeled bike until I was 9, and only after my brother’s callous teasing shamed me.
My balance skills haven’t improved with age, I told him. Although riding a bike is no longer a challenge as a child, I might have benefited from a small, pedalless balance bike designed to teach riders how to balance themselves on the move while seated, the hardest part. difficult to learn to drive. (A neighbor’s preschooler has one – the modern take on training wheels.)
I didn’t enjoy my early morning yoga class that day as it focused on balancing poses. Yoga is supposed to be non-pressure and non-competitive, but anyone who has practiced with a class knows that fellow participants surreptitiously check to see if their poses are as good as those demonstrated by the yogini on the mat in front of the room. (This is almost never the case.)
Why is becoming a dancer such a challenge for some of us? According to Yoga Journal, when we balance ourselves, we align our body’s center of gravity with the Earth’s gravitational field. “Literally, we put ourselves in physical balance with a fundamental force of nature. But we cannot achieve this harmony by remaining absolutely still. Instead, we need to refresh our balance moment by moment. Sustained effort to center and refocus, when successful, brings not only our flesh and bones into balance, but also our nerve impulses, thoughts, emotions, and even our consciousness. Therefore, we feel calm. Balance brings equanimity.
Calm isn’t what I feel when my instructor slips into Warrior 3.
Here’s why, Yoga Journal reports: “If we fall out of Vrksasana (Tree Pose) when practicing alone, we often hear an inner critic say, ‘What’s wrong with you? You should be able to do it !’ If we are in a classroom, the same fall can bring a feeling of humiliation very disproportionate to the physical event.We feel out of control when we lose our balance, and the ego hates losing control, especially when others are around to see it.”
Why do some, like my colleague, have better balancing abilities than me? According to babysparks.com, our vestibular system, which develops during the first years of life, is responsible for balance. It helps the brain coordinate actions such as standing, walking, reaching for objects, and knowing when the body is moving or not.
A seemingly decent balance is not necessarily inherited; my mom, a regular Lucky Strikes smoker who rarely exercised aside from touching her toes while watching “The Paige Palmer Show” (the first daily fitness-focused TV show in the US) on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, could skate across a frozen pond with the utmost grace and ease, with her awkwardly wobbling daughter far behind her.
And despite the fact that my balance was hardly impressive as a child, it worsens with age due to deficiencies in the vestibular system, vision and proprioception (awareness of the body and limbs involving the passive sense of movement, the active sense of movement, the position of the sense limbs and feeling of heaviness).
The best way to improve performance in balance poses — as well as biking, skating, dancing, and gymnastics — is to practice, practice, practice. To achieve a pose that causes difficulty, try practicing it with the support of a wall or ledge so you can hold it for a long time without losing your balance. Hold it until muscle fatigue causes you to lose proper positioning of your limbs or core. Then drop down and practice on the other side. Repeat.
Achieving balance, experts say, requires constant attention. So now I am experimenting with the suggestions of these physiotherapists:
• Balance on one foot while standing for a while at home (like when I brush my teeth, which my electric Sonicare makes me do for two minutes at a time).
• Rise from a seated position without using your hands.
• Walk in a line, heel to toe, for short distances.
• Standing on one leg, slowly raise the other leg in front of you. Next, lift the same leg sideways and down, and extend your leg behind your body and down. It will become easier if you focus on doing it regularly.
• Step sideways with toes pointing straight ahead until you reach the end of the wall or counter. Then go back the other way. Increase efficiency by putting on a resistance band at the knees or just above the ankles.
None of this effort will help me achieve difficult yoga poses like Scorpion Handstand or Tripod Handstand, let alone One-Handed Tree Pose. But they might keep me from tipping over in front of yoga classmates born with better vestibular skills than mine.
Karen Martin is the editor of Perspective.