This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).
by Beth Gibbs
“Step with great care and great tact, and remember that life’s a great balancing act.” Dr. Seuss
Due to a variety of cognitive and physiological issues, our ability to balance changes as we age. How we face that reality is important because improving our ability to balance is the best way to prevent falls and live longer in an optimally healthy state.
There are two primary types of physical balance:
1. Moving balance allows you to maintain your balance while walking, climbing stairs, stepping up and down on a curb, exercising, and performing daily activities.
2. Static balance is the ability to maintain a position without moving, such as standing in a long line in the supermarket, reaching away from your body without falling, or standing on one foot.
Moving is like breathing for me and I’m really good at it. I move from the first moment my foot hits the floor in the morning to the last moment when that same foot completes my plop into bed at night. I have been known to stop in the middle of the day and "dance like nobody’s watching." Of course, I have my "slouch on the couch" time (who doesn’t), but I try to be self-aware of when I move and how I move to maintain my moving balance ability.
If you find moving balance difficult because of a physical condition, vision problem or fear of falling, you may limit your activities. However, limiting your activities could in turn result in further reducing your mobility. Therefore, if you are challenged by moving balance here is a suggestion to try. *If you've been diagnosed with a condition that adversely affects your balance and gait, please consult a physician before starting any new exercise program.
Benefits: strengthens the leg and trunk muscles and improves coordination
1. Begin by standing with an elongated spine on firm flooring (no carpets or rugs).
2. Hold onto a counter, table, or wall if you need extra support.
3. Lift your toes and the balls of your feet off the ground and balance on your heels.
4. Walk several feet on your heels while keeping your body upright.
5. Pause and set your toes down while lifting your heels off the floor. Return to your starting position by walking the distance on your toes and balls of your feet.
6. Repeat the entire exercise 2 more times.
7. Try to do this twice a day until your moving balance improves.
Static balance is another matter entirely. It has been a lifelong challenge, in part, I suspect from three structural misalignments in my pelvis, which is rotated and tilted with one side higher than the other. Sigh. I used to avoid yoga balance poses because it was difficult to hold them. However, once I learned the importance of good balance as a way of reducing the risk of falling and injury, I decided to work with my dislike of balance poses, and as Cher said to Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, “Snap out of it!”
It has been a few years but I can confidently say that with practice and a consistent routine of pelvic alignment exercises that I learned from Lee Albert, founder of Integrative Positional Therapy (leealbert.com), I am much better at static balance.
If you are challenged by static balance, try the following exercise. I learned it from Ruth Bender, my very first yoga teacher. She has passed on but you can still find her books and information online if you search for ruthbenderyoga.
Standing Balance Exercise
Benefits: strengthens the muscles in the feet and legs
1. Stand behind your chair and hold on with both hands
2. Stand on your right foot, bend your left knee and raise your left foot to the back without moving the hips and pelvis.
3. Hold this position to the count of five. Return the left foot to the starting position.
4. Stand on your left foot, bend your right knee and raise your right foot to the back.
5. Hold this position to the count of five.
6. Increase the holding time every day for a few seconds to reach the current recommended time of 30 seconds.
7. After a few weeks of practice, try to do it with your hands off the chair but keep your hands close to the chair.
For more of a challenge, you can gradually work up to one to two minutes, practice with your eyes closed, and/or practice on more uneven surfaces such as a carpet, grass, or sand.
As the following quote points out, finding and including the quality of balance in our lives can be more complicated than physical balance. "Balance in life like in the body is not a given, we need to work for it.” -Unknown
The complications can come from a variety of power-sucking sources such as:
Trauma (acute, chronic, or complex)
Money, work, or relationship worries
Being seen and treated as other (race, poverty, politics, class, gender identity, etc.)
The bad news is that we often don’t have control over the situations that throw us off balance. The good news is that we can learn to manage our responses to them. There are no quick fixes. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and what’s needed to get started are healthy doses of self-awareness, stress management, and self-care.
A regular yoga practice helps. Here is one of my favorite energy practices. It can be done on a mat, in a chair, or in a supine position.
One of the definitions of the Sanskrit word, adhi, is "primordial" and refers to our natural state of being. The gesture is said to bring the breath to the base of the body, help with anxiety, and instill a deep sense of grounding and stillness.
Sit with your spine comfortably aligned.
Soften your chest and shoulders.
Close your eyes or keep them slightly open and gaze down at the floor.
With both hands, form soft fists by placing your thumbs across your palms and folding your fingers around your thumbs.
Rest your hands, knuckles down, on your knees or thighs.
Hold the mudra and sit quietly for 2 - 5 minutes as long as you are comfortable.
Focus on your natural breathing process.
When you are ready to come out, release the mudra and stretch your body in any way that your body needs to stretch.
In Mudras for Healing and Transformation, by Joseph and Lilian Le Page, it notes that Adhi Mudra should be practiced with caution if you have low blood pressure. On a personal note, I have low blood pressure but am able to practice Adhi Mudra regularly with no problems.
Good luck working with the quality of balance in your body and in your life.
Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a guest faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children. For more information please visit her website at: bethgibbs.com
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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