What an amazing thing we accomplish every day just by rolling out of bed, pushing off and swinging up to vertical on the soles of our feet. From that moment, to the time we sink back between the covers, we are dancing with gravity and mostly don’t even know it. In fact, unlike the other senses, balance is something we don’t really want to be aware of for the most part. If it’s off the radar, it’s probably working just fine.
We encounter balance every time we take a step or climb a stair. Practice brings balance into focus through walking meditation or mindful yoga as we cultivate a relationship with our own center of gravity moving through space. Playing with balance can be a great teacher, a mirror, and a metaphor.
The more I practice, the more curious I become about just what balance is - on and off the mat. Each time you visit tree pose or find yourself on tippy toe reaching for the top shelf you'll notice that balance is not static, in fact it's a dance of constant motion
Balance, it turns out, has a lot of moving parts
The information the brain needs to orient you in space comes from at least five separate systems.
The vestibular apparatus in the inner ear contains little floating particles of calcite that allow the brain to sense where the head is in relation to gravity when nearby receptors are stimulated.
The semi-circular canals, also part of the inner ear, signal acceleration and deceleration as the body moves.
The visual system provides orientation by sensing eye movements and tracking objects in space.
The muscular system assists in maintaining balance by controlling posture and also through receptors in muscles and tendons that communicate with the spinal cord and brain about the way they are stretching and contracting. This feedback is vital, because maintaining balance on two feet requires constant, minute adjustments.
Ever wondered how you can tell exactly the position of an arm or leg even with your eyes closed?
The skeletal system has receptors in the joints that provide feedback about the position of the limbs. In addition, the skin also has receptors that register the amount of stretch over a joint, giving additional information about location in space.
Finally, the soles of the feet have pressure receptors that register pitch and sway; whether you are tipping back, forward or to the sides.
It is a seamless orchestration, interrelated and humming along outside of awareness; but not to be taken for granted.
Balance naturally deteriorates to some degree with aging but the good news is there is a lot we can do to prevent those effects, and it doesn’t take heroic efforts or hours at the gym.
Begin by being aware - Notice and appreciate the way you navigate through the literal ups and downs of your day; sitting, walking, standing still - the many ways you experience being on and off balance, moment to moment. Introduce moments of simple balance building throughout your day.
Finally, keep in mind that balance is not a fixed state of equilibrium, frozen and unchanging. Balance is fluid, always in flux, a process of adjustment and accommodation to changing circumstance.
Playing with balance can free up some space to explore - to breathe into an edge gradually, expand your current comfort zone, welcome the sensation of coming back to center, again and again...and again
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