The following article was originally published on this blog in a previous version in 2012 – the topic of Balance has never felt more timely – so I’ve updated this post and will be following up in the coming weeks starting from the ground-up – cultivating balance!
A Question of Balance
Balanc-i-n-g… 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.
Few practices bring balance into focus more clearly than yoga –on the mat we cultivate a relationship with our own center of gravity through the shifts and changes of physical movement and in life. 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.
As you’ve probably noticed each time you visit Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or any other one-legged stance – balance is not static. The ability to balance is the result of a truly amazing coordination of systems.
Balance, it turns out, has a lot of moving parts.
Balance in the Brain
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.
The skeletal system has receptors in the joints that provide feedback about the position of the limbs.
Ever wondered how you can tell exactly the position of an arm or leg even with your eyes closed? In addition to these joint receptors, 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.
The Balance of Time
Balance naturally deteriorates to some degree with aging – 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…invite a sense of playful curiosity about the many ways you experience being on and off balance, moment to moment.
Introduce moments of simple balance building throughout your day. Kinesiologist Kate Bowman (Move your DNA) suggests…
Finally, keep in mind that unlike the photograph here, balance is not a fixed state of equilibrium, frozen and unchaning. Balance is fluid, always in flux, a process of adjustment and accommodation to changing circumstance.
Playing with balance, exploring the possibilities and growing your edge mindfully can free up some space, literally and figuratively, to explore this complex territory gradually, expanding your current comfort zone, and welcoming the sensation of coming back to center, again and again…and again…