Balance – Walking the Tightrope.

Balance.
“An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”.
Some can, some sometimes can, and some find it almost impossible. Why can some people balance and others not?

According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, balance problems  rely on four body systems working together: 1) musculoskeletal (muscle strength, flexibility), 2) sensory (eyes, pressure sensors in the skin, muscles, and joints, and the vestibular system in the inner ear), 3) neuromuscular (muscle groups functioning cohesively), and 4) cognitive (fear of e.g. falling, and postural awareness whilst multitasking) .

Generally.
Over 25+ years of teaching tai chi, I have thought a great deal about balance, had numerous discussions with osteopaths, Alexander teachers, dancers (both ballet and contemporary), and yoga teachers, and have had to deal with my own balance issues.
I’ve noticed that some days are definitely better than others, that the body sometimes balances better on one side than on the other – but that this can change, and that being aware of certain postural habits, and really understanding how to correct them, can make a huge difference.

Currently, I think that tension is the main culprit; this could be in the form of muscular inflexibility (on a cellular level) as well as stress, (mental tension and therefore also an inflexibility).
Both of these amount to being ungrounded; the muscular meaning that your body locks up and is unable to settle like silt in a pond, and the mental meaning that your energy is up in the head.  In the first case your energy is locked in the middle of the body, and in the second it’s locked in the top of the body.

Fighting ourselves.
If we were to go along the path of least resistance, I guess we would just be piles of flesh and bones on the ground, and gravity would have won.  In a sense, we fight our natural inclination to be on the floor, (perhaps that’s why going to bed is so nice!); we have definitely “taken the weight off our feet”.

Gravity.
But we don’t collapse on the floor, and therefore the body spends it’s entire upright existence sensing or ‘reading’ gravity.
What this means is that, without being aware of it, the body constantly tries to find the position that requires the least energy to stay upright.  For example, when your body bends forward, the back muscles have to become more active to stop your body from bending forward any further, and therefore more energy is used.  We are permanently fighting gravity, but we look for the path of least resistance.

When ‘reading gravity’ goes wrong.
As we grow older, our muscles and tendons lose flexibility, our nervous system doesn’t function so efficiently (see below), and our ability to adapt to our environment alters.  We might still be able to ‘read’ gravity, but sometimes are unable to adapt fast enough.

8 Factors affecting balance.
Below are 8 factors that I’ve noticed affect balance.  Below that is a brief description of each of those factors.  It’s not necessary to read the lot!  If one of them appeals, it might be the one that’s relevant to you, but then again it might not be; I’m quite sure that I haven’t got all the problems down on paper!

1. Tension in the hips (pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints).
2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
4. ‘Over-connection’ between the upper and lower body.
5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
7. Pelvic instability.
8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.

1. Tension in the pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints.
The flexibility of the spine allows for balance and counter-balance to take place. As both the spine and legs attach to the pelvis, the pelvis  therefore becomes the pivotal point for the vertical body; if the pivot is frozen, balance and counter-balance are compromised.
In addition, when the pelvis locks, it affects the flexibility of both the knees and ankles.

2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally.
Good body tone allows freedom of muscular movement. Stress and tension cause the body to try to ‘hold’ itself in position.
When the muscles are well toned and stretched, when there is elasticity in the tendons and ligaments, the counter-balancing system of the body works efficiently.
Because the body automatically counter-balances itself, when there is tension in one part, another part will adjust.  The classic example of this is that, if you damage your lower back, you’ll often discover that your neck becomes sore a couple of days later… the top and the bottom ‘rearrange’ themselves.

3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age.
Most often due to bad posture for any number of reasons, but nowadays frequently because of the time spent on screens, the cervical vertebrae wear more than the other vertebrae.
As a result, the motor messages from feet to head are compromised resulting in a fractional increase in time when the body tries to adjust itself.

4. Over-connection between the upper and lower body.
This is when the person’s waist no longer functions actively either for horizontal turning (turn your chest to left or right without your hips moving at all), or for flexing (bend down and touch your toes without involving your stomach!).
Therefore from the chest to the pelvis becomes an inflexible mass with head and legs sticking out (the potato man).
I’m not necessarily talking about overweight people; most people have inflexible waists due to lack of exercise.
As a result of this inflexibility, compensations of balance are less subtle, and double compensations – when you have to compensate twice in rapid succession, are impossible.

5. Weakness in the leg muscles.
Because the muscles are weak, the body ‘borrows’ other muscles to do the job that the leg muscles should really be doing.   In the Alexander Technique this is called ‘recruiting’.
In effect this locks the body’s balancing mechanism, rather like rust getting into the one part of an analogue clock’s mechanics and affecting the whole clock.

6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae).
The same principle as above.

7. Pelvic instability.
How the pelvis is held affects balance.
In a way this is an add-on to ‘5’ above.  When there is a problem lifting the knee (weak quadriceps and psoas muscles), the person will destabilise the pelvis by lifting it on the same side as the knee that they’re trying to raise.  (I’m not referring to what is often called a ‘pelvic tilt’; I’m referring to a left/right imbalance).
This creates such a major disturbance in the balance of the rest of the body that the body finds it difficult to compensate; it’s almost as though the maths of trying to juggle the balance equation is too much for it.  This is hardly surprising as putting the pelvis out of kilter is upsetting the very core of the balancing unit.

8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.
I have noticed, particularly when teaching older people who perhaps have had a fall, that they often spend a lot of energy trying to ‘lift themselves off the ground’, as though they are hoping that lifting their shoulders and chests – almost trying to float – will save their falling.
The result is to make matters worse; in effect they become top heavy.
I know that, from the weight point of view, this is illogical… After all, the person weighs the same whether he/she thinks up or down.
But in fact, if you try to 1) lift someone up who is thinking about the sky, and then 2) lift them up when they’re ‘playing dead’, thinking of their feet, thinking ‘through the floor’, or pretending they’re ‘asleep on their feet’, the difference is obvious.
But the other point is that, when our centre of gravity is lower, we are less likely to fall; you only have to think about that children’s toy – the impossible-to-knock-over wobbly man/woman with a rounded base coming to a smaller rounded head at the top – to know that this is true.

Other reasons for difficulty in balance.
There are other medical reasons for balance problems, such as inner ear problems, vertigo, eye problems, numbness in feet and legs, arthritis, heart and blood circulation problems, stroke, low blood pressure, diseases of the nervous system, and certain medicines (in particular ototoxic drugs that damage the inner ear).

Groups of drugs that can effect the inner ear (ototoxic):
antidepressants
anti-seizure drugs (anticonvulsants)
hypertensive (high blood pressure) drugs
sedatives
tranquilizers
anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs)
aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic)
diuretics
vasodilators
certain analgesics (painkillers)
certain chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs).


Drug groups courtesy of: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/causesriskfactorsandprevention/01.html

________________________________________________________________________________________________

James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.

CONTACTS:
http://www.taiji.co.uk
http://www.qigonghealth.co.uk
Email: taijiandqigong@gmail.com
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308

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