Proponents of practicing yoga and Pilates often stress the ability of these disciplines to improve strength, flexibility and balance. Frequently I hear people say “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible.” Physical flexibility is often defined as full range of motion within a joint or a series of joints. Although many of us have lots of flexibility as children, over time due to lifestyle habits such as excessive sitting, driving and many forms of repetitive motion, we begin losing it. This can create all kinds of problems including chronic pain and joint deterioration. No amount of yoga or Pilates will give us back everything we’ve lost, but most of us can maintain or even improve our range of motion through practice. When I started practicing yoga I had the tight hamstrings that are common to most runners. Forward bends were practically impossible. My hamstrings are still tight and one side is more flexible than the other but I have greatly improved. This is attributable simply to practice. No particular physical skills or attributes on my part. Just non-judgmental patience and practice.
The same can be said of balance. Human balance is a complex process that relies on a number of anatomical systems including the senses of touch, vision and inner ear motion sensors. Your brain has to receive and process this information in real time and your muscle and joint systems must respond and coordinate appropriate movements. No wonder balance is so difficult! In fact, our ability to balance at all is nothing short of miraculous. Most of us can stand on our feet and even walk which actually involves alot of balance. Still, just like with flexibility, I hear people say, “My balance is terrible.”
A commonly held belief is that our ability to balance declines as we age. This is not strictly true, but balance disorders are more common among older people due to various diseases or injuries that take their toll through the years. As with flexibility, though, balance can be improved through practice. Medical intervention may be required for the treatment of specific disorders, but most generally healthy adults regardless of age can improve their balance. In fact, it becomes more critical to focus on balance improvement as we age in order to avoid falls which can become very dangerous.
The ability to maintain balance impacts more than just our physical mobility. The word “balance” comes from the Latin word “balare” which means to dance. Anyone who has ever stood on one foot in Tree Pose can understand this derivation. Your standing foot is in constant motion, internally and externally, requiring minute shifts of the body to maintain equilibrium. Recently I heard an analogy made to surfing. To me this seems like the ultimate example of responding to subtle changes while staying centered. One thing that helps with these tiny adjustments is attention. In balance poses, we are often instructed to find a focal point and concentrate our energy to help maintain the stillness required. It is also important to stay relaxed and to breathe. Many people hold their breath when trying to balance. This creates tension which undermines balance. Rythymic breathing helps the body to relax and adapt to stressors. Accommodating the dance of balance is difficult enough, but if your attention is diverted it becomes almost impossible. When people tell me they have fallen or injured themselves, the cause is often traceable to not paying attention.
Sometimes, too, the transition between stillness and movement can be as demanding of our attention as holding our balance. Perhaps even moreso. Recognizing when to be still and when to move requires that all of the contributing anatomical systems maintain an awareness of what is actually happening in the moment – where your body is in space and in relation to the objects around it and the surfaces it rests on. When you reflect on all that goes into it, it becomes understandable that mindful movement can really help.
The practice of paying attention and being mindful can translate into other aspects of our lives. Physically, we have two sides – left and right. But we also have a front and back and lower and upper bodies. There are internal systems and external systems. Light and dark, day and night, yin and yang. Each of us is an individual but we are also part of a whole – a family, a community, a country, our planet, the universe. We all also harbor contradictory tendencies within ourselves – positive and negative thoughts and feelings, tendencies toward fight or flight, fear and confidence, hard and soft, etc. etc. Figuring out how to balance our own inner conflicts and confusion is an enormous challenge. Balance is a lot more than our ability to stand on one foot. Handling all of this requires coordination of many more systems. Sometimes we have control over some aspects of these systems, but mostly we have no control. Stuff happens. Still similar principals can apply. Maintaining presence in the moment, focusing attention on conditions as they arise and change, adapting to those changes without losing our equilibrium and the values we cherish, assessing each shift and remaining open to all possibilities- these are not easy tasks.
Once again practice helps. But practice does not mean perfect. There are many times our better nature can be overrun by the tidal wave of emotions in a given moment. This doesn’t make us bad or faulty but if we can learn from our faults and failings and practice behaving differently, we can begin to experience some sense of equilibrium. When people say to me “I’m not flexible” or “My balance is lousy” or “My mind is too noisy to focus”, I often reply, “That makes you just like everyone else”. We all tend to think our abilities and tendencies, or lack thereof, are unique and unusual. But all humans are coping with challenges. There is a saying, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We as humans seem to have a natural desire to want to make order out of chaos find the stillness of peace. We seek predictability, order and unity. Disorders of all types, both mental and physical, can subvert this tendency and turn it upside down. Those of us with the ability to practice mindfulness have a gift. We need to value that gift and find compassion for those unwilling or unable to make that choice. This is where the third leg of the yoga/Pilates stool comes in – the quality of strength. Building strength, inner and outer, can help us to stay mindful and make the right choice even when it’s difficult.
This week we’ve seen some tragic examples of chaos in our world. But this week is not unique. Every day there is violence, dispair, misunderstanding, fear and hatred. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to acknowledge the difficulty of maintaining balance, take a collective deep breath and try to recognize that “everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” There is no perfect solution, but we can all improve with practice. As with any practice, the hardest part is starting.