Practicing Balance

balance is a dance
balance is a dance

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.

Better Days

changing seasons

Every day is different. Even people living a completely ritualized existence will need to acknowledge this fact.  If nothing else, think about weather.  There may be places on earth where the weather is the same every day, but I doubt it.  Even if you live alone in the woods you are still part of an ecosystem that is in a constant state of flux. None of us is exempt from external influences.  We are all interconnected in this way.  Each of us is just a small part of a larger whole where we frequently find ourselves being impacted by circumstances beyond our control. This can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.

Some of us welcome change.  These folks are constantly seeking something different and may even get bored or restless when things seem to stay the same for too long.  Others (and this is most of us) hate change, resisting even the smallest manifestations.  We like consistency because it gives us a sense of predictability reinforcing our illusion of control.  If we believe we can rely on things as they are, we don’t have to fear the unknown.  This fear is really just anxiety that we won’t be able to handle whatever changes occur in the future.

Despite this sense of anxiety there is not a single person among us who can look back through their lives and not see evidence of an ability to handle change.  We’ve all faced changes at some point in our lives regardless of our age.  In fact, small children change on a daily basis and usually manage to adapt.  As we age, we may become more invested in the status quo.  Yet we can still find even more examples of accepting change.  We may have been dragged kicking and screaming into a different scenario from the one we were used to, but still most of us find a way eventually to see things as they are and adjust.  Sometimes change brings hidden blessings which may not be recognized immediately but might become evident in hindsight.  Looking back can sometimes help us move forward when change is required.

Sometimes change is forced on us for one reason or another.  At other times the status quo itself is causing our suffering and we need to create our own change.  This can be difficult.  Inertia is a powerful force.  Also, just as changes in the world impact our own personal lives, so changes we make to our personal lives can impact the lives of others.  This doesn’t make those changes good or bad, right or wrong.  But it does help to remember that all decisions have consequences, some unexpected and unanticipated.  Being willing to accept and deal with the consequences whatever they are is one of the characteristics of resilience.  This is a quality defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  You may have heard the saying “pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” Resilience is one of the traits that help us deal with the pain without buying into the suffering.

So what does all of this have to do with yoga, Pilates or exercise in general, my usual themes?  Basically it’s this – since each day is different and change is all around us all of the time, our practice can be impacted.  One of the many benefits of practice is that it helps us to deal with stress.  Practice can be an anchor in a raging sea of change.  There can be a comfort in the experience of simple breath and movement.  One of the things I often tell students is that if you really focus on connecting breath and movement there is usually no room in your head for anything else.  This can provide a brief respite from the ills of the world.  In fact, practice might help you to remember that in this moment right now there is still alot that is OK.  We as humans seem to naturally gravitate to noticing what’s wrong more often than what is right. Those of you who take my classes know that at the end of each class I always offer gratitude for being able to move and breathe.  This is something I learned from yoga teacher Seane Corn and I am grateful to her for passing on that tip.  It has served me well.

Another consequence of daily changes is that some days are better than others physically as well as mentally.  As we get older, we tend to focus on the negative aspects of these feelings, but they are not limited to older people.  Everyone has days when they feel like they could conquer the world and other days when staying in bed seems like the only option.  On days like that it helps to remember that practice can be a source of comfort.  If you take classes regular, the group can also be a support.  Just like you feel differently on some days, your practice can be different, too.  If you’re not feeling terribly energetic or if you are bogged down by some difficulty, don’t blow off your practice. Instead allow it to change just as you are changing.  Be gentle.  Take it slow.  Don’t work so hard.  Bend your knees more.  Try using an extra blanket or other prop to make it less stressful.  Or just take Child’s Pose and breathe whenever you feel like it. You can also just completely avoid poses that are painful or difficult.  Or use modifications even if that’s something you rarely do.  There are no expectations you need to live up to. Your practice is for you alone.  There may be a benefit to others due to the effects of your practice on you, but that’s not the point.  The ultimate goal is for you to take care of yourself.  So just for today whatever will help you do that is the right thing to do.  Tomorrow will be different.