Building Better Balance

Among the reasons given for practicing yoga and Pilates is the ability of these disciplines to improve strength, flexibility and balance.  All three of these terms have many meanings.  Just as building strength is more than just lifting weights and flexibility training encourages more than touching your toes, practicing balance is not just standing on one foot. This is not to diminish the importance of the ability to stand on one foot.  In fact, there have been studies that suggest that the ability to stand on one foot for at least 20 seconds is a predictor of longevity.  That may or may not be true for everyone, but we do know that there is a connection between fall-related injuries and aging.  Exercise in general, and balance training in particular, have been shown to be effective in reducing falls in older adults.  An article on the Harvard Health Publications blog discusses this relationship and cites a study in the British Medical Journal that supports this result.

As that article suggests, falls can be problematic for more reasons than just the broken bones that may result. Another result can be an almost PTSD-like effect which the article describes as a “downward spiral”.  The faller becomes so frightened of another fall that they begin to restrict their mobility.  One of the recurring themes of my blog is that once someone stops moving, starting again becomes much more difficult. That difficulty can ultimately create an insurmountable barrier.  The less you move, the less you want to move.  This may be why we often hear the old adage of “getting back on the horse” after falling off.  Sometimes that is the only way to rebuild the confidence lost when something traumatic occurs.

This is not to suggest that anyone should abandon caution and take unnecessary risks in the name of overcoming fear. But rather than letting the experience reinforce fear, it can also become an opportunity to adopt practices that help to alleviate the fear. When it comes to preventing falls, there are many steps that can be taken to lessen the risk.  These can be as simple as keeping ice melt handy for those places that are known to accumulate ice or wearing shoes with non-skid soles. Keeping walkways well-lit and obstacle-free is another.  And, of course, beginning or maintaining movement practices that emphasize balance.  Actually, all movement practices promote balance.  For example, walking is the act of lifting one foot and maintaining balance on your standing leg until the lifted foot reaches the ground in front of you. Think about a toddler learning to walk and having to negotiate this challenge. Even after we think we’ve mastered the technique, the challenge still remains. Remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle?  This is where practice becomes so important.  We become adept at surmounting these challenges through the reinforcement of practice. Balance may be difficult or even elusive at first, but keep trying.  Eventually muscles will begin to develop the strength needed to stabilize the body even when it is in unstable positions.

There is another advantage to practicing mind-body disciplines such as yoga and Pilates when working on balance.  That is the development of mental attention – sometimes called “mindfulness”.  Whenever I hear about someone falling or, in fact, having any type of accident, it is almost always a result of not paying attention.  The person was in a hurry or stretched themselves in a way that they knew might be precarious but thought “I can do it” rather than simply moving the ladder or changing position to make that stretch safer.  The balance training lessons of mind-body practices help you to get to know your body and how it works internally but also how it relates to the space around it.  How do your feet feel on the surface they are standing on?  What is the relationship between you and that tree trunk blocking the path that you’re walking on?  How about that chair you’re sitting on?  Do your feet reach the floor?  Can you sit upright with proper spinal alignment? Will it really make a difference in your work output if you stand up from your desk and take a stretch break?  Are you standing on one foot in that check-out line?  Or is correct posture allowing your spine to support you?  In the general scheme of things, will it really matter if you take an extra few moments to check in with your body and its surroundings?  Think of the possible consequences.  Not paying attention or thinking somehow that you are immune might cost you a whole lot more time being layed up.  It will do no good afterwards to say “if only I had . . .” (fill in the blank).  Many of us have experienced or witnessed “irrevocable acts” – those times when we wish we could have a “do over”.  Sometimes there is nothing we could have done to change things, but other times just a brief pause before taking action might have prevented an unintended consequence.

This post started with the premise that balance is more than just standing on one foot.  Another benefit of mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates is that they encourage one to take the lessons learned on the mat and apply them to daily life.  Is there anyone out there who does not need more balance in their lives?  If so, I’d like to meet that person and learn their secret.  Think about all the balls we juggle in our daily lives.  There is work and leisure; family responsibilities and personal needs; making healthy choices when alternatives beckon; navigating through parking lots with a long “to do” list filling occupying our minds; choosing to accept reality or clinging to an unreasonable wish that it will magically become something different than it is.  No doubt each of us can come up with additional examples of the extremes in our lives that pull us in opposing directions.  Every day we are faced with these choices. Finding a balance is no easy task.

So what do we do?  Give up in despair and allow the difficulty to overwhelm us?  Or recognize the opportunity to practice. Just like the balance postures we practice in a yoga or Pilates class, the choices that life presents are also an opportunity to practice finding a middle ground.  It requires focus and it doesn’t always work the way we want it to.  Even the most devoted yoga practitioner will fall out of tree pose or feel his or her foot wobbling.  Similarly our attempts to find balance in our lives will often result in wobbling or just falling into one extreme or the other.  But this doesn’t mean we are failures or incapable of better performance.  If you can move and breathe, you can take the lessons learned and try again. Practicing does not mean perfecting.  Being human means none of us will ever be perfect.  But we can all get back on that horse (making, of course, the necessary safety adjustments) and keep practicing.  It may be that the practice eventually leads you to recognize that horse-back riding is no longer a good idea for you.  Then you can practice accepting that reality for today and moving on from there.  Maybe there will be something even better waiting in the path you decide to take instead. No matter what happens, there will always have more opportunities to practice.

Small Changes

rain-becomes-rainbowChange is all around us all the time.  Whether we like it or not, everything is in a constant state of change.  All you have to do is look at a photo of yourself when you were a toddler and then look in the mirror.  Clearly you have not stayed the same.  Then look around you.  Look at the town you grew up in.  Even young people will undoubtedly see changes in their surroundings. I have lived in my current location for just under 9 years.  Not a very long period of time.  Yet during that time I have seen numerous changes in my town and surrounding towns.  People and businesses have come and gone. New homes have been built where fields or forests once thrived.  Smart phones are now ubiquitous. It doesn’t take very long for change to be noticeable.  Pay attention and you will see changes around you every day.  And despite resistance, going back to the way things used to be is not only unlikely but probably unwise.  Hindsight is 20-20 but our memories are selective and faulty.  Nothing was really ever as great as we think we remember it to be.

Yet despite the overwhelming evidence that nothing stays the same, we often cling to the hope that somehow we can hold on to the way things are right now.  Especially if right now seems like a particularly soothing or, at least, non-threatening place.

Change over time can be subtle, like the changes involved in the aging process.  For young children, change occurs at a rapid rate.  The difference between a 6-month old child and a 1-year old child is dramatic.  But through the years, change seems to slow to the point where we may not even pay attention until something forces us out of our complacency. Similarly, a seedling might grow really quickly once it pokes through the soil.  But large trees grow more slowly.  Seasonal changes are observable, but incremental growth patterns may be less obvious.

It is common to recognize the passage of time at certain milestones – the beginning of a new decade, a child or grandchild’s graduation or marriage.  Yet even as these things happen we often don’t see ourselves as changing.  After all, the “internal me” is the same “internal me” that has been there all my life. Sure, I’ve accumulated knowledge and experience over time that has enhanced the way “internal me” views the world, but in my own head I seem the same as I was 20 years ago.  So why is it that my body sometimes refuses to acknowledge the sameness of “internal me”?  It is not uncommon to continue to try doing things the way we’ve always done them because inside we feel the same as we always did. Unfortunately, though, forcing the status quo as our bodies are changing can be frustrating and even dangerous.

Then there are times when change is forced on us.  There might be an accident, illness, loss or other circumstance that forces us to confront the reality of change.  This type of sudden change can be very difficult to accept and absorb. Sometimes it’s appropriate and even necessary to simply put our lives on hold temporarily until a way forward becomes clear.  Certainly recovery from a trauma – physical and/or emotional – may require this approach.  Stop.  Breathe.  Assess the situation as it really is (not as we might like it to be) and then take the next step.  Blaming oneself or some external person or circumstance is rarely helpful.  Also wishing that things were different than what they are won’t make it so.  Looking back into some rosy ideal of the past also just keeps you trapped in thinking like a victim instead of the strong, confident and capable individual that you are.

But just how does one move forward when every new step leads to unknown territory?  The world can seem like a scary place when the comfortable rug of familiarity is pulled out from under your feet.  Curling up into a little ball and opting not to move may seem like an option, but it is unlikely to be a viable solution.  At least not for long, anyway.  So what is the best way to overcome the pain of those first steps into a new world?  One suggestion is to keep those steps small. This is true of any change to your life – whether it is a change you decide to make or one that was not your choice.

Any change in your life – even positive change – involves some type of loss.  In the simplest of terms, it is loss of the way things were.  Perhaps it is the loss of a comfortable routine.  Bringing this discussion to my favorite topic – physical movement – suppose you’ve been told by a medical professional that you need to move more.  Maybe you used to be an avid exerciser, but you’ve gotten away from it through the years.  Or perhaps you’ve suffered from an illness or accident that has caused you to limit or alter your mobility for a period of time.  In this blog I have often spoken of the difficulty of getting back into movement after a hiatus.  Continuous movement is the optimal option, but what happens when something gets in the way?

One idea is to take baby steps.  Once a decision to make a change is made, many of us want to have it all instantly.  That’s the way of life we are fed.  Immediate solutions.  Why wait, the ads scream?  Get what you want NOW!

But there are some potential problems with that kind of thinking.  If you’ve been away from moving for a while, it may be painful to start again.  Your muscles may have lost some of their strength and resilience.  It will take some time to build them back up again. Rather than eliminating your pain, re-building your strength may bring some additional pain initially. This can be discouraging.  If not moving seems to keep the pain at bay while moving brings it on again, why would you want to subject yourself to that?  The answer goes back to the theme of this blog – change.  It has been famously said that if you want things to change, you can’t keep doing the same thing.  Staying still might seem like it will keep you pain-free, but it won’t change anything.  And the longer you stay still, the harder it is to make that change.  By contrast the pain that comes when you move may not subside right away, but if you continue with small incremental steps, your body will get stronger.  Just like the subtle changes described above, you may not recognize the changes in your body, but eventually you may realize that today you were able to do more than you could yesterday.  That’s change in a positive direction.  You may find that you have to move differently from what you’ve been used to.  But if you continue with the practice of small changes, you will probably find a way that will work in your new reality whatever that may be.

Making changes in this way still takes a decision and a commitment.   This is true for any change you need to make in your life whether it is a job change, a geographical move or adapting to a loss.  Taking the first scary step toward a new reality is the hard part.  Once you know that first step is possible, taking the next one might create a bit less anxiety. The world didn’t end when you took the first step, so it probably will still be there after the second step. There is also another advantage to small steps.  You can evaluate as you go along.  Maybe your goals will change as you get stronger.  If you’ve waded into your new reality slowly and avoided diving into the deep end right away, adjusting your course might seem more possible.  Since change is all around us, it is also possible to create some of those changes for yourself. You may not be able to change everything, but your attitude is always within your control.

Finally, it may help to remember all of the obstacles you’ve overcome in your life.  No matter who you are or what you’ve done I am certain you can look back through your life and recognize instances when you adapted to change despite misgivings or odds that seemed stacked against you.  We’ve all had those experiences.  Maybe you made a false start and had to re-think and try again.  If you did it once, you can do it again.  Chances are you have already done it many times. We all have our own individual inner strengths.  Find yours.  It will help you to make the best choices as you move through change.