Fear of Falling

Winter has only just begun and already I’ve heard about several incidents of injuries from falls, at least one of them serious.  Of course, anyone can fall at any time of the year, but it seems like winter is a particularly dangerous time when ice and snow accumulate all around us. Some falls result from what we call “black ice”.  This is that devilish condition when a thin layer of ice on asphalt is invisible to the eye.  When encountered it can cause supports like feet, bicycle tires or even autos to slide perilously.  Another insidious form of hidden ice occurs frequently in my area where daytime sunshine causes standing snow to melt and then refreeze when the sun goes down and temperatures fall.  This condition can be particularly precarious when another layer of snow falls on top obscuring the ice layer below so you don’t know where it is until you step on it.

Although older adults seem more prone to falls, and many studies show that the consequences of falling for older adults can be particularly dire, no one is immune from falls.  There are many articles featuring suggestions for preventing falls.  All you have to do is Google “Fall Prevention” and you will find examples.  But I would like to focus on the causes that I see most frequently and that I think can be at least partially addressed with training.  First and foremost is failure to pay attention.  Our modern lifestyle seems to encourage hurrying.  We worry about slowing down when there are people behind us.  Or making that car wait for more than a few seconds while we cross a street.  Something distracts us and we forget to pay attention to our surroundings.  Have you ever been looking down at your feet (or your cell phone) and suddenly been hit in the head with a tree branch?  Admittedly I’m guilty of that one.  So the first piece of advice I would give is slow down.  Look around you in all directions.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Make sure your next step is on firm ground.  Sometimes I will take my foot and just slide it back and forth in front of me to make sure my next step is not on ice.  That car that’s waiting for you to pass is most likely not going to run you over.  And no matter where you’re going, the extra few minutes will not make any difference in the long run.  Unless they save you from injury.  Then, in fact, the extra few minutes might make a huge difference!

The second most frequent cause of falls I’ve observed or heard about is not taking proper precautions.  For example, not wearing appropriate shoes.  You think “I’m only going out for a few minutes.  I can make it in my high heels.”  Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture.  You get away with it once and think it won’t be a problem the next time.  And maybe it’s not.  Until it is.  Wouldn’t it be better to just take that extra few moments to be safe.  I could go into a big rant here about the footwear industry and how it encourages us (especially women) to wear inappropriate shoes, but I’ll save that for another time.  Suffice it to say that most of you know what works in these situations.  It often comes down to the choices you make.  It’s also important to remember that just because you’ve been careful to clear your own walkways, this may not be the case everywhere you need to go.

There are many reasons why people fall.  Some of them are related to physical conditions or side-effects of medication.  If you have these types of concerns hopefully you will get professional advice on how to deal with them.   But so many falls result from preventable circumstances that it’s worth another reminder.  This provides yet another reason to tout the benefits of movement practices.  Mind-body practices like yoga, Pilates and others can help you to learn to pay more attention to the way you move.  These practices help encourage strength, flexibility and balance.  We think of balance as being able to stand on one foot.  But practicing balance exercises can also be a way to strengthen the muscles that will help you catch yourself and avoid falling.  Or help you get up if you do fall.  Holding onto something because you fear falling might be helpful, but wouldn’t it be better if the muscles that support you were stronger.

Mobility has been described as more than just being able to move, but also maintaining strength through a full range of motion.  Stability is the quality that enables one to retain or regain position when impacted by an external force.  So, for example, if you’re standing and something pushes you, you’re ability to recover your position would be a way to measure stability.  So you can see how mobility and stability go hand in hand.  Then there is flexibility which might be described as the quality of being able to bend without breaking.  Clearly all of these traits are also necessary components for good balance.  If you feel stronger and more stable you will also gain confidence.  Fear can make us tense.  Tension makes us brittle and rigid.  Rigidity is the opposite of flexibility. Tension zaps energy and strength.  So learning to relax can be as important as all the other elements of balance.  Breathing practices, also an important component of mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates, can help relieve tension and encourage relaxation.  They also help you slow down and recognize that few circumstances merit the hurrying we often feel is so necessary.

Finally, being in good physical condition might not prevent a fall, but it will certainly help you recover from one.  And cultivating more conscious awareness of your mind and your movements can help you in all aspects of your life.   If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too late.  If you can move and breathe, there is a practice for you.  Take the time to find one.  You won’t be sorry.  And it just might save you from yourself.

The Space Beyond Your Comfort Zone

We all know the benefits of stretching your physical body.  Although research has not definitively proven a link between stretching and injury prevention, some studies have shown that stretching can improve joint range of motion.  Anyone who has limited mobility in any joint for any reason will understand the importance of full range of motion.  Of course, movement in our bodies involves more than just muscle, but when we talk about stretching we are almost always referring to muscles and their ability to perform in the way we want them to.  Every movement requires more than one muscle.  In general, muscles are paired with both members of the pair playing an equally important role in joint mobility.  For example, when performing a bicep curl moving the elbow joint, the bicep muscle shortens while it’s partner, the triceps muscle, lengthens.  If either muscle is tight or weak, the range of motion in the elbow joint will be limited.  This is a pretty simplistic view since there may be other factors at work here, but the point I want to make is that strengthening needs to accompany stretching in order to improve range of motion.  So just as more than one muscle is needed for movement, more than one discipline is needed to optimize that movement.  Isn’t it great to know that both yoga and Pilates provide stretching and strengthening to help us with the functional demands on our bodies as we move through our everyday lives.

But just as muscle movement requires more than just stretching, so moving through our lives requires more than muscle movement.  When using the term “flexibility” in connection with muscle movement, we tend to think in terms of the limitations of our ability to stretch.  For example, if you can’t touch your toes you think you’re not very flexible.  If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say, “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible” I could probably retire to the Bahamas by now. Thinking that way misses the point.  Yoga and Pilates are both practices, not goals to strive for.  We practice to improve, not to achieve some ideal shape.  Every body is different.  Optimum range for one person may not be the same as the next no matter how much he or she works at it.  Still even the most rigid person with the tensest of muscles can improve their range of motion with regular practice.  Sometimes just learning how to relax can allow a movement to expand in a way that could not have been envisioned before.

Sometimes it’s more than physical inflexibility that limits range of motion.  Fear can hold us back.  Especially following injury.  Once we’ve experienced pain in connection with a certain movement, it can be difficult to convince oneself that it’s worth trying to move again.  And, in fact, moving the same way may not be a good idea or even possible.  It may well be that a new technique for movement must be learned. This, too, can be traumatic.  It can make you long for the simpler way things used to be.  A friend and I were talking today about hindsight and how distorted our view of the past can become.  We envision a kinder, gentler time when things were so much better than they are now.  But often our memories are faulty.  And even when they aren’t, sometimes that old way is just not possible today or maybe ever again.  Enter the need for another kind of flexibility – the need to stretch and strengthen one’s mind.  Overcoming the fear requires not only the stretch of a leap of faith into the unknown, but also the strength to keep moving forward even when the path is unclear.  As I’ve journeyed through this latest recovery, there was a time in the beginning when I thought I would never get back the ability to move the way I had in the mythical pain-free days of yesteryear.  And, in fact, some movements have not come back fully, but with patience and a large dose of self-compassion, much has been restored.  And, for the most part, it all feels much better than it has for a long time.  So the stop and start, on again/off again, push and pull of maintaining a practice is now paying off.  Some days are better than others, but I’m so grateful for my renewed capacity in so many areas that I can accept whatever limitations remain for now and go with the flow.

Stretching the mind can be limited by more than just fear.  Another common obstacle is habit.  How often have you heard, “but we’ve always done it this way . . .”  That’s another statement that could provide for comfortable retirement if payment was made each time it was uttered. Changing habits is another form of mental stretching that also requires strength.  According to the laws of physics, every movement in the universe resists change unless or until it becomes subjected to an external force.  Another way of putting this in human terms is that we would all rather stay the same until we are forced to change by something previously unforeseen.  Injury, illness, accident – these are all external forces that necessitate change.  Even when faced with these instabilities, though, change still requires us to stretch and strengthen. Despite our loud howls of disapproval, the universe will move on with or without us.  It’s nothing personal.  It’s just the way things are. Learning to become more flexible mentally as well as physically just might help when it comes to accepting change whatever the cause.

When speaking of yoga and Pilates, I often refer to the mind-body connection that these practices help to promote.  For me this means that learning the principles and practice of stretching and strengthening the body also helps improve internal strength and flexibility.  It has been said that yoga builds strength from the inside out.  We never get to the end of a practice.  There is always something new to learn and try. Sometimes what we learn is how to accept our limitations.  But also we can learn that we all have more inner strength than we think we do. Through practice, we can learn to engage it in ways that we might not have thought possible.  Through the years I’ve observed in myself and others that if one keeps practicing yoga in any kind of consistent way it will take you somewhere that you didn’t envision before you started. For me, that’s a stretch in the right direction.