Fine balance

In yoga class, I fall out of Tree Pose. Our teacher, Sheila, says, You are meant to move, that's what trees do; my mind says, Balance, dammit!

All the students lurch, no one relishes the tippy, unfamiliar sensation. 

You can see the relief when Sheila moves on, treating us to a nice, feel-good Pigeon. Good, we say via eye contact, that section is over. We like to be in control.

But wait, we need those balance poses, and will need them more as each year passes.

Balance helps us reach for a jar off the top shelf, right ourselves when we miss a step crossing the street, catch a leaping grandchild safely. Without attention, balance steadily and imperceptibly erodes till a fall or injury delivers a hard truth: we've "lost our balance" and sometimes our confidence as well.

When we practice balance exercises we are actually maintaining two separate senses: equilibrioception, the sense of balance which derives from inner ear fluids, and proprioreception, the sense of knowing where your body is in space. Proprioception comes from the nervous system as a whole; it's how, for example, you can perform the critical task of eating popcorn while watching a movie without looking at your hand going into the box.

Outside of the yoga studio, few exercise classes devote much time to balance; gym trainers give it short shrift unless the trainer specializes in fitness for older bodies. There's the stability ball, which can be used for balance work, but most women I see on the ball are doing the strength stuff.

Balance is the fitness dimension most prone to neglect; women want to be strong, maintain a healthy weight, even be more flexible, but I have never heard one say, "I wish I had better balance".

How's your balance? Do you consciously maintain it? What do you do?


Once again, Duchesse, you've hit the nail on the head. 52, working so much that all fitness activities have fallen to the wayside; husband commutes out of town; teenagers at home who still need their mom: last week, I fell twice! Wiped out on ice in the driveway, and missed the bottom step on the staircase: if my balance were better, I might indeed have been able to save myself. Have noticed the "retreating" balance for a couple of years now; your comments on this particular benefit of yoga (among many others, obviously) is spurring me on to find some classes, and join in!
Thanks too, Duchesse, for such a stimulating and rewarding way to start the day, via your wonderful "Passage des Perles"!
HB said…
That is the best explanation of Proprioception I have ever seen!

My past as a dancer means practicing balance is maybe more familiar to me, but the injuries that come with age and less practice of it are garden variety I think. The problem sneaks up on a person! Just a couple years I was actually in the process of getting back in shape (to dance) and not practicing balance at all when I partially dislocated a lower leg bone due to the decreased supporting muscle mass. The recovery was brutal but now, even while simply waiting for the water to boil for my morning tea, I do the little exercises given to me by my physical therapist: single leg balances, a very slow walk going heel-to-toe and *balancing* on each foot landing and take off. A lot of other hurts and fears about falling are significantly minimized when I do these regularly.

Fantastic topic! Wishing you well with your yoga practice.
Susan B said…
Years of horseback riding when I was younger, and then Morris dancing in my 30's both helped my balance immensely. Now I really need to do something to maintain my balance. I'm going to have to figure out a way to work some yoga into my routine. Starting the search again for a beginner class offered sometime other than work hours!
~Tessa~Scoffs said…
my yoga instructor says that when we fall out of tree pose it is a reflection of how stressed we are and therefore it is a good thing we are at yoga class!
materfamilias said…
Balance is also a central component of Pilates, and I've had several dramatic experiences of how regular exercise (I try for two classes weekly) has saved my bones! My instructor absolutely delights in working with clients in their 80s and loves telling us about the difference they experience in mobility and overall lifestyle as they regain confidence in their balance.

In fact, now that you have me thinking about this, I think I'll bring it up with my mom when I visit her today -- she walks hours each day (no exaggeration!), but I'm not sure how much she works on balance. . .
Nancy K said…
Treepose. I have had issues with my foot and stopped taking yoga classes for a few months. Now that I am back, I can see a marked decline. Not good at 60. Hopefully I'll get back to at least where I was.
LPC said…
I stand on a half ball when I lift free weights. When, of course, I manage to get to the gym...
MJ said…
I am not one for classes so have to figure out my in-home set of exercises. Several years ago I came across a set of exercises using a ball, which are specifically focused on balance and strength, and they're terrific. It's a step-by-step program that gradually builds up over the course of a few months. The problem is that the book has the worst name ever: "Four Way Burn." Its overly-long subtitle is, "The All-in-One Training Program for Stronger Muscles, More Flexibility, Improved Posture and Balance, Increased Energy and Power," which actually pretty well describes the results I got. I see that you can now get the book at Amazon for $3.25, so it might be worth looking into.
Linda said…
Agreed! Even my phyical therapist couldn't define "proprioception" so aptly.

I AlwayS stand on one foot to tie my shoes. You'll be surprised how how neatly this becomes routine and how greatly it improves balance -- and how impressed everyone will be at airport security!
sisty said…
Thank you, thank you for bringing this up. That yoga-class description is so accurate I thought you had gotten into my head somehow! I'm going to treat myself to paying more attention to this from now on.

Linda, HB, thanks for the do-at-home tips!
Duchesse said…
C'estChic: If I can get another woman to yoga, my life on this planet is finished :) A well-designed yoga class always has several balancing poses.

HB: Little balance exercises can be incorporated into one's day, even standing on one leg waiting for the bus, or as you do, waiting for your tea.

Pseu: Morris dancing, who knew! The Morris dancers I knew mainly drank!

Tessa: Stress messes with balance, and do does diet, vision changes and loss of muscle mass.

materfamilias: Haven't done Pilates for years since injuring myself seriously (in a rollover, my fault, not the instructor's). Liked it but now am more interested in yoga and have been able to practice injury free so far.

Nancy: In my experience it comes back; maybe do simple balances like Tree at home in your street clothes; 5 min. daily really helps. See Linda's comment.

LPC: Thanks, great point! Most standing exercises with weights can be done on one leg, which makes them balancing exercises too.

MJ: I'm ordering, for that price can't go wrong. Many thanks!

Linda: You should see me in the change room hopping around trying to balance and put my tights on. Great idea to use dressing as a balance exercise.
Duchesse said…
sisty: It's my least favourite part of a class, so that means it's the one I have to work on.
laurieann said…
I had a chuckle over your discussion of what in our home we call "prope." My son, being on the autism spectrum, has a very difficult time understanding where his body is in space. We do lots of exercises with him, especially on a small trampoline to give him joint pressure and hence stimulate his proprioception.

Off topic but you may enjoy: I just checked for the Max Mara Fall/Winter 2011 runway show. The colors don't do much for me however there is a stunning camel coat in photo #22 that is worth saving up for. It is sleekly proportioned without excess styling and ornamentation. You may want to take a look.
Jill Ann said…
Very timely column for mom passed away recently, and I'd spent the last few years trying to help her improve her balance. She'd had a few bad falls, although only broke something once, but the balance was so, so important. Leg strength is also critical, as someone once explained to me. Most of us have little off-balance moments every day, but if our legs are strong, we'll catch ourselves without even noticing it. Weaker leg muscles will help a small stumble turn into a big fall. Another thing is posture. Older people tend to stoop over; that means they are already halfway to falling over.

So, another reason I need to START EXERCISING! Used to do Pilates and loved it; kind of afraid I'll look like an inflexible blob at yoga class, but that's no excuse, is it????
Marsha said…
Having tripped and fractured arms and wrists just a year ago (but it wasn't my fault! really!), I am particularly sensitive about balance issues, and have deliberately been focusing on tree pose during my yoga practice. I also just reach back and grab my ankle with my same-side hand and stand for a while whenever I think of it. What is gratifying is actually noticing how my balance improves when I do these things regularly - I can put on one sock while standing on the other foot without even thinking of it - practice does pay off! Thanks for this discussion and reminder.
Duchesse said…
laurieann: Thanks for the reminder that it is not only the after-50s who benefit from body awareness exercises.
I'll look; I find MaxMara/Marina Rinaldi my best source for tasteful clothes that last well. Theirs is a sale I will always make time to check.

JillAnn: It's a system, the muscles, bone strength and alignment, balance and proprioreception all working together. And even a small stroke affects balance too. Ours might be the first generation consciously attending to balance. Don;t worry, most of us in yoga are inflexible blobs!

Marsha: Ewww, bad fall! Grabbing foot as you describe is a good one, or even just standing on one leg and raising the other, bent at knee. It will all help. When I took Pilates a man told me he had to have his wife put on his socks but now could do it himself.
Tiffany said…
Oh, I definitely value balance. It's one of the many aspects of yoga that keep me devoted to my practice. Tree I can stand in forever, but Half Moon is my nemesis - no sooner do I get into the pose than I collapse. But I keep practising! I know my balance is better now than it was five years ago and I don't plan on ever giving up yoga.
Rubiatonta said…
Thank you for the reminder of how much I've been missing yoga. I always struggled with tree pose, so I can imagine that won't have changed -- I haven't noticed any loss of balance, so I'm probably in good time. (Something to work on, since the women in my family live so long!)
Duchesse said…
Tiffany: It's a big day when you can hold a pose that you always fell in, even for a few seconds. Half Moon is a pose I like to do near a wall :)

Rubi: Will be looking for a new studio and will resort to classes on Yoga Today site till I find a class right for me. Hoping yoga class will intro me to new people, I've met so many wonderful women here through yoga.
ming said…
I love yoga - but am not very good. I know it has helped with my balance. My mother (93) does Tai Chi twice a week. I know this has helped her balance. She used a cane after she broke her hip - but now doesn't.
Susan Tiner said…
Yes, the balance goes quickly.

I've regained mine working out hands free on the arc trainer. It gives me confidence, and it's easier processing and recessing in choir while holding a hymnal and singing! Not easy to do if there's balance issues.
Tree pose in our class is a challenge. too...for me the left side is much more difficult than the right ....our instructor usually mentions halfway through the pose that there is a big wind blowing our trees as some of us cannot keep still and need to come out of the pose!
Anonymous said…
Thank you for this reminder. My mother has been struggling with balance for several years now and I see how it has begun to limit her activities. It had never occurred to me that balance was something I should exercise.
Anonymous said…
I never paid much attention to balance, until I took a ballet class and realized that it was something I could actually improve.

Now I work balance into my workouts.
Fuji said…
I'm mad for yoga and think most people of all ages would benefit from some practice. I highly recommend for superior yoga teaching as well as convenience. It used to be I squeezed in a class once or twice a week, but now I manage 5-7 hours of yoga per week. It's good stuff. :)
Apparently, the more you practice the tree pose, the better you get at it.

There's actually a medical test for balance, often applied to us old bats, that entails standing in that pose (or as close to it as the patient can get) and measuring the amount of time the person can hold it. Most people over a certain age can't do it longer than three or four seconds.

In our yoga group, the first time we tried it some of the women couldn't do it at all. After a few weeks, though, our instructor pointed out that we were all doing the pose and managing to hold it for a respectable period...not bad, for a bunch of old biddies!

I now try to practice it whenever I think of it, often standing in the kitchen while waiting for food to heat or water to come to a boil.
Duchesse said…
Susan: Never though of balance as a choral necessity, that's intriguing!

hostess: Trees sway naturally, so my teacher says swaying is part of the pose!

Terri: We see it in our mothers and one day we are there ourselves.

Fuji: Yogis unite! I use Yoga Today and will check out yogaglo.

Funny: Some days I feel absolutely steady and others cannot hold it to save my life. My teacher always encourages people to stand near a wall (and use it) when having a "bad balance day".
Duchesse said…
Ms M: Would love to see dance classes adapted for older bodies; though I have never taken a NIA class, believe they do this. I would enjoy a "barre class for seniors" very much but cannot find one in my large city. There's an underserved market.
kojima said…
A couple of things that help my balance (especially in tree pose) when I feel tipsy are :
When I plant my foot down I try to spread my toes out and imagine four separate points (two just behind the farthest toes.. and the other two on either side of the heel pad). Then I try to focus on those spots, which have more or less pressure on the floor. I try to equalize that before I even lift my other leg at all. (for the first few years, I hated spreading my toes, it looks terrible, now I do it without thinking, and it really helped me a lot!)

Next I lift my chin and look up.. focusing my gaze on a specific point on the wall. I pretend there is a taught string between that spot and my tiara.
Try it.. I hope it helps.. and if not, at least you are wearing a tiara!
Duchesse said…
kojima: I was always told to focus on a spot on the floor, so I can't wait to try with a spot higher up.
Pearl said…
In yoga class, I am working harder on balance than ever. In life... one of my resolutions this year is to find balance, outsid my job.
GingerR said…
As with most things, practice makes perfect.

I've had reconstructive surgery on one side of my chest with an implant under my chest muscle to make up for a missing breast.

My balance is just fine on one foot, but wobby on the other and I attribute that to the implant. I like instructors who run you through a pose twice on each side. Usually by the time I'm doing it for the second time I'm stablier.
You wouldn't think that something to do with your chest would make a difference, but it does.

Despite that odd thing I prefer balancing to Pigeon. Being all twisted out flat face-down on the floor makes me feel closed-in and anxious. At least with balance poses I can see as I wobble.
Marian said…
My balance is not great but at my pilates class I stand on a half ball and then balance on one leg at a time. It's difficult for me but I plan to persevere.
Duchesse said…
GingerR: besed on your description I believe you are referring to Sleeping Pigeon, a forward folded pigeon. I was referring to Pigeon prep, as shown here:

Then of course there is one-legged King Pigeon. Yoga nerds can talk about this stuff forever.

Marian: Good way to practice with or without the half ball!
Tash said…
I fall out of the tree pose everytime on the first attempt. Slowly but surely I manage to ground myself and I slip my foot back up my opposing thigh and it works.
Third time is a charm! ;)

I've also noticed if I mix up my routine and place the tree pose near the end, my balance and focus can deliver a perfect stance on the first attempt! I work on a ground routine first, working my way up to the standing poses.

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