Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold – William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
It’s that instant before falling out of tree pose – we’ve all been there, teetering on one foot, perhaps hopping around, negotiating with gravity — and often, eventually, losing. Or maybe in your practice it was half moon, eagle, or revolved triangle. Balance is elusive at times and often the harder we try to balance, the more likely we are to lose it.
But there is hope. Studies show that balance can be improved despite the general physical deterioration we all experience as we age. Scott McCredie (2007), a journalist who became interested in balance after seeing his father take a dangerous fall, argues that balance is more than a skill, that it is a sense just like vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, but one that has been little explored.
How Balance Works
Our complex, many-faceted balance system is comprised of the vestibular system (the main source of our sense of balance), the somatosensory system (skin, muscles, and proprioceptors), and vision (Rankin, 2010). Each of these provide input about our relative body position to the brain via the nervous system and thus are critical to our ability to balance.
The vestibular system is located inside the skull and is intimately related to the inner ear complex. Through the vestibular system we detect movements and the position of our head. The three semicircular canals (oriented in different planes) give data on rotation and the vestibule provides data on linear motion. There are even smaller structures within the labyrinth, such as the utricle, saccule, hair cells, and otoliths (ear rocks). Each of these work together to provide our brains with moment-to-moment data that help us maintain our posture. (For an excellent overview of the anatomy of the vestibular system, see Ahmed (2011).)
While vital, the vestibular system is not the sole source for balance. The eyes play an immense role in balance by providing visual information. If you have ever closed your eyes in any balance pose, you have experienced firsthand how much you rely on vision to stay stable. The ocular nerve shares space with the labyrinth and, like a good neighbor, works with the vestibular system to make balance possible.
While the roles of the vestibular system and vision are fascinating, us yoga-inclined folk tend to be interested and engaged in a constant exploration of our somatosensory system: muscles, joints, skin, and connective tissue. Data from these structures tell the brain about our body position in three-dimensional space, including pressure, evenness of terrain, and relative joint position (e.g., most people are able to detect when they are standing on an uneven surface).
In short, balance is complicated because of the multiple input sources that need to be parsed by the brain and then communicated from the brain back to our bodies.
Developing Better Balance
Consider these frightening statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.): falls are a “leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries,” and after age 65 at least 1 in 3 adults will fall every year. In 2012, more than 2.4 million falls were treated in ERs and more than 700,000 resulted in hospitalization. Fall prevention is big business, and balance training is the new hot trend, with folks wobbling on stability balls, foam rollers, fit disks, and the like in gyms and back yards nationwide.
Luckily for us, we are blessed with neuroplasticity – our brains have the “ability to change and adapt as a result of experience” (Cherry, n.d.). As a practical matter, this means that we can learn to balance better, no matter how old we are, barring conditions such as trauma, disease, or genetic disorders. The healthy human body is amazingly adaptable, and with consistent practice we can maintain our current levels of balance and potentially increase our balance quotient.
Come back on Friday to learn how to build better balance with Yoga Tune Up®!
- Ahmed, S. (2011). Physiology of the body: Equilibrium and balance [Powerpoint]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/farhan_aq91/physiology-of-equilibrium-balance
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Falls among older adults: An overview. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html
- Cherry, K. (n.d.). What is brain plasticity. About Education. Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/biopsychology/f/brain-plasticity.htm
- McCredie, S. (2007). Balance: In search of the lost sense. New York: Little, Brown.
- Perrin, P., Gauchard, G., Perrot, C., & Jeandel, C. (1999). Effects of physical and sporting activies on balance control in elderly people. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 33, 121–126. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1756147/pdf/v033p00121.pdf
- Priapata, A., Niemi, J., Harry, J., Lipsitz, L., & Collins, J. (2003). Vibrating insoles and balance control in elderly people. Lancet, 362, 1123–24. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/abl/pdf/priplata2003lancet.pdf
- Rankin, L. (2010, December 18). The physiology of balance. My Group Fit. Retrieved from http://www.mygroupfit.com/printeducationarticle.aspx?article=3427
- Robin, M. (2002). A physiological handbook for teachers of yogasana. Tucson: Fenestra.
- Wang, L., Larson, E., Bowen, J., & van Belle, G. (2006). Performance-based physical function and future dementia in older people. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166(10), 1115–1120.
- Wolfson, L., Whipple, R., Derby, C., Judge, J., King, M., Amerman, P., Schmidt., J., & Smyers, D. (1996). Balance and strength training in older adults: Intervention gains and Tai Chi maintenance. Journal of the American Geriatric Society, 44, 498–506. Retrieved from http://www.white-lotus.com/Ken%20Documents/Balance%20and%20Strength%20Training%20in%20Older%20Adults%20Study.pdf