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


The vestibular system in the inner ear provides information to the brain about movement and position of the body.

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®!



  1. Ahmed, S. (2011). Physiology of the body: Equilibrium and balance [Powerpoint]. Retrieved from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Falls among older adults: An overview. Retrieved from
  3. Cherry, K. (n.d.). What is brain plasticity. About Education. Retrieved from
  4. McCredie, S. (2007). Balance: In search of the lost sense. New York: Little, Brown.
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Rankin, L. (2010, December 18). The physiology of balance. My Group Fit. Retrieved from
  8. Robin, M. (2002). A physiological handbook for teachers of yogasana. Tucson: Fenestra.
  9. 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.
  10.  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


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Dawn Adams

Dawn has been practicing yoga since the mid-1990s. She took her first class at the Alameda Yoga Station in 1996 and has since studied under experienced teachers such as Sandy Blaine, JoAnn Lyons, and Donald Moyer. Dawn graduated from the Advanced Studies Program at the Yoga Room in Berkeley in 2009 and she continues to deepen her personal practice. Yoga has become an integral part of her life, especially because of its nurturing and centering aspects. Through practicing yoga, she has found that undoing is just as important as doing. In her teaching, she hopes to instill a sense of adventure and exploration of yoga, with a focus on finding balance and joy through practice. Most recently, Dawn found Yoga Tune Up and, fascinated by the functional approach to movement, completed the YTU Level 1 Certification. She is excited to share her unique approach to practice.

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Great reminder of the multiple aspects of balance. Looking forward to read more.

Allison Sorokin

Interesting and informative post! While I knew that the eyes play a roll in balance I never really thought how the vestibular and optical systems interweave together. Makes sense!!


What a fascinating article, Dawn! I’m missing all your insights now that i don’t get to see you and Laurie every day. Thanks for everything!

François gosselin

I know a few people with positional vertigo. One of them told me people at the grocery store thought she was drunk because she had to hold on to the shopping cart in order to not fall. She’s ok now but for a while it was frustrating.

Ashley Zuberi

Thanks for the detailed information on the vestibular system. I have suffered from vertigo before which was a very strange and painful experience. It makes total sense now how a change in what’s happening in the inner ear will affect vision, which will affect our awareness of balance. Amazing how interconnected the body is!

Patricia Lamontagne

As a living, I work with elderly people. We do talk a lot with them about the danger of falling and how to prevent it. We propose somes “training” activities, such as the “Programme PIED”, which as for purpose to reeducate the feet. I’m happy to read that despite aging, we can still work on it and get a better balance.

Janie Hickman

Balance is such an important part of our daily lives. It is encouraging to hear there are so many proprioceptors in our skulls particularly in sub occipital area where fine tuning of our head control occurs. With a much larger older generation and people living longer, awareness of training people how to balance better is key. Neuroplasticity of the brain is another important part of the puzzle which takes time and effort but pays off in the end.


I have had first hand experience with using yoga to improve balance. Even though it is a genetic disease that results in my tripping and stubbing of the feet I have had great results in reversing the effect of the neuromuscular degeneration caused by strengthening and lengthening muscles in the limbs. I am new to YTU but I already know it will only further help with this.


Thanks for the informative post. Balance is indeed a very complex action involving so many different systems of the body. With your post you have outlined some of the different ways yoga instructors can work with their students to improve their balance and overall function in life. Falls prevention is indeed a most important health intiative and in yoga we have an opportunity to decrease the falls statistics – as a health care worker who works with people who have fallen I am happy to be able to work toward prevention of falls and their high cost to the “fallers”… Read more »

Rachel Peppler

most of my clients are well into their 60’s and up into their 80’s I have a 93 year old in my class. I always say to them as long as you’re moving your body and working on your balance you can learn to keep it. Most of my programs are centered around prevention.
I like that you brought up neuroplasticity. I’ll be reminding my clients of that. It’s a well written article thank you!


The vestibular system is new to me, this article gives a great understanding of the components of balance. Even better than this insight is the reminder of our ability to grow, change, and improve even as we age. I have seen the profound effect of creative balance work with my senior clients. Not only does their balance improve, but with that their confidence and sense of vitality increases 10 fold. Thank you!

Dustin Brown

I love to play with balance in many different ways and its always a challenge. For example I often have my students while in tree (vriksasana ) close their eyes or look to the sky, a challenging task for anyone! I have thanked my yoga practice many times for saving me with quicker reflexes, being able to catch my self from falling on my bum! Im a firm believer that balance can and must be trained! Thanks for the great article Dawn!


Interesting! I had never even heard of the vestibular system. It could be helpful for students to hear this idea of the multiple input sources intersecting in the process of balance during a yoga class. As a teacher, I’ll mention this idea during balancing poses to help students embody the complex equations going on in their bodies. Cues like “experiment with holding your breath for 5 seconds” or “close your eyes for 2 seconds,” “and notice how it effects your balance,” are helpful with this. Coupled with a bit of an explanation of the physiology mentioned above make these experiments… Read more »