Understanding the Body Systems Responsible for Balance
by Jennifer Dixon MBA ERYT 500 and Monika Patel DPT
Balance, we can't live without it, but we love to curse it. Whether it's learning to walk (think of all the bruises little toddlers come up with when they are learning to balance!), balance on one foot, or balance on your head--the struggle is real.
Why is Balance such a challenge?
Balance can be impacted by many aspects in our lives:
These all play an important roll in our relationship with gravity (among many more). However, it doesn't have to be a losing battle. Yes, we will continue to age. Yes, we will more than likely get injured or have to take medication--however we can still work on, and improve our balance despite these challenges.
First, we have to understand what makes UP balance in our bodies.
Understanding the Balance Systems
The systems responsible for balance literally start from the ground up:
- Ankle Strategy
- Hip Sway
- Compensatory Step
The ankle strategy for balance is the very first line of defense in our on-going struggle with gravity. It goes without saying therefore, that injuries to this precious region can have a real and lasting impact on our ability to balance going forward throughout life. When damage occurs to this system, the other two systems have to compensate. If they are not prepared to do so, the implications can be very serious like twisted ankle and ultimately dangerous falls.
I can attest to this personally. When I was 10 I broke my right leg just above the ankle, at the growth plate which ended up with a terrible infection. After a month in the hospital (nearly) and over 6 months in a cast, my right leg literally had to be re-taught how to "behave." However, even after months of rehabilitation, that side did NOT like to handle my body's movements. Any little uneven surface caused my ankle to turn and my body to fall (in worst case scenarios.) Because that side was so damaged, the left side suffered, so 10 years later, I injured the left ankle in a terrible sprain, which basically left me unable to manage any ground that wasn't completely flat. I'm not kidding. The summer my sister and I went to Europe? That's known as, "the summer of the thousand falls..." While most people were looking around at all the beautiful architecture, I was trying to be "cool" and not fall.
The second line of defense against gravity is called Hip Sway. This is where the ever important yoga Bandhas come into play. When our bodies are moving, the muscles in and around the hips are responsible for maintaining a center of gravity over the feet (that's why the Ankles are so important!) When the Ankle systems recognize an issue with the terrain our bodies are walking on, the Hips sway to keep the body up over the feet (and therefore upright.)
Let's think about this a minute. The muscles around the hips keep us standing up. What happens to all those muscles as we sit more, have babies, stop playing games that require constant movement (like we did when we were kids.)? Those muscles atrophy.
That's why focusing on the "core" muscles, or Bandhas in yoga is so important. Our core is integral in keep us centered and balanced, and we LOVE to LOATHE those Core exercises, don't we? Come on, who LOVES boat pose?!?!
I don't know how many of the readers here have been pregnant--but for those of you that have or those of you close to someone that is pregnant--remember the last trimester? Your belly looks like an alien has taken up residence inside you--your weight has shifted from over your feet to something more like a bobble head but bobble belly. In addition, those precious abdominal muscles are stretched to capacity to provide a safe home for your little one. Remember being a complete clutz the bigger the belly got? That's all related to the Hip Sway strategy.
Don't worry, you CAN regain that strength and stability.
The last and final line of defense against gravity is called the Compensatory Step. When all else fails, when the first two lines of defense are compromised or unable to perform what the body requires to stand up straight, the body will naturally take a step. That's the Compensatory Step. It's usually not graceful, it's definitely not slow--it's a reaction the body has to try to keep itself upright.
When our Ankles are compromised or the task is too great, the Hips try to make up the difference....If these two things fail, we inevitably take a step to try to re-center that gravity over our feet. This is danger zone people. This is where falls can and often do happen. This is what we want to avoid by strengthening and conditioning the first two balance systems.
When I was fairly pregnant with Adalia, my first, my husband and I were walking our dogs. Our cat decided to join us on that cold late spring night, and my husband was worried Simon (the cat) would get hit by a car. So, what does he do? He picks up Simon and puts him inside his jacket, zips him up and we continue on. (My husband is an animal lover, clearly.) Keep in mind, I'm very pregnant and it's also night time. (We haven't gotten into the role of vision to balance)....and, despite lots of yoga, I still have my moments. Well, I came across an uneven surface. My ankles couldn't handle the difference, so my right ankle turned. I'm major pregnant so my hip sway was compromised.....where did that lead? A Compensatory Step. Or, in my case, more like 3 giant leaps forward with a couple of zig zags in an effort to not land on my husband (who is still holding the cat), and the two dogs. Needless to say, the cat didn't stay in the jacket, my husband is screaming some very unsavory words, and I ended up on the ground. (no dogs or cat were injured in the unfolding of this story, and Adalia was/is perfectly fine. The only thing injured in this story was my husband and my ego.) To this day, three years later, my husband still has the claw marks up and down his torso to prove it.
Now you know why EVERY class I teach offers lots of balance opportunities!!
The Balance Systems are real people. When we compromise them, the effects are real. When we work on them, the effects are also real.
If you'd like to learn more about Balance and how you CAN improve your balance, join us THIS weekend as Monika Patel, DPT and I, explore all these systems that help us to stand up tall and ways that we can awaken, strengthen and improve them. You CAN have good balance. If you are in the Chattanooga, TN area, Come Learn How to improve your balance with us at Thrive Yoga and Wellness! If you're not nearby, that's totally ok too! Check out our AMAZING online community of yoga videos, tutorials, live and pre-recorded classes AND, you get access to live, interactive yoga classes! It's the best part of online yoga and in-studio membership!