Common scenario: You want to have solid standing balance to help you feel steadier on your feet, especially moving into the wet and cold months. So, you practice standing on one foot or some other shape that makes your body wobble. And then you get frustrated and abandon your practice as you shake your head and tell yourself “I can’t balance.”
That’s not surprising, of course, since humans are bipeds, engineered to use both feet for movement. Standing on one leg isn’t our natural way but it IS a great training tool to help our bodies and brains support us better in our daily activities. If you want better balance, please know that the ability to balance on one foot – or more steadily on two – is about so much more than your legs. The ability to balance is the result of an entire system that works overtime to keep our bodies upright and safe in the world. It’s quite an engineering marvel, really:
10 respiratory organs
640 skeletal muscles held to the bones by 4,000 tendons
206 bones held together by 900 ligaments
…vision, inner ear, etc.
You get the idea. It’s a complicated system! Unless the various parts are working well together, balance can’t occur. As an oversimplification, I think of balance as a three part function: breath, muscles, bones.
Part One: The breath controls the muscles.
Breathing well regulates the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood which, in turn, gives the muscles what they need in to do their jobs. Of course we inhale and exhale throughout the day. Our autonomic nervous system takes care of that for us. But, many of us aren’t breathing efficiently or completely because, over time, we’ve diminished our breathing capacity and are only using the very top of the lungs. Our breathing is shallow and strained and our body recognized that it’s being depleted and stress hormones kick in. Stress hormones create muscle tension and our body clenches in protection. If we try to balance when we’re stressed, the muscles can’t relax enough to allow us to stand up well and focus. They’re too busy trying to protect us from perceived danger.
However, when we can use the breath skillfully, we can learn to elevate or relax our energy. We can learn to focus our attention on the present moment, allow the muscles to find their full function. And, then what happens? Read on.
Part Two: The muscles control the bones.
When the muscles are at their most efficient function, they can fulfill their very important role in helping you balance. They both move the bones and keep them steady within the joints. I feel like there are a lot of misconceptions about muscles, in particular, about strength and power.
Most students bring me variations of two muscle-related topics:
1) “I try to remind myself to stand up straight but I always end up slouching again. If my posture were better, I know I’d have more balance.”
My response is always the same. Yes – postural alignment and balance are related. But – you can’t force yourself to stand up straight. If your body knew how to do that, it already would be. Rather than force the body into unfamiliar positions, learn to invite relaxation and function into muscles that need help holding you up. You’ll find more postural alignment in a non-forced, non-strained way and, in turn, balance improves. (I can help you get there, by the way.)
2) “I know I can’t balance because I have a weak core. So, I do a lot of strengthening and engaging my abs. So far, it’s not helping.”
Correct. It’s not helping because your muscles don’t know how to support you. Balance isn’t about a strong core or defined abs. In fact, many people with abs so tight you can bounce a quarter off them can’t balance at all because their core muscles know how to contract but not relax. Healthy, functional muscles need to be able to do both. When muscles find equanimity/neutrality, they will naturally take their best form. And, boom. Balance.
So, breathing well leads to healthy muscle function and that leads us to why it’s important for the muscles to support the bones well…
Part Three: The bones provide structure.
Our bones are living and breathing tissue, not the brittle sticks we see in anatomical drawings. In addition to providing structure for our body, they protect all our important organs and help us nourish our entire body. And, bones are constantly changing as their cells rebuild. (Fun fact: The entire skeleton rebuilds itself about every ten years.)
Now. Back to the importance of effective breathing. As the breath helps the muscles efficiently align the bones, the breath is also nourishing the bone cells. And, well-aligned bones create more space for muscles to move and that creates more space for the lungs to process air and the breath to muscle to bone cycle continues.
End Result: Given the right conditions, your brilliant body knows exactly what to do.
Postural alignment and balance in an upright position come from the bones fitting properly with one another as gravity weighs down on them. That alignment of joints allows your muscles to relax and minimizes stress on your tissues. The breath deepens as the lungs expand more fully. And, the entire musculoskeletal system can function really well with minimal effort.
Now, back to the idea of standing on one leg.
First, learn to breathe well. Learn to regulate a calming flow of inhales and exhales. In doing so, you’ll be more likely to focus your mind and nourish your muscles. In turn, the muscles can more effectively move your bones into the shape you desire and you’ll find that standing on one leg isn’t as challenging as you thought it was.
Balance = Breath. Muscles. Bones. In that order.schedule now