There’s a reason why humans are the only animals on the planet that walk on two legs as their main mode of transport... it’s because it’s bloody hard. We know this from the very fact that it takes toddlers so long to learn the art of bipedalism, with the average age of their first solo steps being around 12 months old (with many failed trips and slips in between). Our anatomies, with the heavy head balanced precariously over a low centre of gravity in the pelvis, stabilised by just two legs directly beneath us set us up for a fall. And as most of us are aware, falling becomes increasingly likely as we age and is often predicted as a normal part of the ageing process. But falls are becoming more common, and not just in the older population. Increasingly, falls are happening in the young, when sober and doing nothing more than walking. A recent article by the New Scientist explored just why this may be, and crucially, how we can stop it.
So how exactly do we even stand? Well, it’s a complicated process but in a nutshell, the muscles in the legs do most of the work- if they were all disengaged we would just fall over. The core also has a part in the process, and the level of their engagement changes as we adjust our postures in line with changes in our environment (like uneven ground). All of these are linked with the inner ear, the eyes and the brain which process the information in and around us.
Where’s it all going wrong then? Well, mostly it comes from our increasingly sedentary lifestyles which now begin from childhood. Fears of safety (of the outside world, strangers, and now COVID), as well as an increase in screen time, means that even from childhood, people have reduced balance. This is perpetuated through the school system, where most classes are desk-based, and where PE is increasingly being pushed out of the curriculum. This then has a knock-on effect into adulthood, where many of us have desk jobs and find it hard to find the time to exercise, and crucially in the outdoors rather than a gym (more on this later).
In a world where mental health issues are on the rise, it has been found that this also has a profound effect on our sense of balance. This may sound a little out there, but when you think about it, it really makes sense. Think of a time when you have walked into a room and felt embarrassed or anxious (maybe walking into a class late for example). In this case, you’re likely to round your back, hunch your shoulders in, and to look down at your feet. This emotional feeling has a massive impact on our physical body, chaning our posture, and therefore our balance. So if a person suffers from depression, they tend to have this stooped posture, and also to have significantly slower moments, meaning that if something happens to throw their balance off, their movements will not be quick enough to right themselves. Anxiety also plays its part, with a fear of falling changing our posture and unfortunately making it all the more likely to happen.
So if you improve your mental health, it will also work to improve your balance and vice versa- and this is where yoga comes in. Yoga helps the physical body find balance by strengthening the muscles of the core and legs through long-held postures which create stability. Specific balancing asanas such as Tree, Warrior Three and Dancer of course specifically work to improve the balance, which can be tested even more if we try to execute them with our eyes closed. Other related disciplines such as Tai Chi work to exercise the cognitive skills required for good balance by combining precise, fluid movements with focused attention (and you can find such movements appearing in Minker’s classes if you'd like to give it a try!) Emotionally, yoga is also well known for having a calming effect, and therefore works to reduce anxiety, which as we have seen improves our balance both inside and out.
On a subtler scale though, yoga also helps us find balance by allowing us to get to know our bodies and its boundaries better. Proprioception (which Hannah talks a lot about in her classes) is crucial for balance. When our early ancestors living in trees began to spend more time on their feet, a study found that even just lightly touching a branch with their fingertips provided enough sensory feedback for the brain to process and make the necessary adjustments in the body to stay upright. So by fine-tuning our proprioception, which we rarely get a chance to do in modern life, with our practice, our bodies become more sensitive to the information our external environment provides us with, and so the more easily we can stay balanced. A major way to do this is to have bare feet, and in a culture with an over-reliance on shoes, your yoga class may be the only time when you experience this. Being barefoot allows the tiny micro-muscles in your feet to shape your foot in accordance to the ground you are standing on. If these muscles are adaptive, sensitive and strong, then the arches are less likely to fall, and this has a knock-on effect up the leg and our whole bodies, as it helps to keep our postures well aligned. This also links back to the whole getting outside thing rather than exercising in a gym, because one of the best ways to increase balance is to go out for a hike or a run on uneven ground. Predictable, smooth surfaces that we mostly walk on have a clumping affect on the micro-muscles of the feet, and running on a treadmill in the gym does not provide the external changes you need to process and dodge in the outside world- things like branches, grates, stones, people. So exercising in the outside world, no matter if you’re in a city or a forest, increases the speed of your cognitive function, as well as strengthening those legs.
It can be hard to find balance in life, no matter where we are trying to find it- but now at least you know how to keep a physical sense yours!