Balance. “An even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”.
According to The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi, balance problems rely on four body systems working together: 1) musculoskeletal (muscle strength, flexibility), 2) sensory (eyes, pressure sensors in the skin, muscles, and joints, and the vestibular system in the inner ear), 3) neuromuscular (muscle groups functioning cohesively), and 4) cognitive (fear of e.g. falling, and postural awareness whilst multitasking) .
Generally. Over 25+ years of teaching tai chi, I have thought a great deal about balance, had numerous discussions with osteopaths, Alexander teachers, dancers (both ballet and contemporary), and yoga teachers, and have had to deal with my own balance issues.
Currently, I think that tension is the main culprit; this could be in the form of muscular inflexibility (on a cellular level) as well as stress, (mental tension and therefore also an inflexibility). Both of these amount to being ungrounded; the muscular meaning that your body locks up and is unable to settle like silt in a pond, and the mental meaning that your energy is up in the head. In the first case your energy is locked in the middle of the body, and in the second it’s locked in the top of the body.
Fighting ourselves. If we were to go along the path of least resistance, I guess we would just be piles of flesh and bones on the ground, and gravity would have won. In a sense, we fight our natural inclination to be on the floor, (perhaps that’s why going to bed is so nice!); we have definitely “taken the weight off our feet”.
8 Factors affecting balance. Below are 8 factors that I’ve noticed affect balance. Below that is a brief description of each of those factors. It’s not necessary to read the lot! If one of them appeals, it might be the one that’s relevant to you, but then again it might not be; I’m quite sure that I haven’t got all the problems down on paper!
1. Tension in the hips (pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints). 2. Tension and relaxation in the body generally. 3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age. 4. ‘Over-connection’ between the upper and lower body. 5. Weakness in the leg muscles. 6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae). 7. Pelvic instability. 8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise.
1. Tension in the pelvis, sacroiliac joints, iliofemoral joints. The flexibility of the spine allows for balance and counter-balance to take place. As both the spine and legs attach to the pelvis, the pelvis therefore becomes the pivotal point for the vertical body; if the pivot is frozen, balance and counter-balance are compromised. In addition, when the pelvis locks, it affects the flexibility of both the knees and ankles.
3. Deterioration of the spinal column, particularly in the neck (cervical vertebrae) – common as we age. Most often due to bad posture for any number of reasons, but nowadays frequently because of the time spent on screens, the cervical vertebrae wear more than the other vertebrae. As a result, the motor messages from feet to head are compromised resulting in a fractional increase in time when the body tries to adjust itself.
4. Over-connection between the upper and lower body. This is when the person’s waist no longer functions actively either for horizontal turning (turn your chest to left or right without your hips moving at all), or for flexing (bend down and touch your toes without involving your stomach!). Therefore from the chest to the pelvis becomes an inflexible mass with head and legs sticking out (the potato man). I’m not necessarily talking about overweight people; most people have inflexible waists due to lack of exercise. As a result of this inflexibility, compensations of balance are less subtle, and double compensations – when you have to compensate twice in rapid succession, are impossible.
6. Weakness in the muscles supporting the spine (erector spinae). The same principle as above.
7. Pelvic instability. How the pelvis is held affects balance. In a way this is an add-on to ‘5’ above. When there is a problem lifting the knee (weak quadriceps and psoas muscles), the person will destabilise the pelvis by lifting it on the same side as the knee that they’re trying to raise. (I’m not referring to what is often called a ‘pelvic tilt’; I’m referring to a left/right imbalance). This creates such a major disturbance in the balance of the rest of the body that the body finds it difficult to compensate; it’s almost as though the maths of trying to juggle the balance equation is too much for it. This is hardly surprising as putting the pelvis out of kilter is upsetting the very core of the balancing unit.
8. Concern about falling causes the qi to rise. I have noticed, particularly when teaching older people who perhaps have had a fall, that they often spend a lot of energy trying to ‘lift themselves off the ground’, as though they are hoping that lifting their shoulders and chests – almost trying to float – will save their falling. The result is to make matters worse; in effect they become top heavy.
Other reasons for difficulty in balance. There are other medical reasons for balance problems, such as inner ear problems, vertigo, eye problems, numbness in feet and legs, arthritis, heart and blood circulation problems, stroke, low blood pressure, diseases of the nervous system, and certain medicines (in particular ototoxic drugs that damage the inner ear).
Groups of drugs that can effect the inner ear (ototoxic): antidepressants anti-seizure drugs (anticonvulsants) hypertensive (high blood pressure) drugs sedatives tranquilizers anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs) aminoglycosides (a type of antibiotic) diuretics vasodilators certain analgesics (painkillers) certain chemotherapeutics (anti-cancer drugs).
Drug groups courtesy of: http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/causesriskfactorsandprevention/01.html