Balance is the ability to maintain your body's center of mass over its base of support. When this is all working as designed and fully functioning, your balance system allows you to maintain a clear vision to orient yourself in space, continually gauging where you are, and to determine your direction and speed of movement.
All of this happens in the blink of an eye, while making the automatic body adjustments you need to maintain posture and stability in changing activities and conditions.
The challenge that balancing brings constitutes a 'good stress' (eustress) for both mind and body. This is the kind of stress that prompts you to adapt and focus, so you are faced with no choice but to stay with the task.
It doesn't push you into survival mode or ready you for a full-on threat (distress), but it does help to raise resilience, teaching you to handle the challenges thrown your way with more capacity to stay present and open to what the situation requires.
Balances are a healthy challenge because they cultivate your ability to become more grounded and responsive to subtle changes, allowing new neural wiring to create pathways in the brain that train you to become even steadier.
What happens when you balance?
When you put yourself in positions that destabilize you, you suddenly have to modulate your shifting center of gravity. By doing so, you get to viscerally experience the fact that your body is always in flux.
You also learn not to hold your breath so you are rigidly held in place (thus creating unnecessary tension), but to fully allow yourself to breathe normally. It's important to detach from the idea of doing the 'perfect' balance or 'getting it right.' Not caring how long we hold or how much we get into a pose leaves us the space to feel the quality of actually being there.
Balances have long been practiced in many traditional exercise system (such as yoga and tai chi) to cultivate steadiness of mind, and to stop the habit of flitting around with rumination and worry. When we are balancing, there is little room for focus other than on the awareness of where our bodies are in time and space (proprioception).
Balance is also used to train those who have experienced trauma, chronic stress or an injury affecting the vestibular system and causing symptoms such as dizziness, nausea and vertigo. This is the system within the inner ear that senses motion, equilibrium and spatial orientation—where we are and how to right ourselves to the next moment in the midst of constant change.
Balancing helps to undo those types of issues because it brings together the systems that have been disconnected, and which may have rendered you wanting to move less as your ability to gauge your position in the present moment became impaired.
An inability to trust this sense of 'presence' registers as 'unsafe' physically, mentally and emotionally. Balances help to regain this clarity and show you that you can indeed rely on your sensory input.
To balance, the sensory systems that provide information about the body's position in relation to the ground—the eyes (visual), inner ear (vestibular) and skin (proprioceptive)—need to feed back to the central nervous system about which muscles to activate and when.
This integration of sensory input and motor (movement) output to the eye and body muscles helps to rewire a healthy orientation and grounding that gives you back an empowering sense of self-control.
Balancing is part of life
It is important to remember that while you can carry out balance exercises, normal daily movement also involves balancing constantly, just with movements so small or quick that you barely notice, such as shifting your weight from one leg to another when you go upstairs or stretching up on one leg to get something off a higher shelf.
If you have become less stable on your feet and less trusting of the ground, these simple motions can leave you feeling much more trepidatious in body and mind.
Even the smallest improvement in your balance can create more 'grounding'—where your awareness of the placing of your feet is more responsive and quicker to adapt. This can increase confidence in body and mind and lessen the likelihood of falls.
You may often experience this subtle repositioning as wobbling, when your muscles are working to continually right you back to center. Letting your breath flow, with a steady eye focus, is vital for holding a balance that isn't brittle and held tightly for a short time before stumbling or collapsing. Staying with a balance means allowing the movement of breath (with that wobble!) and feeling that it is sustainable because the body can move and adapt, like a tree in the wind.
How to practice balancing
Those who feel clumsy or spatially disoriented may shy away from the following exercises and the emotions that accompany them, but the more we practice them, the better the connections between the somatic (how we move) and central nervous systems become, with a few simple considerations.
• There are many balance suggestions here, which you can practice as a sequence or pick a few to practice daily. The more you try different positions, the more adaptable your mind-body can become.
• There are moving exercises between the held balances to loosen body tissues needed for support, and also to get you accustomed to shifting your attention as your body needs.
• When you hold static positions and move from the first side to the second, take space to breathe in between rather than rushing to it—especially if the first side wasn't easy. Practice letting go of inner comments or criticism from 'side one' and any projections onto 'side two.'
• Changes in balance on different days can be dependent on factors like stress, sleep, worry, medications, injury or alcohol. Rather than judge each time as working or not, approach it as an observer, without judgment.
• All balances can be done with a chair or wall handy for support, but ultimately you want to practice challenging this spatial capacity and how our body rises to it. Use support, but try not to lean all your weight on it—feel shifting of the center of gravity back to the standing leg, even just occasionally or bit by bit.
• Postures here are mostly shown to their furthest points, but every movement can be done in a smaller way, placing the raised foot lower off the ground or onto a chair.
• Practice barefoot where possible to feel responsiveness through your skin on the ground; unclench your toes to progressively drop weight back onto the front of your heel rather than the front foot.
• Steady your gaze on one fixed point, slightly lower to the ground than eye height to quieten the whole experience—especially omments from the front brain.
• Breathe fully, particularly into the outbreath, to release the lower jaw, soften the eyes and release any tension in the shoulders.
Preparing your feet
Modern feet can become tight and tense through less natural movement and the wearing of shoes. Regularly moving your feet by rotating ankles, pointing and flexing helps to keep them pliable and responsive to the ground for good balance.
You can also massage your feet daily by rolling them over a soft spiky ball, or even a simple tennis ball, to keep the fascia (connective tissue) there malleable. This will also help you stand up from your insteps with the most ease.
1) From standing, step one leg back into a high lunge position, feet hip-width apart for stability and just as far as your lower back feels happy. Lean your torso forward and, arms out to the side, press into the ball of the back foot to feel length up the whole body. Repeat on the other side.
2) Fold into a forward bend with knees bent and arms hanging to decompress your spine and feel the shifting weight on your feet.
3) Roll back up to standing, feet hip-width apart and knees soft, to feel maximal stability with your heels under your sitting bones, tops of thighs above ankles, shoulders above hips and ears above shoulders for our most easily calibrated standing position.
4) Circle the hips in one direction and then the other, feeling the inner channels of the legs and up into the hips, groin and belly—which we stand up through when balancing. Come back to the last pose (simply standing) to settle the breath and repeat hip circling to loosen tissues between the following balances.
5) Lift one bent leg at a time, raising both hands simultaneously as if lifting the knee with strings. Move side to side, inhaling the knee up and exhaling to place it back down on the ground; let the eyes follow the movement of the hands. Just come up as far as you can retain a sense of grounding on the standing foot, and maintain an easy breathing pattern.
6) On an inhalation, raise both arms out to the side and up, lifting the heels as you go. Exhale the arms and heels back down. Follow just behind the breath, pressing down the ball of the foot to help stabilize the foot into the center line. Finally, hold the pose with fingers interlinked, palms reaching up to the sky and eyes steady. Come down with slow and steady breath.
7) Lift one knee and bring the opposite elbow toward it with the inhale. Exhale back to standing and move side to side. This cross-lateral motion (across the center and different on each side) helps to focus the mind and encourages both sides of the brain to work together, which is good for balance and mental health.
8) Now standing with feet together rather than apart, feel how much more effort is required to maintain stability with a smaller stance; already this has a balancing effect.
9) Lift one foot off the ground, holding the shin into your chest, feeling how this prompts an uplift through the other (standing) leg. Gather in the hip of the standing leg to draw in toward the center and support an easier rise upward as you balance; repeat on the other side. You can also do a lower version with the foot lifted onto a chair seat.
10) Back to the first side, lift the foot and rotate the bent leg outward in circles—as small or large as feels appropriate. If balance is tricky, you can touch the toes to the ground between circles and keep them as low as you need.
11) Stay on this side to draw that lifted foot in toward the other leg to come into tree pose. The foot can be pressed against the thigh or lower onto the calf, with toe touching the ground or on a low stool, but it should not push into the knee joint. If the foot is in contact with the leg, press where they meet together to lift up through the midline. Keep active in the instep and loose in the toes on the standing leg for balance. Then repeat steps 10 and 11 on the other side.
12) Coming back to the first side, lift up the first leg again, moving it out behind you with that foot parallel to the ground, bottom arm hanging or resting on a chair seat. Look downward for balance and rotate the chest to the sky; repeat on the other side.
13) Draw the first leg into the chest and rotate toward it, opening the other arm out behind you or placing that hand onto your lower back. You can also do this twist with the foot placed on a chair. Rotate slowly to the other side.
14) Come back to simply standing for a few minutes to gather yourself back to center.