I think most of us learned in school that our balance system in the body actually sits within the ear- the vestibular system is crucial for us in keeping balance, and keeping us from feeling dizzy. What a lot of people don’t know is that sensory receptors such as our muscles, joints, ligaments, and even our skin, are very important in keeping our balance as they help us know where our bodies are in space. Here is an example: These receptors help us know how much space we are taking up at any one time ("will I fit through that tiny space between that car parked next to me and get into my seat or will I destroy both car doors in the process?"), or whether we are walking downhill or uphill in that particular moment. It is almost like a sixth sense. This ‘sense’ is called proprioception.
When our balance is off in this respect, it can easily affect our sense of self: If you think your body takes up more space than it actually does, it can lead to an inaccurate self/body image, which can be harmful for our mental health and self-confidence. If we cannot measure the distance between our car door and the wall, we can feel inadequate and perhaps even stupid. I would know- they both happened to me! In my yoga classes with older children and teenagers, I often incorporate an exercise which addresses part of this problem. I ask them to use a skipping rope and place it on the floor in a circle. The circle is meant to be the same size as their waist, so that if they step into it, it would fit tightly around them. More often than not, the rope is placed in a circle that is way too big- even children already perceive themselves to take up a lot more space than they actually do- leading them to perceive their body in a way that can potentially become an issue for them. One exercise to counteract this involves learning how to feel the real body, by lying flat on the back and having a partner place blocks or small pillows all around the outline of their body, fitting tightly, so that they can feel all edges press against the object. When teenagers stand up, they are often surprised at how small the outline of their body really is, giving a renewed sense of self confidence and body awareness.
We can also train ourselves to keep our physical balance, with much greater implications for our ‘emotional balance’- in yoga I incorporate a sequence for this purpose in each class. Balancing in yoga teaches you to keep the ‘drishti’, your focus, on one particular point in eye height and not let the gaze wander from there. I teach my students to ground down like the earth: with all four corners of the standing foot pressed on the mat, the toes spread wide and firm. With time, we can find balance this way, and can explore further poses, such as closing the eyes or moving all the way down into half lotus toe balance pose (see picture). Balancing the body- through exercises like the above- builds confidence, and greater self awareness, as well as giving us greater muscular control. This can help to feel more in control, not just over our body, but our life in general.
By strengthening balance in the muscles, joints and ligaments, our proprioception allows us to dig deeper and balance us out as human beings, including our emotions.
What exercises do you use to strengthen your balance? Do you have problems keeping your balance? I am a licensed and certified yoga teacher for children, adults and families, as well as a co-founder of Soul Space, bringing balance in mind, body and spirit. Read more about me here.