by Valerie Baadh Garrett
We all balance. If we didn’t, we’d be falling down all the time! Our balance grows more organized in childhood as we learn to roll, stand, and walk. Then, in our elder years, the sense of balance unravels. While most of us have heard about “sensory integration” during the first years of a child’s life, a number of interesting studies are now being conducted around the sensory dis-integration occurring in our later years.
What is balance?
As a young ballet dancer, striving and often struggling in sustained balances, sometimes on pointe, I was told by my teachers that the key to balance was to “find my center and hold onto it” I looked around at other dancers who seemed to be doing just that, and pondered just what they were finding (center?) and how they were “holding” it. Later in life, I realized that this was terrible advice, totally counter-productive, and just plain wrong. (Dance teachers, please take notice! Much more helpful imagery can be found; check out Eric Franklin’s work*, for example.)
Balance doesn’t have a center; it’s the nexus of an intricate interplay of dynamics. The result is balance. Trying to “hold” it is a misguided concept: balance is not a still point of perfection, but rather an ongoing activity of balancing. You can test this yourself: stand comfortably near a sturdy chair or wall (in case you need some support) with your feet together. Close your eyes. Observe your “balance.” Is it a still point of perfection? If so, congratulations! But I suspect your balance is a more active experience, one of small and subtle shifts; of moving this way, then that way, never coming to a still-point. Right?
Science tells us there are three body systems involved in balance. Agile Aging’s founder Valerie Baadh Garrett describes them in this short Mondays in Motion video.
Balance is a movement activity. We can strengthen our balance by challenging each one of the three body systems in turn. We do that quite specifically in our Agile Aging “Rainbow Wobblies” activity when we stand on one foot, lift our gaze, “spread our wings” as we spatially expand ourselves, and carefully wobble. When we “follow the arc of the rainbow overhead” we are challenging our spatial and vision system to pick up the slack as the vestibular system of the inner ear is de-stabilized as our head moves. Movement by movement, we can shift from excluding one and then another of these three systems. In this manner, we strengthen our balance by isolating the different body systems that contribute to stability, then integrating them again, over and over. Sensory integration, helping the body organize its many (more than 12!) different senses, is not just for the very young.
Balance is also a spatial activity. We can expand our range of balance by exploring the spaces around our body. We begin with experiencing gravity and her playmate levity or lightness. Activities that involve expansion and contraction can also offer pathways to an heightened sense of one’s physical and spatial self. Similarly, doing an activity with a partner can give one the experience of moving out into the world, towards or with the partner, a great shift of spatial relationship when one is mostly by oneself. Moving fully through three planes of space (horizontal, frontal, and symmetry) can also strengthen the somato-sensory integration, at any age. The movement approach of Spacial Dynamics®, among others, has many activities with which to explore these movement fundamental themes.
From our first movements of life, we move. Movement is the key to balance: balance is the result of the subtle activity of multiple body systems working together, through movement. Everyday movement such as walking helps, and specialty activities to practice movement integration helps too.
So, let’s get moving!
Rainbow Wobblies can be found on our Agile Aging Basic Class DVD, in our online store, or learned from one of our certified Agile Aging instructors in community classes.
An optimal state estimation model of sensory integration in human postural balance. Arthur D Kuo 2005 J. Neural Eng. 2 S235
Attention influences sensory integration for postural control in older adults. Mark S Redfern, J.Richard Jennings, Christopher Martin, Joseph M Furman. Gait & Posture – December 2001 (Vol. 14, Issue 3, Pages 211-216)
*Franklin, Eric. Dance imagery for technique and performance. Human Kinetics, 1996.
Rose, Debra J. Fallproof: a comprehensive balance and mobility training program, Human Kinetics, 2003.