How Agile Aging Helps to Prevent Falls with Integration of the Movement Senses

How Agile Aging Helps to Prevent Falls with Integration of the Movement Senses

by Valerie Baadh Garrett

We cannot fully prevent falls, but we can help in big ways and small to reduce risk of falling.  We can help reduce fear of falling, practice activities to strengthen our balance and mobility, and eliminate many hazards in our daily lives that can cause falls.

Agile Aging’s programs help prevent falls by applying the science and art of the fundamental processes of sensory integration: of movement, touch, body awareness, vitality, sight and sound.  Through a single agility activity or exercise, through a series of activities such as our Basic Class, and in the holistic practices we promote in working with individuals and communities, we can invite the participant to joyfully engage and integrate the sensory system that supports balance, agility, and mobility.

Ideally, these senses move together, in a harmony not unlike a lyrical piece of music, as our movement senses, including our eyes and spatial awareness, continually interact with daily life. As we age, it is normal that these senses get, well, squeaking or out of tune with one another, resulting in loss of stability, confidence, and mobility.

Sensory integration, or sensory processing, happens within the mind-body connection beginning before birth and continuing through the first years of life. Science studies the phenomena of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) in young children especially when it interferes with behavior and learning, but little has been studied at the other end of life, when the seamless flow of sense impressions begins to dis-integrate.  Such is the natural development within our lifetime: we integrate the mind-body senses in the first years of our lives, and  they disintegrate in the last years.  Falling is one such result of the loss of integrated senses.

Each person’s balance system is a complex interplay of three senses: the visual senses of the eyes, the vestibular sense of balance within the ear, and the proprioceptive sense of self-movement of the body’s limbs and spaces.  Agile Aging’s founder, somatic movement therapist Valerie Baadh Garrett, has researched therapeutic approaches (including Spacial Dynamics®, sports psychology, geriatric kinesiology, and dance therapy) to enhance these systems. She has choreographed a progressive series of agility activities that not only strengthen each sense both separately and together, but delivers a way to practice them with joy and verve through the use of imagery, story-telling, and music in community classes or in private sessions.  These activities are shared with professionals via live workshops, via DVDs and streaming video, and in instructor trainings in California, Oregon, and Massachusetts.

Fear of falling can increase the tendency to fall.  When one is fearful, one retreats, both physically, emotionally, and even spatially, thus inhabiting a smaller spaces, taking smaller steps, and moving less frequently.  Through practicing different dynamics of movement with the body and with the mind, each individual can learn to expand themselves with a lively interaction with the people and places of everyday life. Agile Aging is one such approach. I encourage you to add some agility practice for both mind and body each day.

  • “Sensory experiences include touch, movement, body awareness, sight, sound and the pull of gravity (Koomar, 1996). Sensory Integration is a process by which the brain interprets sensory stimuli from the environment (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Sensory Integration provides a crucial foundation for more complex learning and behavior.  This process focuses on three basic senses: tactile, vestibular and proprioception which are the building blocks of sensory integration. The tactile sense includes light touch, pain, temperature and pressure.  These senses provide protection reactions for survival.Dysfunction in this area includes withdrawal from touch, refusing to eat certain foods, isolation, irritability and distractibility and hyperactivity (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). The vestibular is the inner ear system structures and one manifestation of an intact system is the ability to keep your balance. The dysfunction manifests in walking on uneven surfaces, climbing stairs and being fearful in space (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Proprioception provides subconscious awareness of where the body is in relation to its surroundings (Hutch-Rasmussen, 1995). Dysfunction in this area shows a tendency to fall, lack of awareness of where the body is in relation to its surroundings and eating in a sloppy manner. Another form of proprioception is praxis or motor planning. When the system is working, the body properly obtains accurate information from the sensory systems regarding what the body is sensing. Dysfunction in this area will be manifested as language/speech delays, impulsivity in a new situation, frustration, aggression or withdrawal giving the appearance of depression. Using sensory integration therapy in other populations has been found to increase functionality and the ability to repeat daily routines more easily. Though little research has been done with the elderly using sensory integration techniques, it is hypothesized that geriatric populations showing symptoms could respond in a similar manner. “ Leslee Wiodyka, Albright College, from The Effects of Sensory Integration Therapy on Cognitive Functioning

Sensory Activities for Frail Elders – and Their Caregivers

Sensory Activities for Frail Elders – and Their Caregivers

Spice up your activities for those needing special care with sensory activities that are meaningful not only to our elderly, but to caregivers ourselves.  Be forewarned!  If enthusiasm and engagement are what you’re looking for, you’ll get it with these fun and “moving” activities that stir the soul and spirit as well as the body!

Using music, and using it well, is key to the success of some of these activities.  This means that the caregiver should listen carefully to the music he or she chooses to accompany the activities, even to the point of practicing to move in time with the music.  Some of our Agile Aging’s favorite tunes are named below.  You can purchase and download these tunes from iTunes or other online stores. Read more

On the Road: Tips for Traveling

On the Road: Tips for Traveling

by Valerie Baadh Garrett

Planes, trains, automobiles…buses and ferries, too: it’s been a great summer of lots of traveling, visiting, and sitting for hours on end while doing so.  Each time I unfold myself out of the car or the plane, I creak a bit and crack a bit more, and think of sharing some thoughts on how to arrive bright and fresh, rather than crumbled and aching.

Before You Go

  • Get some vigorous exercise so some sitting is welcome, including full ROM and core work.
  • If you are already sore and achy before you start a trip, take some time for stretching or floor yoga.
  • Wear loose and comfy clothing.
  • Bring a travel pillow to put behind your lower or mid-back for better and more comfortable sitting posture.

During the Trip

  • Stop often if driving (see video tips at a rest area while On the Road)
  • Body-yawn as often as you can.
  • Uncross your legs to allow better circulation
  • Use your travel pillow. Shift the pillow to different spaces of your spine, lower or higher, to refresh your posture with movement rather than stillness. I sometimes use a rolled-up sweatshirt if I’ve forgotten my pillow.

Agile Aging On the Road. from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

If You’re Flying

  • Stand and stretch often.
  • The in-flight magazines often show some simple and effective moves you can do while seated, so try them out.
  • Drinking lots of water will not only hydrate you but get you moving to and from the toilet.
  • Get an aisle seat so you’ll have to get up for your neighbors in your row, too.
  • Use your travel pillow for your neck or to support your spine.
  • For a long trip, bring and use an eye-mask for more restful sleep. (I also bring noise-cancelling headphones.)

After You Arrive

  • Go for a walk or a swim as soon as possible, getting some fresh air into your blood, brain, and muscle.
  • Get a massage; take a warm bath.
  • Go to bed early.

What are your top tips for comfortable travel? Please share in the comments below.

On your trip, enjoy the change of scenery, and travel safely!

Our Best Music

Our Best Music

Here are some of our favorite tunes for Agile Aging.  If you’ve enjoyed our classes either live or on video, you know that our music choices make the movements sing! We encourage you to listen, download them and arrange them in the order of our Basic Class, or as you like.  Enjoy our best music for movement!  (You can get CDs of more music with our Instructor Kit at our online store.)


Ding Dong the Witch is Dead

Flower Hands Music

Golden Leaves Begin to Fall


King of the Fairies

The Lover’s Waltz


Music Hall Waltz Medley

The Jitterbug Waltz

Over the Rainbow

Santa Baby

Seven Jumps

Spring, Spring Spring

Zat You Santa Claus?



The 3 Aspects of Balance

The 3 Aspects of Balance

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.

3 Aspects of Balance from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

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!

Read more about Agile Aging here.

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.

Matthews, Paul. Space is Human.

Rose, Debra J. Fallproof: a comprehensive balance and mobility training program, Human Kinetics, 2003.

Dowager’s Hump? Not Me, Not You

Dowager’s Hump? Not Me, Not You

Recognize this posture?

It’s the spine of an old person, right?

Yes, but that’s not the whole story. It’s the spine of an old person who has most likely practiced poor posture much of her life.  This deformity of a rounded spine has different names: dowager’s hump (something old lady dowagers get), or hunchback; the medical term is kyphosis. While we normally have a curve in our thoracic spine, severe kyphosis can affect the inner organs, causing pain and other problems. Imagine your lungs, stomach, and nerves squashed and contracted for most hours of the day: not good.

There are several kinds of kyphosis. Some people are born with it. Others, beginning in their teens, actively practice it, and outgrow it as they develop from slouching youth to upright adult.

For some elders, particularly women, age-related kyphosis can occur after osteoporosis weakens spinal bones so much that they crack and compress.  When I asked a woman I’d just met at an assisted-living community, “How are you?” she shrugged her shoulders and replied, “OK, except I broke two bones in my back last night.” “What?” I asked, “How’d that happen?”  “I just turned over in bed.”  At 90 years old, her bones were so frail that simple normal movements caused them to crack. For many others, a lifetime of poor posture creates the habits that gradually deform the gesture of the spine.  For them,  and us, this is absolutely avoidable.  Of course, everyone can do exercises, starting with the most important one, stretching in bed. Read my Stretching in Bed article here. 

Regular body yawns during the day can help create space in our torso and spine.  Here’s a little video to demonstrate.
Other movement tips?

  • The progressive postural exercises of Spacial Dynamics, with practice and integration into daily life, can help change the gesture of the upper back, chest, and neck area. Find a local practitioner here.
  • Don’t sit too long. After 20 minutes or so, give yourself a Body Yawn, stand up, and move around (Note to self: do this now.  OK, done.)
  • Lift your gaze. Looking downwards increases the gesture of kyphosis (and can cause falls as well.)

Who wants a dowager’s hump? Not me, not you!

Read more about Kyphosis at the Mayo Clinic’s website here.

Dowagers’s Hump from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

© 2014 Valerie Baadh Garrett for Agile Aging

Sybil’s Spirals – A Clue to a Well-Lived Life

Sybil’s Spirals – A Clue to a Well-Lived Life

Sybil Shearer (1912-2005) was an original spirit, a vibrant dance artist who lived each of her 93 years to the fullest, and danced to the very end. She was a close friend of mine in the last 12 years of her life, inspiring me to return to performing dance after a long hiatus, and demonstrated herself that it is truly possible to dance forever.  I would visit her in her home in Northbrook, Illinois, eat delicious, nutritious meals prepared by her companion, former dancer Masao, enjoy her stories and observations of life, play with her huge German Shepherds, Star and Jaimen, and stay in her private dance studio apartment down the road, a real thrill.

Her secret to her dancing longevity? One day we sat in the shade of her back patio admiring the trees she so loved in the Jens Jensen-designed prairie landscape. She told me her everyday exercise: moving spirals.  “Every day, I spiral every part of my body.” She proceeded to demonstrate her progression, from her toes to her nose, no kidding.  Sybil was wise in so many ways. She knew, from her own experiences and her study of movement of the cosmos as well as the human body, that the gesture of the spiral is a key to life.

“The spiral is one of the fundamental shapes of geometry.  It expresses an order and proportion that is mirrored in the dynamic creativity of nature.  From the growth of a rose, or sunflower’s head, to the harmony of the human body, the spiral can help us to understand something of the immanent pattern that connects humanity, nature and the universe.”  – Glenn Gossling

Sybil Shearer
Sybil Shearer

A three-dimension spiral is a helix or a vortex, which more accurately describes Sybil’s exercise. Moving up her body, she slowly circled or spiraled each moveable joint in one direction, then the other: toes, metatarsal, ankle, knee, hip, ribs, shoulder, neck, eyes, eyebrows, nose, and back down the other side. She found she could do this sitting or even lying in bed, but of course she loved to jump up and, holding onto the patio pillar for a little balance assistance, move through her whole sequence.

In Spacial Dynamics®, the unique movement therapy and movement education approach using principles of the forces of spatial relationships and the human being, dynamics of the spiraling vortex are further enhanced by the conscious use of “the draw,” a kind of vacuuming invitation to draw away from the body, towards an infinite periphery. We feel this in the wonderful hands-on technique for the hands, Finger Spirals. A trained Spacial Dynamics practitioner can share this experience with you.  Our Agile Aging activities of Flower Hands and Brush Painting also enjoy this dynamic of the spiral and “the draw” through the use of dynamic imagery coached by the instructor’s voice during the movement.

This simple yet wondrously effective exercise is now yours to explore. From Sybil’s simple command to “spiral every joint in your body,” to our Sybil’s Spirals or Spacial Dynamics exercises like the therapeutic Finger Spirals, everyone can enjoy the spaces that begin to open between the bones, allowing the body’s fluids to lubricate the spaces of its joints, offering a calming yet expansive experience as one slowly unfurls, like the budding flower, invited by the warming sun.

Sybil Shearer’s life and work are perpetuated through The Morrison-Shearer Foundation.

Please enjoy this video of Valerie introducing one of Sybil’s Spirals, a simple rolling of the shoulders that is expanded into spiral shoulder dances in our Agile Aging class program.

Sybil’s Spirals. from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

© 2014 Valerie Baadh Garrett

Best Exercise To Do? Stretch in Bed!

Best Exercise To Do? Stretch in Bed!

A few years ago my mother woke up, got out of bed, took a few steps towards the bathroom, and then had a sudden, nearly incapacitating pain in her left hip that didn’t go away until she had a hip replacement months later.  What happened? She hadn’t fallen, she just took a few steps.  When she asked that question to her orthopedic surgeon, he gave her this advice, “Always stretch in bed before you stand up and walk.”

During the night, we sleep, mostly. Some, like me, awaken during the night and need to go to the bathroom at least once. Before I heard that doctor’s advice to my mom, I tried to stay as asleep as much as possible when I walked to the bathroom and did my business, as I wanted to be sure to be able to get back to sleep right away (which didn’t always work but that’s another story).  Now I understand that our muscles are also sleeping during the night, and need to be awakened enough before we step onto our feet so that they can support the bones of our skeleton as we move into our day.  In my mother’s case, her muscles in her legs were not “aroused” or engaged when she took those first steps and so her body weight caused enough pressure on the head of the femur (which had been weakened from natural aging) to damage its structure beyond repair.

There are many good reasons to stretch in bed at any age. It’s cozy, and a gentle way to wake up and greet the day. Stetching allows fluids between our bones and within our joints to move and soften the harder structures. Yawning increases breathing, moving oxygen into our lungs and throughout our body through the circulatory system. A few moments each day can prepare us for a healthy start.  Animals do it: watch your dog or cat. Yogis do it. Babies do it.  So, do what comes naturally, stretch in bed.

Dr. Betty Perkins-Carpenter, in her helpful book, How To Prevent Falls, gives Stretch in Bed as her Number 1 exercise. In our Agile Aging program, the Greet the Day / Body Yawn functions similarly, although from sitting and standing postures.

Awaken your muscle system, feel yourself alive and awakening inside your body, stretch each arm and leg in this direction and that. You don’t need to follow a certain exercise, just do what comes naturally, as long as you:

  • Body Yawn, extending outwards like a Starfish through your arms, finger, legs, toes;
  • Body Fold, fold both knees over your chest, wrap arms around and compress shins downwards as the lower spine lengthens;
  • Round Ball, deepen the Body Fold into spinal roundness as knees curl towards forehead, using your arms to help;
  • Single Leg Extension, holding one knee towards chest, extend the opposite leg long below you, alternate;
  • Spiral, with balls of feet on bed and knees bent, allow the knees to slowly lower to one side then the other, slowly and gently; turn head and arms to the opposite side adds spaces to the spine spiral, again slowly.

Before you get out of bed. Every time.

Body Yawn from The Movement Academy Project on Vimeo.

© 2014 Valerie Baadh Garrett for Agile Aging LLC

12 Great Books on Our Agile Aging Bookshelf

12 Great Books on Our Agile Aging Bookshelf

It’s time to share.  I love books, and over the years have way more than I can store in my office or home library or garage.  So I weed them out when I can and keep only the very best close by, the ones I refer to again and again. Sometimes for information, sometimes for inspiration, and always with admiration to those who have shared so much of their life’s work with us.

Here are twelve of my favorites. What are yours? Please share in the comments below.

Beautiful Body Beautiful Mind: the power of positive imagery by Eric Franklin, Princeton Book Co., 2009.

The Brain That Changes Itself: stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science by Norman Doidge, MD., Penguin Books, 2007.

Fallproof: a comprehensive balance and mobility training program 2d by Debra J. Rose, Human Kinetics, 2009.

Fourfold Path To Healing: working with the laws of nutrition, therapeutics, movement and meditation in the art of medicine by Thomas Cowan, MD, Sally Fallon, Jaimen McMillan, New Trends Publishing, 2004.

Getting Old by Rudolf Steiner, Mercury Press, 2009.

How Life Moves: explorations in meaning and body awareness by Caryn McHose, Kevin Frank, North Atlantic Books, 2006

How To Dance Forever: surviving against the odds by Daniel Nagrin, Quill-William Morrow, 1988.

How To Prevent Falls: better balance, independence and energy in 6 easy steps by Betty Perkins-Carpenter, PhD, Senior Fitness Productions 2006.

Movement with Meaning: a multi-sensory program for individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease by Barbara Larsen, Health Professions Press, 2006.

Parkinson’s Disease and the Art of Moving by John Argue, New Harbinger Publications, 2000.

Thriving After Breast Cancer: essential healing exercises for body and mind by Sherry Lebed Davis, Broadway Books, 2002.

Younger Next Year: live strong, fit and sexy until you’re 80 or beyond by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge, 2007.

Irving Berlin and Liz: Ragtime Lives On

Irving Berlin and Liz: Ragtime Lives On
Irving Berlin entertaining the troops during WWII

My family’s story intersects with Irving Berlin’s at least twice, through my grandmother who played piano in the ragtime era until arthritis silenced her hands in her old age. My mother tells the story that during the war, probably 1943, when she and her brother had been evacuated during the Blitz and were living high on the hog on a farm in Scotland, eating ham and bacon that they’d never tasted before, Irving Berlin brought his show, “You’re In The Army Now” to Glasgow. Her mum, my grandmother Elizabeth, took them to see the show and they went backstage afterwards. Mr. Berlin took one look at her, and yelled, “Liz!”, and threw his arms around her in a huge bear hug, surprising the cast and crew and greatly impressing my mother and uncle, especially because they knew that no one, but no one, was allowed to call her Liz.ElizabethNS1pink500

Irving Berlin is considered the greatest and certainly most prolific composer of popular music of the 20th century. Born in a poor Jewish ghetto in Russia with the name Israel Balain, he emigrated to the US with his family in 1893, when he was 5, settling in the Lower East side of NYC. Israel was the son of a cantor, and earned pennies singing on the streets of NY to help support his family after his father died. He never learned to read music, but sounded out the melodies of his songs using the black keys of the piano, letting someone else write the tunes into music notation.

Irving Berlin worked out the tune for In My Harem in 1912 while on the 20th Century Limited train to Chicago, and it was published with witty lyrics early in 1913. These lyrics allow the singer to choose between an Irish or Jewish protagonist (Pat Malone or Abie Cohen) who finds himself with “wives for breakfast, wives for dinner, wives for supper time” while taking care of a harem for a Turk who goes off to war.

In My Harem cover 1913
In My Harem cover 1913

That same year, 1913, my grandmother Elizabeth was 16. She was already an accomplished ragtime pianist, accompanying silent movies in her mother’s movie theatre in Brooklyn. She dropped out of school and ran away from home to marry my grandfather Harry Gilbert, a Kosher butcher. When my grandfather promptly lost his job soon afterwards, she went out looking for work, and was hired by Irving Berlin to play his tunes in the window of his music publisher in Tin Pan Alley. This was her job until her first pregnancy the next year. It is likely that In My Harem was one of the tunes she played every day, with her rollicking left hand keeping the syncopated rhythm of the time. Listen and watch this fine four-hands piano rendition.

Now, I’m a dancer with The Academy of Danse Libre, which performs dances like In My Harem in ragtime costume, at Cubberley Auditorium in Palo Alto, California, next on June 6 and 7, 2014.  The full program includes 16 dances from the Victorian, Gay Nineties, Ragtime, and Golden Age of Hollywood eras, in authentic period dress and mannerisms, performed by 24 fine dancers.  In 2015, catch us performing with the Peninsula Symphony at Flint Center for the Performing Arts in Mountain View, CA. Visit for YouTube links, more info, including photos and performance schedule.