The feel of Balance

In How to Stand Up on Radio 4 on 29th March, the philosopher Barry Smith states:

Standing upright is one of the biggest challenges the brain faces…and it doesn’t always get it right.

 Maintaining balance depends upon information received by the brain from sensory receptors.  Vision is the most dominant sense in balance , working with the ears (vestibular system) to inform equilibrium, spatial awareness, rotation and linear movement.  Proprioception, the sense of touch, informs our brains through the skin, muscles and joints.  A “dulling” of sensory input as we age is something that many of us have experienced in yoga classes.  The “dreaded” tree pose or half-moon pose causing many a wobble.

If/when the senses become less sharp, it can be hard to notice detail.  It can take us longer to react to stimulation provided by the nervous system.  Our regular foot exercises are somewhat painful for many (apologies) but proprioceptive information from the skin involves sensory receptors sensitive to stretch or pressure in the surrounding tissues.  In standing balances, it is essential to sense the support of the feet.  Our knowledge of “where we are in space” and the quality of the surface is informed by impulses through the skin (we are generally barefoot); cues from the ankles indicate sway: cues from the neck tell us which way the head is turned.

From the Radio 4 programme, I learnt that the fluid in the canals of our ears thickens as we get older. These fluid canals provide our sense of gravity.  Dizziness can be alleviated by slowly and gently nodding the head.

By encouraging students to nod the head slowly over the past couple of weeks, I have hoped that they would sense the deep flexors of the neck (longus collis) and allow the strong extensors at the back to quieten down.  Pete Blackaby writes:

I sometimes imagine that these small flexor muscles whisper important things to our nervous system, whilst the large extensors are shouting loudly, grabbing too much attention with their alarmist talk.

The suboccipitals working with the longus collis create a local eco system to keep the head stable.  This helps in standing, walking, one-leg balances as we look to the horizon and try to reduce tension around the neck and shoulders.  Pete’s use of the word “whisper” is key to our sensory approach to yoga.  Students new to the classes often, perplexed, describe it as “subtle” (probably “odd” to themselves).  It is tough to try to “sense” balance rather than “do” balance – to “think” through the body not just outside it.

This is the key to our yoga practice and it is why I found the third Programme in Uncommon Senses so interesting – Sense of Self.  The way that we construct ourselves has 4 different aspects:  sense of embodiment, 1st person perspective ,  sense of ownership (sense of our body belonging to us) and sense of agency (feeling that the movement we make is what we intended to do) .

The exploration of  movement  in all yoga classes is very useful.  Sometimes encouragement to explore each side rather than to always turn/change upon the teacher’s instruction, may lead to “controlled chaos” but does, I think, allow space for the individual to pay attention and to notice.

In a workshop with Pete Blackaby in Oxford in 2012, he explored Intelligent Yoga Integration.  He spoke of Body Schema and Body Image – the difference between how we sense ourselves and we how think others see us.  The emotional connection or disconnect between these two perspectives can often come to the fore in physical activity classes.

In yoga classes, rather than labelling ourselves as “rubbish” at tree pose or “too inflexible” to perform pigeon pose, it is more useful to sense how we can move towards a pose – to learn what do with all the sensory information (the noise) that we constantly receive. It is wonderful to be able to achieve balance in a yoga pose that has been difficult but by  shifting the perspective at times so that we feel more comfortable in our feet and in our walking (for example), we can take our yoga off the mat and this can be very empowering – especially as we age.

Being, myself, of a “certain age” and being a week late with this post, I will try to “sharpen up” and produce another post on an aspect of balance next week.  Regular classes resume on Wednesday 19th April in Wycombe, then Thursday 20th April in Bledlow Ridge and Risborough.

Happy Easter.

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