Understanding Balance

Based on the article “Plumb Perfect,” written for the May/June 2004 edition of Yoga Journal by Roger Cole, PhD, a certified yoga instructor and research scientist.

I like to encourage skaters at all levels to practice one-foot balance poses to improve agility, coordination and confidence. Such practice also delivers better control over a constantly shifting center of gravity during the motions of skating so we can become more efficient with each stroke. This article discusses how alignment, strength and attention affect your balance practice.

Alignment

Tree poseBalance is the result of aligning our bodies with the earth’s gravitational pull. With both feet firmly planted on the floor, you may be unaware of the fine adjustments going on within your feet, spine and legs to keep yourself upright. You mastered this first balancing act in early childhood even before learning to walk.

Imagine you are standing erect with a lead-weighted fishing line dangling from the ceiling right in front of your nose. When you shift from standing on both feet to a one-footed balance pose such as Yoga’s Tree Pose, the bulk of your body moves slightly to one side and the plumb line will no longer line up with your nose. On raising your knee, you automatically shifted and re-centered your weight to compensate for the new asymmetrical position in order to stay balanced upright.

Strength

One-footed balancing requires strength to compensate for the extra work that prevents you from toppling. In order to stabilize your alignment with gravity, you naturally engage the muscles located at the outside of the hip joints (called the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus). Muscles in your support leg’s shin, outer calf and foot are also working hard.

Warrior 3The great news is that with practice, the amount of muscular involvement diminishes. “The better you get at balances, the less muscular effort you need to maintain them,” says Dr. Roger Cole, PhD, certified yoga instructor and research scientist. “This is because you become more skilled at using your bone structure to support your weight, rather than wasting muscle energy to do so. You also waver less, so you need to make fewer and smaller muscular corrections.”

Even if you do your balances close to a wall for support, each attempt to hold a difficult one-foot balance makes you that much stronger and closer to attaining it.

Attention

Dan on rocker boardSensors in all parts of our bodies are constantly sending signals to the brain. Our eyes help us interpret which direction is up, and the mechanisms in our inner ear dictate the sense of balance. Nerve endings in our limbs and in the bottoms of our feet indicate current body position.

We make adjustments in response to all of these signals to maintain balance. So whether you happen to be standing quietly, balancing on a wobble board, or skating hard and fast, your nervous system is constantly monitoring your position, determining the necessary positional corrections, and sending messages to all the involved muscles to contract or relax.

One way Yoga improves the mind-body connection is through the focused concentration that is required to achieve balance in the more challenging poses. Each time you try one of these, you also get a little stronger in the muscles that shape the pose and make balance possible. And finally, after you master a one-footed pose, the resulting improved agility blesses all of your physical activities—skating and non-skating—with more coordination and confidence.

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