“What I dream of is an art of balance.”
. ~ Henri Matisse
The three inner balance senses
Though most people don’t develop balance problems until well into their 50s, the optimal age range to begin developing our balance abilities is in our 30s and 40s. This is because balance is controlled by the brain via three systems: visual, vestibular (inner ear) and proprioceptive (sense of body in space), and all of these systems start to erode after age 40.
Each of the three systems help with balance by gathering information from our body and the environment around us, and sending it up to the brain where it’s processed. Your brain then sends signals back to the muscles to make necessary adjustments in position, contraction or relaxation.
These processes occur at a constant, subconscious level. It’s a finally tuned dance between the three balance sensors that needs to occur with smooth integration for physical balance to function optimally.
Vision & balance
Humans are highly visual creatures and vision plays a strong roll in our ability to balance well. The eyes provide visual feedback to help us orient ourselves with other objects. They cue off the vertical and horizontal lines surrounding us to help give our brain a sense of our position in the world when we’re static and when we’re moving.
Put it to the test
You can easily test the importance of vision in balance right now. Stand close to a wall when you first try this! Stand up and balance on one leg for a while. Then close your eyes. What happened?
Most of us will have a more difficulty balancing with our eyes closed. Some however, may not feel much difference at all. They are part of a minority who naturally make strong use of their proprioceptive and vestibular systems to help them balance as well.
Poor vision & balance
Poor vision has been found to be associated with diminished balance. Darkness also limits our ability to balance well. Consider trying to balance on one foot in a pitch dark room compared to a well lit one.
On the other hand, a soft steady gaze can greatly help balance. Try balancing on one leg again. This time fix your gaze at something still at eye level on the far wall in front of you. Most of us will find this makes balancing easier as the eyes have something stable to concentrate upon.
Take a look at our friend Kermit above right. He (or a real life bike trickster) is aided in balancing on one leg on his bike seat by cuing off the horizon line ahead of him. Lack of fear of falling due to his stuffed toy status likely helps as well. (Side-note: fear of falling can actually lead to a greater chance of falling! Whereas exercises that improve balance abilities increase confidence and decrease risk of falling).
The gazing of the eyes while balancing is related to drishti, the yogic practice of focusing the gaze during asana or meditation. It’s a pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) practice which uses the eyes to help concentrate the mind to prepare for meditation.
The vestibular system
The vestibular organs
The vestibular organs are located deep within our inner ears. They detect and send information to the brain regarding gravity, linear movement and rotation. They’re also involved in a head righting reflex that works to keep the head looking straight ahead whether the eyes are open or closed.
They can be disturbed by dehydration, poor diet, fatigue and stress, possibly leading to a feeling of being “off-center” when we’re under the weather.
One way to improve your vestibular system is to practice the balance poses with the eyes closed. This takes vision out of the picture and forces you to rely on your other balance sensors instead. Remember to stand close to a wall when you first try this.
Yoga & play
The head is normally held upright during our waking hours. Yoga however, often asks the head to be held in less regualr positions: out to the side, all the way back, and even upside down. All of these positions exercise the vestibular system, as do any activities that challenge our head position in the space.
Think back to when you were a child. Remember of playground equipment and climbing trees and handstands and somersaults – all of these actives are not only great fun, but also terrific for challenging the vestibular system. There’s no reason you can’t get back on a swing-set a play away to improve your balance too!
We have sensory receptors in our skin, muscles and joints that are sensitive to stretch and pressure. When stimulated by movement, they send impulses to the brain, which helps the brain determine where we are and how we’re moving in space.
Proprioceptors are located throughout the body, but major clusters of them are found in the soles of our feet, ankles, hips, spine (to help with spinal stability), and neck. Proprioception is the quickest of the balance systems to respond if get out of balance.
The proprioceptive system normally acts at a subconscious level, but you can directly experience your proprioceptive system by simply closing your eyes and touching your nose with your finger. Your finger is guided to your nose by your proprioceptive sensors.
Ankles & neck
The proprioceptors in the neck and ankles are particularity important. The neck sensors aid the vestibular system with head positioning by sensing the direction the head is turned.
Sensory feedback from the ankles communicates to the brain the body’s movment or sway relative to the ground and the quality of that surface (hard, slippery, uneven, etc.). Both of these abilities are especially important in walking and running. Look out for an upcoming post on improving balance responses in the feet and ankles.
One way to help improve the health proprioceptive sensors is again to practice balancing with the eyes closed. Once vision is taken out of the equation the other inner senses – proprioceptive and vestibular – have to work harder to keep you upright.
Almost all the yoga poses will challenge your proprioceptive abilities. Stretching and reaching out into the space around you, balancing on one leg or on your head, coming up into a backbend, and all the rest, encourage the body to move in non-regular ways, offering great stimulation to the proprioceptors along the way. And again, novel and playful movement is always good for enlivening any of the sensory balance systems.
A fun way to build both your vestibular and proprioceptive system skills is to try an entire yoga practice blindfold. Once you’ve built up some basic skill, practicing a few easy poses with your eyes closed, you can pick up the challenge by using a blindfold to practice a yoga routine of standing and other poses.
More yoga for healthy balance articles:
- Strength & flexibility needed for balance
- Center of gravity
- The three inner balance sensors
- Static vs. dynamic balance
- Feet & ankles for balance
- Brain gains from balance
For more yoga articles, updates, classes and workshops, sign up for my newsletter at the top of the page or like on Facebook at Ann West :: Iyengar Yoga. You can contact me directly by email or call (858) 224-2484.