Can you ride a bike? Probably. And you know that riding a bike takes balance, yes? So if you ride a bike, you would probably come to the conclusion that you have pretty good balance. But what if you were just sitting on a bike, not pedaling? Just sitting there. Not falling, but not moving either. What would that phenomenon be called? This un-named phenomenon is what I like to call active stillness. This unmoving stability not only requires the greatest amount of sensory input, it also allows for the greatest sensory input. Huh? What? Tricky, right?
True, biomechanical stillness requires every one of your 600+ muscles to be active, precisely at the same time. This time-sensitive coordination requires muscle tissue to be precisely at the same (relative) length to maximize the current of electrical communication. Inflexible sections of the spine decrease the health of the nerves that reside there, limiting clear communication. Stiff, unyielding muscles send "fixed" information from your proprioceptors (sensory organs in the joints, tendons, and muscles). The data coming from inflexible muscles give incorrect information to the decision making center (brain), which the processing center (not knowing that the information is based on stiffness and not external limitations to the joint) makes an over-correction, or lurching movement to stabilize.
When you try to "stand still", you will feel these lurching motions happen in all different directions, one right after another. They are simply your body's best guess at where you are, as the communicative pathways between the muscles and spinal cord have been allowed to die off. No bueno. And, no more!
The stabilizing system of the entire body is the relationship between the proprioceptive system (information coming from the muscles, joints, and tendons) and the processing of that sensory input (what the brain tells the body to do with this info). If you send a message STAND STILL, then you should be un-moving, 100% of the time you are asking your body to be still. If you aren't able to stand still, there is a problem with your nervous system, either at the sensory level (tight muscles can't determine position) or at the processing level (information isn't coming clearly through the spinal nerves, usually due to sluggish myelin regeneration...also a result of tight (spinal) muscles. Your mission, should you accept, is to stop giving yourself a nervous-tissue disease, by doing the things necessary to keep your brain-body connection open, loud and clear.
Quick Test #1: Start with your (bare!) feet pointing straight ahead. Line up the outer edges of each foot so they make the number "11" and make sure you are standing with your heels pelvis-width distance apart. See how stable you feel. Do you detect any moving around? A slight wobble?
Now, close your eyes, and see if there is any change between your stillness before and after.
How'd you do? Did you feel yourself move more when you closed your eyes? Here's what is going on. Your eyes are not part of the sensory input required for whole-body balance -- your muscles, tendons, and bones should know where they are without looking. The poorer they communicate with the brain, however, the greater you begin to use your eyes to make corrections to your instability. This visual compensation happens so fast, you're not even aware of it. The eyes (and vestibular system) are pieces of a mechanism that balances the head, all of the time, to the horizon, no matter how jacked up the rest of the body has become. In order to repair the body (including eye muscle fatigue, dizziness, and age-related changes in vision) STOP using the eyes to do the work of the proprioceptors. This means you have to fix your body's internal sensory/communication channels.
Quick Test #2: Get yourself onto one leg, with foot still straight. No, you can't bend either knee, No, you can't reach your arms out to the side, and No, you shouldn't be holding on to something while testing your balance 🙂 In fact, if you find yourself needing to hold onto something to help steady yourself on one leg, work on the first exercise, second level (both legs on the ground, eyes closed) and improve this skill before progressing to a single-limb stance.
Once you feel OK on one leg, close your eyes. How does that feel? Lots of lurching at the ankle?
While we've all got some whole-body mal-alignment going on, it's the failure to use the feet over our lifetime that fundamentally messes with our stability. My point of writing all of this down is, the biological, or fight-for-survival part of the brain feels the constant falling we are doing (even though the more conscious parts of our brain don't recognize it) with every step. Imagine the stress falling off of a 100 story building would generate in the adrenals, which shortens the psoai, which dumps a whole lot of stress-chemicals into the blood. Now imagine you were only falling a fraction of that distance, but with every step. This small, almost minute sensation (and physiological reaction) accumulates over time, leading to tissue degeneration of your "catching-yourself" parts (i.e. knee cartilage, spinal disk tissues). The reaction to falling (even a tiny reaction) leads to an over-use of the adrenaline system, a risk factor for diseases of decompensation like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, memory loss, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, depression, and declines in nervous tissue health.
My problem with the word balance is it now has come to mean not falling. Millions of people are taking courses and doing exercises to increase their level of balance (i.e. reducing their likelihood of falling), but because the "not falling" definition is not really, physiologically, good enough, most of us, thinking we are balanced, continue to fall uncontrollably through space.
Excellent neurological health means we get to pick, exactly and unfaltering, where we would like our physical selves to be. Our body contains a complex information/coordination system, Proprioception, that lets us know, without even looking, where each bone, muscle, and tendon is in space. Your brain, better than the best engineer, pilot, or computer software program, can balance you both relative to yourself, and relative to your environment...even if your environment changes moment to moment. This is the level of health that we need to train for. You have your first four exercises to practice!
If you'd like to hear more, I will be doing my first (free!) Katy Says...LIVE! Join me on-line, Thursday, August 12th, 12:15-1:15 PST, where you can listen to a more-thorough lecture on active stillness. Let's go Beyond Balance. Beyond Not Falling. Let's go all the way.
Note: 8/12/2010 TO LISTEN TO WEBCAST, PLEASE Go to Katy Radio, on the top search bar and click on Beyond Balance. Enjoy!