A co-worker came into my office recently to share a photo on her phone of a little girl, maybe 3-4 years old, wearing roller skates.
"That's me," she said, explaining that she came across it while scanning a bunch of family photos for safekeeping.
Wow, I said; you could skate when you were so little? She could; a skating rink was within walking distance from her family's home. She and her brother spent a lot of time there.
With some embarrassment, I told her skating was not among my childhood accomplishments. Balance eluded me: I couldn't ride a two-wheeled bicycle until I was 9, and then only after my brother's merciless mockery shamed me into it.
My balance skills haven't improved with age, I told her. Although bike-riding is no longer a challenge, as a child I might have benefited from having a small pedal-free balance bike, designed to teach riders to balance in motion while sitting, the hardest part of learning to ride. (A neighbor's pre-school son has one -- the modern version of training wheels.)
I didn't enjoy my early-morning yoga class that day, as it focused on balance poses. Yoga is supposedly no-pressure and noncompetitive, but anybody who's practiced with a class knows that the other participants are surreptitiously checking to see if their poses are as good as those demonstrated by the yogini on the mat in front of the room. (This is hardly ever the case.)
Why is achieving dancer pose such a challenge for some of us? According to Yoga Journal, when we balance, we align our body's center of gravity with the earth's gravitational field. "Quite literally, we place ourselves in physical equilibrium with a fundamental force of nature. But we can't achieve this harmony by remaining absolutely still. Instead, we must refresh our balance moment after moment. The sustained effort to center and recenter, when successful, brings not only our flesh and bones into balance but also our nerve impulses, thoughts, emotions, and very consciousness. Hence, we feel calm. Equilibrium brings equanimity."
Calm is not what I feel when my instructor glides into Warrior 3.
Here's why, Yoga Journal reports: "If we fall out of Vrksasana (tree pose) when practicing alone, we often hear an internal critic saying, 'What's wrong with you? You should be able to do this!' If we're in a class, the same fall can bring a sense of humiliation that's greatly disproportionate to the physical event. We feel out of control when we lose our balance, and the ego hates to lose control--especially when other people are around to see it."
Why do some, like my co-worker, have better balancing skills than I do? According to babysparks.com, our vestibular system, which develops during the first years of life, is responsible for balance. It helps the brain coordinate actions such as standing, walking, reaching for objects, and knowing when the body is moving or not.
Apparently decent balance isn't necessarily inherited; my mother, a regular smoker of Lucky Strikes who rarely exercised outside of touching her toes while watching "The Paige Palmer Show" (the first daily televised fitness-oriented television program in the United States) on WEWS-TV in Cleveland, could skate across a frozen pond with the greatest of grace and ease, with her awkwardly skittering daughter far behind her.
And despite the fact that my balance was hardly impressive as a child, it gets worse with age because of impairments in the vestibular system, in vision, and in proprioception (awareness of body and limbs involving passive motion sense, active motion sense, limb position sense, and the sense of heaviness).
The best way to improve performance in balancing poses--as well as in bike riding, skating, dancing, and gymnastics--is to practice, practice, practice. To be successful at a pose that's causing difficulty, try practicing it with the support of a wall or ledge so you can hold it for a long time without losing your balance. Hold it until muscle fatigue causes you to lose proper positioning of your limbs or trunk. Then come down and practice on the other side. Repeat.
Achieving balance, experts say, demands constant attention. So now I'm experimenting with these physical therapists' suggestions:
• Balance on one foot while standing for a period of time at home (like while brushing my teeth, which my electric Sonicare forces me to do for two minutes at a time).
• Stand up from a seated position without using your hands.
• Walk in a line, heel to toe, for short distances.
• While standing on one leg, slowly raise your other leg in front of you. Then lift the same leg out to the side and back down, and extend your leg behind your body and back down. It will get easier if you focus on doing it regularly.
• Step sideways with toes pointed straight ahead until you reach the end of the wall or counter. Then, return in the other direction. Increase the effectiveness by donning a resistance band at the knees or just above the ankles.
None of these efforts will help me achieve difficult yoga poses such as handstand scorpion or tripod headstand, let alone one-handed tree pose. But they might keep me from toppling over in front of yoga classmates born with better vestibular skills than mine.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.