Monday, October 12, 2009

Balance and the Senses

While the majority of creatures occupy a more horizontal place in this world, we human beings occupy a uniquely vertical niche. We exist within a tiny operating window in the vertical plane, which requires both functional hardware and operable software.

In practicing yoga, we often focus on the hardware - are the muscles sufficiently toned? are the muscles flexible? do the joints have full mobility within the healthy range of the musculature? While functional hardware is essential to optimal health, it’s only a portion of the equation. Without coherent software, our motions are disjointed and inefficient.

The software of the human being is the interface of body and mind - clearly within the jurisdiction of a healthy yoga practice. It’s not sufficient to ask whether or not we can make any particular movement, optimal efficiency asks how we make the movement; and for each one there are generally several ways to accomplish the desired movement. There’s the most efficient way, and then there are all the other ways. Optimal health is moving with utmost efficiency regardless of the task at hand.

I often broach the subject of optimal efficiency via the sense of balance. There’s a lot of redundancy built into our perception of vertical. We utilize vision to determine where we are in space. We utilize our proprioceptive sense to determine where we are in space via the perception of weight distribution in the joints and muscles. We also gather information on our relationship to gravity via the feedback from the semicircular canals (vestibular sense) in the inner ear. The healthiest sense of balance uses information from all three senses to inform the mind where we are in space.

As people age, I generally find the visual sense becomes the dominant source of body-position information. As a result of this visual-sense dominance, the connection to proprioceptive and vestibular senses tends to wither. This may not pose a problem for a relatively young person with good vision and relatively elastic muscles; though for an elderly person with declining vision and slower reflexes, this over-reliance on visual feedback may well portend a nasty fall.

A balanced and healthy yoga practice asks us to exercise proprioceptive, vestibular and visual senses. This not only benefits the sense of balance, but may also keep the mind more elastic. Within the yogic tradition we have many tools that can provide this benefit, though we often find these techniques are thwarted by our lack of understanding.

I’ve heard many yoga teachers suggest students gaze at a specific point to steady their balance. While this assuredly helps many students stay upright in balancing postures such as Tree (Vrksasana), it directly feeds into our over-reliance on the visual sense. To reconnect with the dormant vestibular and proprioceptive senses, it’s important to be aware of your overuse of the visual sense.

In a healthy practice that includes a balanced routine of movement (sun salutations), inversions, front bends, backbends, twists and breathing exercises, the head is placed in every possible relationship to the vertical. Varying the head position exercises the vestibular system, and if we practice the correct gaze points we can keep the visual system in its proper place. Balance is a team effort, and the visual sense tends to be the proverbial ball-hog!

Another effective means to strengthen the vestibular and proprioceptive senses is by practicing yoga blindfolded every now and then. The blindfold removes the facial tension that often accompanies closed eyes, and removes the subliminal visual information that sneaks through the squinting eyes.

On Tuesday mornings I teach an Advanced Class at our Madison WI location - Mound Street Yoga Center, and we periodically run through a sequence of postures wearing a Mindfold Mask. Students are often surprised at how relaxed they are after this routine, and often comment at how quickly their balance improves as a result.

I wish I could claim I invented something this clever, though I must defer to BKS Iyengar for this particular inspiration. It was eye-opening (pun intended) when I first experienced Iyengar’s eye-wrap over twenty years ago, and remains effective to this day. Our technology has improved, though the insight remains the same. A balanced practice includes both hardware and software.



pilates1 said...

I really like the idea of using all the senses to maintain balance, and personally find it gives me a better opening through the throat and skull when I do this. I'm also wondering, how does drishti fit into this idea?

Scott Anderson said...

Drsti is an aspect of yogasana that's often neglected. While practitioners of Astanga Vinyasa yoga are familiar with the specific gaze-points for each posture, many practitioners are not familiar with this technique.

Depending on the posture, the gaze points are typically the tip-of-the-nose, the space between the eyebrows, far to the side and the navel. Specifying the gaze point minimizes the reliance on visual input, which can help improve balance and mental focus.

The focus on drsti (pun intended) also works with the tendency toward nystagmus. Nystagmus is the involuntary movement of the eyes that is said to relate to subconscious stress.

Experts in Sensory Integration and Psychology are well aware of the relationship between eye movements and the subconscious mind. The method of EMDR, for example, is a psychological technique that utilizes the eye movements as a means to access the subconscious. In yoga, the integration of breathing, posture and gaze-point holds the potential to rewire long-standing postural and mental habits at the deepest levels.