Balancing The Body
For a child wobbling atop a two-wheel bicycle for the first time, getting it to remain upright is a scary challenge. But once that child has mastered the art of balancing on the bike, the body just remembers what to do. That's the way it is with balance. Our body has lots of tools at its disposal to help us control our upright posture, and these tools function largely at the subconscious level.
However, when one of those tools fails to work properly, our system of balance can get out of whack. Problems with our feet and neurological conditions, such as Parkinson's disease, can throw off our balance. Eye conditions can rob us of stereoscopic vision, which helps us properly locate ourselves in space. And, of course, inner ear problems can greatly affect our balance.
Many of these balance-affecting conditions are related to aging. In fact, it's estimated that one of every three people older than 65 will suffer some kind of fall this year. And half those people will fall again within 12 months. Bodywork can help. Certain modalities can improve and restore balance, particularly through reeducating the body in the most efficient ways to move. Just like our bodies once learned the best way to stabilize atop a bicycle, they can also learn new, better ways to stabilize aging feet and legs. Here's a look at how two bodywork modalities--structural integration and the Feldenkrais Method--may help.
Jane Elmore, MD, is a champion dressage rider, which means she spends much of her day perched atop a 1,200-pound prancing horse. Her safety absolutely depends on keeping her balance. She's been doing dressage for more than 10 years, but she's found the greatest success in her sport most recently. She credits her improvement to structural integration sessions.
"I just feel so much more secure in the saddle now," says Elmore, who owns a ranch in Denison, Texas. "They talk about the rider being a dance partner with the horse in dressage. Well, I was never a dancer. I was always overweight. But what I find now, in order to have this horse be able to respond to you, you have to be subtle in being able to shift weight from a left seat bone to a right seat bone, to both seat bones, to rotate in the seat so your shoulders follow the horse's shoulders. All this is much easier for me now, simply because I'm much freer in my movements."
Structural integration is based on the work of Dr. Ida Rolf, a biochemist who founded the modality called Rolfing, as well as the Rolf Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1971. Structural integration involves manipulating the body's connective tissue--the fascia--to rebalance the body and bring about pain relief from stress and injury.
"Most people come to structural integration because they've got something that hurts and can't make it better," says Marilyn Beech, past executive director and president of the board of the International Association of Structural Integrators. "But structural integration isn't really so much about getting rid of the pain as it is about getting the body lined up again. A lot of times your body is so misaligned you can't get your center of gravity over your foot. A lot of structural integrators work with athletes. It's common that afterward, they'll feel more coordinated, more efficient in their movements, and they'll have better balance."
Like structural integration, the Feldenkrais Method improves balance by teaching individuals to be more aware of proper movement. Developed by Ukrainian-born physicist Moshe Feldenkrais, the method stems from Feldenkrais' study of judo and its emphasis on perfect balance. Promoters say the method can help people experiencing pain in the back, neck, shoulders, hips, legs, or knees, but is also useful for healthy individuals, particularly athletes, who want to move more freely.
"Unlike physical therapy or occupational therapy, Feldenkrais is an educational process," says Denver practitioner Sissel Rhyme. "It works with the central nervous system. It's bones to brain." Rhyme typically leads students through a sequence of precise movements, either sitting or lying on the floor, standing, or sitting in a chair. Throughout the process, she asks students to think about how various positions feel.
"This is intelligent exercise," she says. "You have to be a part of it mentally. It's not like being on the treadmill for 30 minutes where it doesn't matter what you think about." By increasing the awareness of how it feels to move properly, with everything structurally balanced, students can learn to let go of old patterns of movement and develop new ones that result in improved flexibility and coordination.
There are literally hundreds of such movement lessons, which vary in difficulty and complexity. Lessons can be 30-60 minutes long and can be done in groups or privately with an instructor. The instructor will touch the students, but only gently and noninvasively. It's not at all painful or strenuous, though Rhyme reports students may find themselves exhausted after an hour. Studies have shown that 10 weeks worth of Feldenkrais lessons leads to notable improvements not just in balance, but also in the participants' sense of confidence in their ability to balance.
Rebecca Jones is a Colorado-based freelancer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.