By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga
Among the reasons given for practicing yoga and Pilates is the ability of these disciplines to improve strength, flexibility and balance. All three of these terms have many meanings. Just as building strength is more than just lifting weights and flexibility training encourages more than touching your toes, practicing balance is not just standing on one foot. This is not to diminish the importance of the ability to stand on one foot. In fact, there have been studies that suggest that the ability to stand on one foot for at least 20 seconds is a predictor of longevity. That may or may not be true for everyone, but we do know that there is a connection between fall-related injuries and aging. Exercise in general, and balance training in particular, have been shown to be effective in reducing falls in older adults. An article on the Harvard Health Publications blog discusses this relationship and cites a study in the British Medical Journal that supports this result.
As that article suggests, falls can be problematic for more reasons than just the broken bones that may result. Another result can be an almost PTSD-like effect which the article describes as a “downward spiral”. The faller becomes so frightened of another fall that they begin to restrict their mobility. One of the recurring themes of my blog is that once someone stops moving, starting again becomes much more difficult. That difficulty can ultimately create an insurmountable barrier. The less you move, the less you want to move. This may be why we often hear the old adage of “getting back on the horse” after falling off. Sometimes that is the only way to rebuild the confidence lost when something traumatic occurs.
This is not to suggest that anyone should abandon caution and take unnecessary risks in the name of overcoming fear. But rather than letting the experience reinforce fear, it can also become an opportunity to adopt practices that help to alleviate the fear. When it comes to preventing falls, there are many steps that can be taken to lessen the risk. These can be as simple as keeping ice melt handy for those places that are known to accumulate ice or wearing shoes with non-skid soles. Keeping walkways well-lit and obstacle-free is another. And, of course, beginning or maintaining movement practices that emphasize balance. Actually, all movement practices promote balance. For example, walking is the act of lifting one foot and maintaining balance on your standing leg until the lifted foot reaches the ground in front of you. Think about a toddler learning to walk and having to negotiate this challenge. Even after we think we’ve mastered the technique, the challenge still remains. Remember when you first learned to ride a bicycle? This is where practice becomes so important. We become adept at surmounting these challenges through the reinforcement of practice. Balance may be difficult or even elusive at first, but keep trying. Eventually muscles will begin to develop the strength needed to stabilize the body even when it is in unstable positions.
There is another advantage to practicing mind-body disciplines such as yoga and Pilates when working on balance. That is the development of mental attention – sometimes called “mindfulness”. Whenever I hear about someone falling or, in fact, having any type of accident, it is almost always a result of not paying attention. The person was in a hurry or stretched themselves in a way that they knew might be precarious but thought “I can do it” rather than simply moving the ladder or changing position to make that stretch safer. The balance training lessons of mind-body practices help you to get to know your body and how it works internally but also how it relates to the space around it. How do your feet feel on the surface they are standing on? What is the relationship between you and that tree trunk blocking the path that you’re walking on? How about that chair you’re sitting on? Do your feet reach the floor? Can you sit upright with proper spinal alignment? Will it really make a difference in your work output if you stand up from your desk and take a stretch break? Are you standing on one foot in that check-out line? Or is correct posture allowing your spine to support you? In the general scheme of things, will it really matter if you take an extra few moments to check in with your body and its surroundings? Think of the possible consequences. Not paying attention or thinking somehow that you are immune might cost you a whole lot more time being layed up. It will do no good afterwards to say “if only I had . . .” (fill in the blank). Many of us have experienced or witnessed “irrevocable acts” – those times when we wish we could have a “do over”. Sometimes there is nothing we could have done to change things, but other times just a brief pause before taking action might have prevented an unintended consequence.
This post started with the premise that balance is more than just standing on one foot. Another benefit of mind-body practices like yoga and Pilates is that they encourage one to take the lessons learned on the mat and apply them to daily life. Is there anyone out there who does not need more balance in their lives? If so, I’d like to meet that person and learn their secret. Think about all the balls we juggle in our daily lives. There is work and leisure; family responsibilities and personal needs; making healthy choices when alternatives beckon; navigating through parking lots with a long “to do” list filling occupying our minds; choosing to accept reality or clinging to an unreasonable wish that it will magically become something different than it is. No doubt each of us can come up with additional examples of the extremes in our lives that pull us in opposing directions. Every day we are faced with these choices. Finding a balance is no easy task.
So what do we do? Give up in despair and allow the difficulty to overwhelm us? Or recognize the opportunity to practice. Just like the balance postures we practice in a yoga or Pilates class, the choices that life presents are also an opportunity to practice finding a middle ground. It requires focus and it doesn’t always work the way we want it to. Even the most devoted yoga practitioner will fall out of tree pose or feel his or her foot wobbling. Similarly our attempts to find balance in our lives will often result in wobbling or just falling into one extreme or the other. But this doesn’t mean we are failures or incapable of better performance. If you can move and breathe, you can take the lessons learned and try again. Practicing does not mean perfecting. Being human means none of us will ever be perfect. But we can all get back on that horse (making, of course, the necessary safety adjustments) and keep practicing. It may be that the practice eventually leads you to recognize that horse-back riding is no longer a good idea for you. Then you can practice accepting that reality for today and moving on from there. Maybe there will be something even better waiting in the path you decide to take instead. No matter what happens, there will always have more opportunities to practice.