Games to Improve your Balance

How good is your sense of balance? Many of us are so caught up with adult responsibilities that we no longer find time to move in a playful and exploratory way as we used to when we were younger. As a result our ability to balance can become compromised to an extent which may be a bit shocking once we start to experiment with it again!

The Alexander Technique aims to restore the body’s natural postural and support systems to their proper functioning. Because these systems all rely to some extent on our sense of balance, I encourage my pupils (and anyone else who will listen!) to play balance games of one sort or another.  As well as honing our sense of balance this also encourages our postural muscles to work harder, which tones and activates our ‘core’ in a fun and natural way without need for special exercises. In addition, balance games are a great way to play with ‘letting go’ and ‘allowing things to happen’. When we feel out of balance and are in fear of falling we tend to tense up. However this doesn’t help us—and is in fact MORE likely to make us fall. Playing balance games is a great way to learn to withhold consent to the habit of tightening in the face of stress. Finding this ability to stay calm and open in response to worry is a key part of the Alexander Technique (and of living well in general) so these sorts of activities can really speed up the process of learning and applying the technique in our lives.

Photo by Digital Vision./DigitalVision / Getty Images

Below are some activities you can undertake to help develop your sense of balance. The majority of these require you to purchase some simple items. However this is an investment which will be well worth it in terms of enjoyment, and the improvement in overall health and functioning that is likely to result. Obviously there is some risk involved in any balance activity, so exercise common sense and make sure you are attempting an activity that is a sensible match for your current fitness level and abilities!

Note: I have pictured some specific products in this article as examples, but I am not really recommending one brand over another—most of the items are available from several different companies and I suggest you shop around. 

1) Simple balance games and exercises

If it is a while since you have played around with your sense of balance you might be shocked at how much it has atrophied while you have been thinking of other things! Try standing on one leg. Easy? Then try doing the same with your eyes closed. The eyes are an important source of information for the balance system so when we remove them it forces other parts of the system—for example the vestibular canals and the proprioceptors—to play a larger role. Now try walking along a straight line placing your feet one in front of the other. Again if that is easy try it again with your eyes closed. If your balance is rusty then doing simple exercises like these every day for a few weeks will help to start tuning it up again.

When you start looking there are all sorts of everyday possibilities to further improve and practice your balance. Even a walk in the woods or the local park can give lots of opportunities to let your inner child out to play and to reconnect with skills of balancing and movement you may have forgotten! 

Photo by aetb/iStock / Getty Images

2) Balance boards

Taking things a step further, there are several types of balance board which can be used to take your balance practice to the next level. One of the simplest types is a round board on a semi-spherical rocker. These are widely used for injury rehabilitation so are available in various sizes and levels of difficulty. N.B. these put a lot of pressure on the point where the ball meets the floor and they may damage wooden floors, so be careful!

Moving up a notch we have several types of board which are free to move in multiple ways at once. The simplest ones involve a roller. These can be quite tricky to begin with, and there is a danger of the board suddenly flipping out from under your feet and sending you flying. For this reason it is important to make sure you practice with clear space around you so that if you fall you won’t hit anything! It’s also a good idea to have something solid to hold onto at about waist height until you gain confidence. If necessary you can slow things down by beginning on a carpeted floor before graduating to a solid surface.

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The next step up from roller boards are boards which balance on a ball. These have a recess underneath which helps to limit the ball’s movement and makes it less likely that it will fly out. They can look a bit daunting, but they are not as difficult in practice as you might expect and they are more flexible and fun than the roller boards. My favourite is the ‘CoolBoard’ (see the video below).

The most difficult part in learning to use these is getting balanced on the ball in the first place. Once you are up there it is  not too hard to stay up, especially if you choose one of the smaller and ‘slower’ balls to start with. For most people a few minutes practice a day for a couple of weeks will have them easily up onto the ball and moving about quite confidently.

3) Slacklines and Tightropes

These are great fun if you have the space. It is possible to get small tight-rope setups to use at home, however they tend to be expensive and unwieldy.

As an alternative I suggest using a slackline, which is much cheaper and easier to set up (see my article on slacklining and the Alexander Technique here). As well as being more convenient, slacklines can also be more fun than tightropes. The bounciness of the line is an added challenge, and is addictive. It also allows the more adventurous to learn tricks. 

If you have access to two reasonably substantial trees you can set up a simple line between them. If you don’t have trees but you have some space outside there are various ways of setting up a line with—anchors and A frames. This takes a bit of work but will give you a long lasting set up.  You can find instructions on how to do this here.

Finally there are setups which allow you to have a small line indoors without too much expense. These are a little shorter than is ideal, but still allow you to play around if space is limited or it is too cold to be outside.

4) Other Balance-Oriented Activities

Of course if you have the time and opportunity there are many sports and activities in which balance plays a key role. Horse-riding, surfing and windsurfing, and circus activities like unicycles etc. all help to tone the balance system and keep you fit in a fun way. 

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Any of the above activities should make a noticeable improvement to your balance and quality of life if undertaken regularly. A few minutes every day is better than a splurge once a week! With this sort of routine even activities which seemed impossible at the beginning can be mastered fairly quickly. Have fun!

Thoughts about posture

Pull your shoulders back! Tuck your bum under! Pull yourself up straight! Hold your palms forward! Bend your knees a little! Activate your stomach muscles!  

I’m always surprised and a little concerned at how many new pupils who come through my door have at one time or another been given a lengthy list of instructions about how they should be holding themselves in order to have ‘good posture’. Whether it is from their doctor or physiotherapist, pilates or yoga teacher or some other practitioner, many people have a lot of very strong beliefs about different ways they need to tense their muscles in order to take care of themselves and prevent or cure back-pain and other musculo-skeletal complaints. The irony is that in spite of trying very hard to put these beliefs into practice—sometimes over many years—they often turn up completely out of alignment and in considerable pain! 

I have nothing against pilates or yoga which if taught well can be wonderful, but I do question the things that a lot of people are being taught about what good posture is and how they can acquire it. I question whether the advice that is being given for people to 'hold' themselves in a certain way using muscular tension as they go about their lives is really in their best interest.

Put simply, we have two types of muscles which enable us to move while maintaining ourselves upright against gravity—the postural muscles which support us against gravity, and the phasic muscles which we use for activity. Postural muscles are deeper and react more slowly than phasic muscles, but they don’t get tired. Because the phasic muscles are for movement and activity they are the ones which are most directly under our conscious control, and which tend to react when we think of ‘doing’ something. When someone follows an instruction to “pull their shoulders back” or “tuck their pelvis under”, it is primarily the phasic muscles which will respond. What the person is actually doing is using their phasic muscles to do the job of the postural muscles! They are literally holding themselves together and supporting themselves against gravity using the gross motor-muscles which are designed for movement. As a result these muscles end up permanently tensed and rigid rather than being free and ready for action. We lose spontaneity and freedom in activity, and the whole organism becomes contracted putting it under a great deal of stress, because muscles do work by shortening. Also, as we have seen, our phasic muscles quickly get tired, so often people find they are getting worn out by their attempts to sit or stand in the way they have been told. The result it that they alternate between periods of tense and unnatural ‘posture’ held together by excessive muscular tension followed by periods of collapse once they are no longer able to keep this effort up. Neither of these extremes is good for us!

This all sounds quite exhausting and it is not sensible. No other creature seems to need to be doing all this ‘stuff’ in order to enjoy good posture and co-ordination. A cat does not need to be told to go around thinking about holding it’s back or paws in a certain way, and yet it can leap with a skill and grace that is way beyond what most humans ever achieve. What we need in our everyday life is to be is more like the freedom loving cat than the over-controlling pilates student! Rather than seeking to hold ourselves in a certain way we need to learn to let go of our tendency to hold ourselves together and upright with our phasic muscles so that the deeper postural muscles together with the system of reflexes which controls them are free to do their job.  We then find we are not supporting ourselves: rather we are supported. Everything flows.

In this state the word ‘posture’ becomes redundant. It's a word that has come to imply a fixed held position that is ‘right’, but is that really how we are supposed to be? Is there really one ‘right’, rigid position for sitting and standing? I suggest that there is not. When everything is working as it should we are dynamic beings and our alignment and position in space is ever changing. We are not locked into place but instead—whether we are acting or at rest—there is a continual and subtle shifting going on as our reflex balance mechanism adjusts perfectly to where we are, how gravity is affecting is, and our intentions for action. Posture then becomes a journey. Instead of focussing on positions we focus on how we arrive in positions and how we move out of them. When we move well and in balance we can’t help but arrive in a co-ordinated, balanced, and dynamic place when we come to rest. There is no 'right way'. There is only the way that is appropriate in each moment. Alexander Technique lessons are a place where we can find out how to move towards this place of freedom, balance and poise.

Get Your Whole Back Back!

How clear and accurate a picture do you have of your body and how it's put together? For example if I asked you to show where your hip joints are where would you point? Try it now.

I’ve been asking new Alexander Technique pupils this question for many years and experience suggests that you are most likely to have pointed to somewhere on the crest of your pelvis—several inches higher than where the joint actually is [see image below]. Can you feel the two bits of bone that stick out a little on either side at the top of you legs? These are at the top of your thigh bone (femur) and the joints are just a little bit higher and a couple of inches in from there. If you got this wrong are in good company—I have even seen doctors who have had intensive anatomy training make this mistake! Incorrect information together with a faulty kinaesthetic sense caused by years of unnecessary muscular tension means many of us literally don't know where our legs end and our torso begins!

But why should we worry about this anyway? Because the way our body moves in activity tends to be strongly affected by our ideas about it. It will faithfully respond to our intentions, and if our intention is to move at hip joints which we think of as being at the top of our pelvis the body will actually respond as if this were true—meaning that the lower back (lumbar spine) will be taking over some of the movement which really belongs at the hip joint. The back is not designed for this, and over time trouble can ensue in the form of pain and stiffness.

Another common error people have in their internal ‘body map’ is in thinking that the joint between their head and spine is somewhere in the region of their 5th cervical vertebrae (see diagram below). This is wrong! The spine continues up to a point roughly between our ears, where it articulates at the atlanto-occipital joint.

Looking at the spine as a whole we can see that it is a very much larger structure than many of us realise. It starts between the ears and goes right the way down to the sacrum (which is a series of fused vertebrae). The sacrum is attached very firmly to the pelvis so functionally we may think of the pelvis as also being part of the same structure. In a sense the spine and pelvis form a single, flexible lever.

Try bearing this in mind as you go about your day. There’s no need to get busy trying to change anything, but just be gently aware of how much longer your spine is than you might have thought, and therefore how integrated and supportive your structure is. Maybe give yourself occasional feedback with your fingers: "here are my hips, here is the top of my spine". You may be pleasantly surprised at how nice it feels to have you whole back back!

On wanting to be different by staying the same.

Whenever we have a problem or symptom our immediate feeling is usually that we would simply like it to stop. Even if we are conscious that there are things we are doing which are contributing to it, a lot of the time what we really hope for—deep down—is that there is something we can do to make it go away so that we can carry on just as we were before. In other words we want to change so long as we don’t have to be different! That’s understandable, but unfortunately things are rarely that simple—we are wholes, and all the parts and aspects of us are linked and work together. A specific problem is often a surface manifestation of a much bigger pattern. Even if we get rid of the symptom that is bothering us, the fundamental cause will still be there and will eventually cause the problem to recur, or a different one to appear in its place.

It’s human nature that when people come to Alexander lessons often part of them is determined to hang on to the way of being which is at the root of the symptoms which have brought them there. We love what is familiar and hate to let it go because it feels safe. “I will do anything”, they think, “so long as it does not involve giving up my favourite habit.” 

I once had a pupil who was a very ‘driven’ type of person. He came to have lessons after many years of working his way up the corporate ladder and was feeling stressed and overwhelmed; in addition his hands had started to hurt from typing and he was worried they would get so bad he wouldn’t be able to do his job anymore. As a result of his worry he was having trouble sleeping. I worked with him lying down for a bit and suggested that, at least during the lesson, he stopped trying to get things right or to achieve anything at all and that he just allow things to quieten down. We carried on in silence for a little while. “How do you feel?”, I asked after some twenty minutes had passed. He looked surprised: “Really good! I feel quite different, calmer and relaxed”. And it was true: a quality of peace and quiet awareness had entered the room.

But then this energy changed. He started to ask for concrete things to do once he had left the lesson—he wanted to know what he could busy himself with to hang on to the lovely feeling of relaxation. I suggested that this desire to be busy and occupied with things to do all the time was a big part of the reason why he was so stressed and tense, and that since overdoing things was one reason he was there, maybe just to be gently thinking about doing less and letting go a little would be a good place to start. But his lifelong habit was to address any problem by frenetic activity. He wanted something to do, whereas what he actually most needed in order to solve his problem was to STOP. But any approach to solving a problem that did not involve busy activity felt wrong to him, and because his problem had become so distressing, doing what felt wrong in relation to it was a frightening thought. 

We talked about this over several sessions but it was some time before he was willing to really try out what I was suggesting. Gradually he came to realise that his approach was self-contradictory. He wanted to relax by doing more and this doesn’t make sense! In time he found that the world didn’t end when he was able to let go of his need to be busy and in control at all times. He also found to his surprise that as he became more centred and relaxed in himself he achieved more, not less. 

A lot of the time when we are compulsively busy we are not accomplishing nearly as much as it feels that we are. Paradoxically as we do less of this we find that there is now more mental space (and more physical support from the body) to dedicate to achieving what we want. We also find that the habit which we felt was such a central part of ourselves is not really part of our core self at all, but is just something which we learned a long time ago and have since hung onto. Letting go of it we feel more like the person we really are.

So the bad news is that sometimes we really do need to let go of something we are attached to if we want to get rid of our symptoms. The good news is that letting go will benefit us in surprising and unexpected ways. It involves a shift in how we act in the world—and it’s absolutely worth it!

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Is the Alexander Technique a Good Fit for You?

Last week a pupil asked me if there's any particular type of person who tends to be drawn to the Alexander Technique. Thinking about it I realised that it's not so much people with particular problems who come as it is people with a particular outlook. Generally the Alexander Technique is likely to be a good fit for you if:

  • You like to take responsibility for your own health and destiny. Learning the Technique gives a powerful tool to heal yourself in the present and look after yourself in the future—so it appeals to people who like to take care of themselves, and who don't assume that someone else will magically sort things our for them!

  • You dislike doing boring and repetitive exercises. If the thought of having to do repetitive exercises every day is unappealing then the Alexander Technique offers another way. Of course it is important to take some exercise in life, but in Alexander lessons you learn to 'use yourself' better no matter what physical activity you undertake—leaving you free to choose activities you enjoy with much reduced risk of injury.

  • You enjoy learning new ideas and skills and integrating them into your life. Alexander lessons involve a willingness to think about and engage with what is being taught, and to explore the principles independently in your own life outside of the lessons, so it appeals to those who like learning and exploring.

  • You are willing to explore new perspectives and question widely held beliefs. The Alexander Technique calls into question things which many of us take for granted or have never thought about that much—so having lessons means being willing to consider fresh perspectives and try new things out.

  • You are open to changing and growing as a person. The Alexander Technique takes the view that our problems are not isolated symptoms, but a manifestation of what is going on for us as a whole—mind, body and feelings. So doing Alexander lessons involves change and growth. You will not be quite the same person at the end as you were at the beginning. In a good way!

So like anything else it's not for everyone; but if it's a good fit for you it can be a really good one. I've done a lot of different 'self-development' type of things over the years, and I would say that out of all of them the Alexander Technique has been the best for me. Not the most dramatic, or the most intense, or the fastest—in fact it's quite gentle and subtle and slow. But I think it's been the most solid, the most useful, and is the one thing I always come back to when I want to ground myself. It's like a strong trunk and roots for everything else that we do.

Photo by raufmiski/iStock / Getty Images

Are you a Habitual Slumper?

Are you a habitual 'slumper'? Have you tried to slump less but found that 'sitting up straight' is soon just as uncomfortable? Do you worry about how slumping makes you look and feel, and about the effect it may be having on yourhealth?

You're not alone! Slumping is very common habit which many of you find difficult to address. You may even be attached at some level to your slump, even as you realise that slumping is not doing any good. To slump may be associated with relaxation and letting go, even though in reality slumping is not particularly comfortable or relaxed. Over time slumping may lead to back pain and other problems. It places a great strain on the back and hips and the same time compresses and contorts your internal organs, preventing them working to their full efficiency, and has a negative effect on your energy and overall health. 

You may be all too aware of this but still find it difficult to change. You may intermittently try to compensate for your slump by pulling yourself back (which we call ‘sitting up straight’). But while this may look superficially better it only adds to yourproblems by creating a new level of tension in the back to counteract the pulling down in the front.  Needless to say this is tiring and soon wears you out. Unless you are very determined, you soon revert back to yourslump. If you are unfortunate enough to have the level of determination required to continue with ‘sitting up straight’ then in time all that extra tension may do you as much harm as slumping around was doing! 

4 reasons slumping seems hard to change

There tend to be three levels of resistance and misunderstanding which get in the way of you changing yourslump:

  • Faulty beliefs and reasoning. 
  • Emotions and attachment to the status quo.
  • Inaccurate sensation and feeling.
  • Focussing on parts rather than the whole

Faulty Beliefs

You may believe that ‘sitting up straight’ as you were told to do as children is a healthy antidote to yourslump, and you may be under the impression that what you are doing when you think you are ‘sitting up straight’ is becoming taller and more upright — when in fact you are compressing yourself and pulling back and down. And because you may believe that the only alternative you have to slumping is to use excess muscular tension to ‘sit up straight’ (which you find uncomfortable) you may at some level think that to slump is yourbest choice out of only two options available to us, without realising that there is a lovely third option which involves no feeling of effort at all….

Emotions

Familiarity feels comfortable. You no doubt have emotions and feelings about yourslump and may even be unconsciously attached to it as some level! It may have started as a reaction against being told by a well-meaning adult to ‘sit up straight’ which (correctly) felt unnatural and uncomfortable to you — so even now there may still be a subtle association of the slump with feeling free and that you are ‘doing yourown thing’. There may be some latent teenage rebellion involved! Yourslump may also have served a protective purpose for us, a way of curling up against an unfriendly or unsympathetic world. You can be quite attached to these feelings, which makes them hard to give up.

Inaccurate Sensation and Feeling

When you 'misuse' yourself over many years by alternately slumping and 'sitting up straight' it starts to affect yourkinaesthetic sense (i.e. your physical sense of yourself and where you are in space). Alexander called this 'Faulty Sensory Appreciation'. This means that you are no longer getting back accurate feedback about how you are aligned. Many people feel, for example, that they are in balance when they are actually leaning quite some way forward or back. They may feel they are standing up straight and aligned when in reality they are pushing their hips forward or backwards quite a long way. When you don't have an accurate picture of how your body is in relation to itself and the world it becomes difficult to make beneficial changes — because you may not be doing what you think you are.

Focussing on parts rather than the whole

The body is a single system! Because you are basically an unstable, upright being, a change of alignment in one part of yoursystem will have a knock on effect on everything else. But when we have a problem which manifests in one area of our bodies we tend to focus on that area when often the problem is being caused by issues elsewhere. Slumping is not really about the upper torso and shoulders, but more about a lack of overall support in our system. To be able to really let go of slumping and to release into an easy and relaxed uprightness we need to change the coordination of the whole, connecting more to the ground and releasing upwards from the feet into ease and support. This is something we all did naturally as a young child but which many of us lose as we grow older. The good news is that it is a completely fundamental part of yourdesign to be able to do this, so you can learn to do it again!

Finding a way back home

So how can you get yourself out of this muddle? The first thing to realise is that addressing one or two of the three levels of ‘blockage’—beliefs, emotions and sensations—is often not enough. They are interrelated and a block at any of these levels can get in the way of the change you want. You need to address all three. Hopefully this post will have started you thinking along those lines. If I have at least convinced you to stop trying to ‘sit up straight’ to compensate for a slump (or to stop telling others to do so) then I believe I will have done you and them a favour!

If you would like to explore some of these ideas further then an Alexander Technique lesson is a good place to start. A teacher can give you a new kinaesthetic experience, showing you how you can be effortlessly and ease-fully upright without either slumping or ‘sitting up straight’. This experience is a powerful challenge to all three levels of yourblocks to change. You may be surprised at how nice it feels to let go!


On Staying Young

Have you ever noticed how we tend to become more and more constrained in our range of movement as we grow older? As children we were constantly moving our bodies in creative and unpredictable ways, but as adults the need to focus on practicalities (and often a wish to be seen as 'respectable') may mean that we limit ourselves to a narrower and narrower range of physical possibilities. It's an interesting experiment to try copying a child's activities and movements for a few minutes and see how soon you are aching and exhausted!

Stephen Jepson from  neverleavetheplayground.com  teaching and riding his unicycle in his 70s.

Stephen Jepson from neverleavetheplayground.com teaching and riding his unicycle in his 70s.

This diminishment of the range of movement we allow ourselves is not good news for many reasons beyond the obvious ones that it reduces muscle tone and flexibility. Our brains and bodies are one system, they not just linked, they are essentially the same; the nerves in our legs or hands are extensions of the cells in our brain. A child's abilities to think and feel are developed through their physical interactions with the world around them. If we unnecessarily limit our physical possibilities we may also get caught in a narrowing range of thought and feeling. But it doesn't have to be that way. The video below shows one man's investigations into the effect of keeping a full range of movement available to ourselves as we age.