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Unsteady on Your Feet? Here’s How to Improve Your Balance

Women's Health UK logo Women's Health UK 20/02/2019 Emma Pritchard
Morgan Brian taking a selfie © Claire Pepper

In WH's resident yogi Jessica Skye's latest column, she shares her tips on how to improve your balance and maintain it throughout a yoga class

Some people naturally have a strong sense of balance and co-ordination; for others, it’s a work in progress. But, like anything, repetition, practise and training will get you there as, over time, you strengthen that mind-body connection and unblock any neurological blind spots and ingrain informed cognitive movement responses.

First, though, if you want to improve your balance you need to a handle on the science behind balance…

Proprioception: What is It?

© Getty Proprioception is an understanding of your body’s position in space, it sits subconsciously in the background, cognitively fine-tuning sensory feedback from your muscles, tendons and ligaments to inform your brain on your surroundings.

Think of standing or walking through unstable terrain (such as sand or wet mud) barefoot. Your feet are the first thing to make contact with the terrain, with thousands of nerve endings collecting information. The sensory receptors in your feet tell your brain what the terrain is like, then your brain responds with commands for your muscles to help you walk or stand steady as you adapt to your surroundings.

Gallery: Unusual workouts to know about [Photos]

Sight and hearing also play a factor in this process, while you work to understand your position in your environment.

A good test of proprioception is maintaining balance blindfolded. Try the below exercise to see how steady you really are:

Blindfolded Tree Pose

a close up of a womans face: Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga © Claire Pepper Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga

1. Stand on one leg, with the sole of the raised foot pressing into your inner calve or inner thigh (which ever is most comfortable).

2. Bring your palms together in the centre of your chest.

3. Once you’re settled and feel steady, close your eyes.

Chances are you’re going to wobble to try and find your centre of gravity again. Receptors in your feet, ankles, knees, quads, calves, core shoulders (ie whole body) will be sending information via the spinal cord to your brain hoping for an instruction to save you from falling.

As you gain confidence, you can try taking your hands above your head or taking the lifted leg out to the side.

a woman posing for a picture: Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga © Claire Pepper Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga

This is a good example of proprioception at work, but it’s not the only factor helping you to identify your centre of gravity. Kinesthesia is also at play. But what’s that?

Kinesthesia: What is It?

Kinesthesia is your sense of movement. As you wobble, one legged with your eyes closed, that sensory feedback might be telling your toes to dig into the ground to stabilise your foot. Your arms might flap (most likely throwing you off balance further; more on this in a moment).

But, over time, those reactionary movements will get smarter and more efficient. Your brain will begin to recognise which movements serve in keeping you balanced. And all this feedback will become ingrained, creating muscle memory.

Your muscles will train themselves to revert to efficient movements more quickly, snapping into position and, gradually, this cognitive movement behaviour will improve and increase your sense of balance (even with your eyes closed).

How to Activate Basic Proprioception and Kinesthesia

First up, remember that balance starts at the base, whether that be your foot, feet, hands or maybe even your head. The easiest and most simple exercise is to start in Mountain Pose (Tadasana).

a person standing posing for the camera: Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga © Claire Pepper Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga

1. Stand barefoot with your big toes touching and your heels slightly apart.

2. Look down at your toes, lift them off the floor and fan them wide. Starting with the little toes, one by one plug your toes into the floor. They should be spread wide, as if you’ve got the foam toe separators on from when you paint your toe nails).

3. Really tune into the soles of your feet, feel the floor and think about pressing down through the four corners of each foot.

4. Begin to activate your legs, lifting your knees will help you to engage your quads. Be sure to avoid locking out your knees – if you are hypermobile, microbend at the joint.

5. Imagine you’re holding a piece of paper between your thighs (engaging your abductor muscles). Lift your pelvic floor. Tuck your tailbone and suck your naval towards your spine (engaging and shortening your core muscles).

6. Stand tall, lengthening through the crown of your head (axial extension). Bring your palms together in the centre of your chest.

7. Focus your gaze on a point that isn’t moving.

© Getty Now, maintaining this simple standing position, close your eyes.

There is a chance this will make no difference (if you’re a bonafide balanced pro, for example). But, there is a large chance that you’ll begin to sway side to side very slightly. Your feet may begin to dig into the floor to maintain balance as your body navigates how to re-stabilise.

You may even separate your hands, flare them either side of you or perhaps swing them over your head. These movements will be subconscious and reactionary as both proprioception and kinesthesia are at work.

However, this flapping of the arms (or legs) in any balance with throw you off your centre of gravity further. While there is movement in balance, it’s the little movements that keep you in position and the big ones that will send you flying.

Taking your Balance to the Next Level

a man doing a trick on a skate board in the air: Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga © Claire Pepper Exactly How to Improve Your Balance with Yoga

As you gain confidence and begin to balance on one leg, your arms and, maybe even, your head, here are a few balance hacks to make staying steady easier:

  • Make sure you always have a safe and solid base.
  • If standing on your feet, fan the toes wide, plug and grip them into the floor.
  • Navigate your centre of gravity by engaging your core for stability and to also iron out natural curves that might displace your centre of gravity.
  • Avoid flaring out your ribs.
  • Tuck your tailbone.
  • Steady your gaze on a point that isn’t moving.
  • Remember the balance mantra: Little movements keep you there; big ones throw you off.
  • If you fall, get up and try again.

Gallery: Yoga asanas for beginners to try in 2019 [Photos]

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