SMARTer bodies

Tag Archives: balance

Balance Is Not Symmetry: Where are Your Organs?

Balance Is Not Symmetry: Where are Your Organs?

In our last post, we quickly explained what brain processes occur during balance postures. To fitness professionals like us, understanding neuroscience is not only fascinating but also helpful in assisting our clients to overcome challenges with movement including balancing. This information can definitely help boost your yoga practice!  But you should also incorporate another bit of information to bring your practice to the next level:  Organ Placement.

Organ Placement is not often included in the dialogue about improving performance in yoga postures. Big Mistake!  It may not seem obvious at first, but for us (and those of us who are interested in the “fringe” somatics), organ participation is obviously pertinent in every aspect of movement/fitness. We all have moments of getting caught up in the popular definition of balance as involving or connoting symmetry. But this visually oriented concept  is more of an imposed aesthetic or cultural ideal.

Let’s make this point very clear and put it into the context of asana. Tree Pose, Vrksasana, is a one-legged balance posture. Usually when we practice this asana, we try to experience this posture in the same way on both sides (we try to “feel” or balance on the left leg in the same way we did on the right). This seems appropriate considering that the skeletal body superficially does appear to be symmetrical. But upon examining the rib cage more closely, we can see how the asymmetrical arrangement of the internal organs affects the skeletal shape. Because of the placement of the liver, the right side of the rib cage may be rounded out more than the left. Don’t believe us? Go to the mirror and check it out. Touch both sides of the rib cage and see how they feel.

Each individual’s experience/performance in Vrksanana, on the left and right side, is affected by the placement of our organs. Your brain integrates information about the movement of the organs and the musculoskeletal system in order to make micro adjustments necessary to help you maintain your balance while standing, walking, lifting weights or twisting yourself into pretzel-like shapes in accordance with every breath you take. You are just not usually consciously aware of your brain/body on this micro level of functioning, which is not necessarily bad.  Being conscious of every process in our bodies, big and small, would be time consuming and exhausting.  Yet tiny processes, like the one described above, happen all the time.

Every so often you can take time to see if you can deepen your sensory experience by trying to get in touch with a part of body that often goes untapped in a conscious way. Can you feel your lungs move with every breath? Can you feel the movement of your diaphragm press against the liver, stomach, spleen, intestines and so on (maybe not sense the organs individually, but feel the shift of movement inside your abdominal cavity when you breathe)? Can you incorporate their movement as you flow through your next practice? If not, you should try it. Stop ignoring your organs! Making them a conscious part of your yoga practice could add insight and benefit you. With their asymmetrical placement inside your body, they have just as much to do with your sense of balance as anything else you can think of.

The Neuroscience of Balance or: To Breathe is to Balance

The Neuroscience of Balance or: To Breathe is to Balance

Balance. We often take balance for granted when in fact, the simple act of standing is a complex physiological feat.  Let us explore.  In a very basic definition of balance 3 main physiological process are evident:

Maintaining balance while standing in the stationary position relies on intact sensory pathways, sensorimotor integration centers and motor pathways.The main sensory inputs are:

  1. Joint position sense (proprioception), carried in the dorsal columns of the spinal cord;
  2. Vision
  3. Vestibular apparatus

Crucially, the brain can obtain sufficient information to maintain balance if any two of the three systems are intact.

Ok, if you read our blog you should be familiar with the term proprioception, the ability to track your body in space.  The 2 other main sources for information our brains need for balance are visual input and vestibular (meaning, inner ear).  The organism of the inner ear can help your brain track head movement, another form of spatial orientation.  This all makes sense so far…

Let’s dig a little deeper.  The brain has to be able to process and synthesize these separate bits of information to help us achieve and maintain consistent balance.  In other words, for most people, our brains can quickly process different and changing sources of information to help us function in a gravitational field.  So, how quickly?  Well, in terms of processing proprioceptive response the slower parts of us is quoted as “up to 100 milliseconds.”  There are more rapid systems of neural pathways that carry more specific information (precise localization of touch, pressure, vibration, etc.).  The fibers of the swifter system travel the length of the spinal cord, “until they synapse in the medulla oblongata.”  The medulla oblongata is the part of the brain referred to as the myelencephalon. (Note: There is a location in the brain, which is the “house” where all gross/big movement is sensed.  This house is called the “primary motor cortex.” That’s where movement is first sensed. Processing that information happens later and also in the medulla oblongata to help further facilitate and maintain our balance.) The medulla oblongata is specifically associated with the body’s autonomic breathing mechanism (that’s not connected to balance.  Oh wait, yes it is!!!!), but also sits beneath another brain structure the pons.  The pons is associated with maintaining balance and often works with the medulla oblongata to regulate breathing (oh, so they ARE connected!).

This very quick review and basic understanding of what helps us maintain balance will help you to understand other blog

*A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers by Mel Robin, pg. 443.
Thanks to our student Sienna for pointing out the information about the Primary Motor Cortex!

SMARTer Yoga: Finding Balance Through Fluid Movement

We are itching to share how we teach with you and thought this sequence would be the best one to start with.  This one is tough, because it emphasizes fluidity and curvature as opposed to creating straight lines in the body.  You’ll find that the purpose of this it to help you find balance that comes from sharp focus and deep work in the stabilizing core muscles and deep work in the feet.  We’ve set up the postures so that you do not be prop up on your joints like when completely straightening a leg.  This ensures that you rely on muscle work.
  • You’ll notice that throughout this sequence we emphasize rolling up and down through the spine as opposed to the more traditional extended spine one sees in yoga classes.  We prefer to do this here so as to keep the movement focused throughout the spine as opposed to in the hips (hinging with a “flat” back).
  • Also, there are many ways in which to modify and progress this sequence.  If you have questions about that feel free to ask us!
Enjoy!  Let us know what you think!  We promise, soon this will be on video.  But we hope that you will print this out and take it with you to the vacation places where a computer is not accessible.  Those are the best vacations! And aren’t our cartoon yoginis nifty?!  They were done by the magnificent Kira Greene.  For that reason alone you should be marveling in awe 🙂
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Please note: Throughout this sequence the toes of the back foot are aligned with front of the mat.
Small Step back into a short (stance) High-Lunge.
Lower the arms, roll down and then roll up back to High-Lunge.
With the arms up step the back foot forward and switch sides (repeat from the rolling down and up)
Move into a forward bend (rolling up and down)
1) Set up the short High-Lunge
#1, short-stance high lunge
Lower the arms, roll down and place the hands on the floor (hands framing the front foot). *Extra points for not using your hands; let the back of the hands dangle and touch the ground.
2) Work towards straightening the front leg back; stop when you feel sensation in the belly of the hamstring (2 breaths)
#2 inactive hands while straightening the front leg
On an inhale bend the front leg and roll up returning to High-Lunge. (Keep in mind that the bend in the front leg will not be anywhere near reaching a 90 degree angle; you are setting up for a short-stance High-Lunge)
With the arms up step the back foot forward and switch sides (repeat everything from the roll down)
Forward bend (rolling up and down)
*If people want a variation the can hold on to the ankles, extend the spine and relax back into flexion and even use the arms to deepen the bend (knees soft/bent, not straight)
3) Set up High-Lunge with a longer stance; front leg will bend more now.
Lower the arms, roll down and place the hands on the floor (hands framing the front foot).
#3 Much larger stance now.
4) Take the back knee to the floor and work towards straightening the front leg back; stop when you feel sensation in the belly of the front leg hamstring.
On an inhale bend the front leg, lift the back knee off the floor and roll up returning to High-Lunge.
#4 knee is on the floor while you try straightening the front leg back
With the arms up step the back foot forward and switch sides (repeat everything from the roll down)
Skipping forward bend…
Set up High-Lunge with a longer stance.
Much larger stance now.
Lower the arms, roll down and place the hands on the floor (hands framing the front foot).
Take the back knee to the floor and work towards straightening the front leg back; stop when you feel sensation in the belly of the hamstring
Now put the hand that is on the opposite side of the front foot on the top of the front foot.
The other hand moves to the hip or rests on the sacrum
5) Twist (closed twist; twisting towards the front leg) keeping the back knee still on the floor and while trying to straighten the front leg.
#5 twist towards you front leg
*You may not get to straighten the front leg as much as you are used to.
(3 – 5 breaths)
Untwist, replace the hands to frame the front foot
On an inhale bend the front leg, lift the back knee off the floor and roll up returning to High-Lunge.
With the arms up step the back foot forward and switch sides (repeat everything from the roll down). Try to keep your gaze on the floor the entire time.
Set up High-Lunge with a longer stance.
Lower the arms, roll down and place the hands on the floor (hands framing the front foot).
Take the back knee to the floor and work towards straightening the front leg back; stop when you feel sensation in the belly of the hamstring
Now put the hand that is on the opposite side of the front foot on the top of the front foot.
The other hand moves to the hip or rests on the sacrum
Twist (closed twist; twisting towards the front leg) keeping the back knee still on the floor and negotiating the stretch in the front leg.
*This time try picking up the back knee off the floor, if you can keep it up even as you untwist
(3 – 5 breaths)
Untwist, replace the hands to frame the front foot
On an inhale bend the front leg, lift the back knee off the floor (if it wasn’t already up) and roll up returning to High-Lunge.
With the arms up step the back foot forward and switch sides (repeat everything from the roll down)
Forward Bend here with whatever variation feels best in the moment.
While in the forward bend and with as passive hands/arms as possible move back into a long lunge, moving into a straight front leg stretch.
6) Inhale front knee forward into a bend. Extend through the spine (head to tail, or tail to head), place the hands on the sacrum and lift up into Warrior  3.  (hold for at least 3 breaths)
#6 Warrior 3 with no arms
Prepare to return the back foot to the floor, While doing so place the opposite hand on the top of the front foot, other hand stays on hip or sacrum.
#7 staying twisted while landing
Twist while landing into Twisted Triangle
(This is where all the movement being explored before comes together)
7) You can let the top arm float up or not, depends on how well aware one is of the spine, ribs, scapula, sternum and shoulder girdles and where they really are in space (fancy way of saying don’t fling the top arm back).
#8 voila: twisted triangle
Untwist to passively laying the torso over the front leg
Try not to use arms/hands as you return to a forward bend stepping the back foot to the front.
Roll up, Roll down, repeat.
To finish one can cool down with forward bends with bent legs, or lay down and do knee circles, or lay down and do pelvic movements.