By Dan Winter
When I first wandered into Toward Harmony for a free demonstration, I was scared. I had back pain that had become more serious over several years. I had been to doctors and physical therapists, and performed the prescribed exercises religiously. Still, back pain was making it difficult for me to hold down a job and to do the things that I liked to do. I was terrified of what life might be like if I didn't get better. I was 25 years old.
The thing that left the deepest impression on me at that free demo, and solidified my decision to come back and join a class, was the feeling of relief I got when Kathryn adjusted my posture.
With a tiny adjustment of my body, and a suggestion to let go of tension in places where I didn’t need it to hold me up, I felt a glimpse of what I had been looking for: the release of pressure from my spine that I had not been able to find through stretching and other exercises.
I thought the key to fixing my posture was to force my body into a certain position and hold it there. And with all my determination to get better, I was going to make it happen, no matter how much force it took.
It took some time for me to let go of this idea, and to realize that one of the main ingredients I was missing was balance.
Before I started learning qigong and tai chi, almost 6 years ago now, I thought of myself as having pretty good balance. I had honed it through years of skateboarding. Kathryn recently reminded me that I arrived for my first class at Toward Harmony with my skateboard in my hand.
I used to think of having good balance as simply not falling down, or not falling off of something – a balance beam, a tightrope, or a skateboard. I had never given much thought to the health implications of balance. But I’ve learned that there is more to balance than the difference between staying on and falling off.
In some cases, that may be the only difference that matters – if you find yourself at the edge of a cliff or a roof, for instance, or when you are learning to walk. But most of the time in every day life, when falling down is not as much of a concern, how you keep yourself upright is an important consideration.
When a person has good balance, they can allow themselves to be supported by the deep structures of their body, the bones and ligaments, and use less muscular effort as they move through their day – leaving them more energy for other things, reducing the risk of wear and tear and injury, and allowing injuries a chance to heal.
When our ability to balance is compromised, we have to compensate. We use more muscular effort, and often put undue stress on some parts of our body. This takes more energy, often causes pain, and makes us vulnerable to further injury.
Change is always happening, and we naturally seek equilibrium. Balance is the ongoing process of adapting to changing circumstances by making the necessary shifts to equal out opposing forces.
Even standing “still” is a dynamic process, as there is always change happening within your body. For instance, your heart is always pumping, your diaphragm moves down and up as you breathe, and various parts of your abdomen may be moved by your breath. As small as these changes are, your body is continuously adjusting to compensate for them.
When there is even more motion in your body – when you are walking, for instance – there is much more change to adapt to. Good balance is really the ability to make the appropriate adjustments very smoothly and accurately.
This is the difference between the steady step of a seasoned tightrope walker, and the wild flailings of a beginner. The beginner has not developed the ability to subtly adjust their body, so they overcompensate by waving their arms in the air, jerking their body back and forth, and gripping with their muscles. They send themselves into a cascade of exaggerated movements which further destabilizes them.
What the seasoned tightrope walker has learned is the sensitivity to feel the slightest shifts of the opposing forces acting on their body, and to adjust themselves very subtly and accurately. They are able to notice imbalances as soon as they begin to develop, and correct them without overcompensating, at least not by much.
When we talk about moving toward balance in our lives, these same principles apply. As we develop more awareness of the movement of opposing forces in our lives, and learn to adjust ourselves more delicately, we can have more energy available to us for other things. We are more able to handle what ever life throws at us. We can become quieter inside and more present to the world around us.
If I had been asked, that first day at Toward Harmony, if I wanted to learn how to balance my life, I probably would have said something like, "That sounds nice, but I'm really here to fix my back."
My back is in much better shape these days. As the practices restored balance to my body, the tissues that had been tight, stiff and painful began to loosen up. My range of motion continues to improve and I move more easily and comfortably.
Now I see that those physical improvements are just one manifestation of moving toward balance in my life. Not because I ever set out to do that – trying to apply the principles I have learned at Toward Harmony has naturally guided me in that direction.
The more I am able to balance the opposing forces in my life, the less effort it takes to maintain stability. My energy levels are more consistent, and my emotions are more stable. I feel like I can breathe a little easier and relax into myself a little more. The most wonderful result of all this, to me, is that I am able to be more present and open to the people around me.
Don't get me wrong. I still feel like a wobbling toddler more often than I would like to admit. For instance, blogging is new to me, and I shortchanged some other parts of my life by spending way too much time writing this. But I have considerably more balance in my life than I did six years ago.
I am endlessly grateful to Kathryn and Bill for all their instruction, kindness and patience. I am also grateful for the opportunity to share what I have learned.
Aside from having great teachers, I have been incredibly fortunate to learn from fellow students. As we work on, and play with, this never-ending puzzle of balance, it is often helpful to hear other people’s perspectives and experiences. I couldn’t possibly count how many times hearing someone else’s experience, interpretation, or point of view has set off a light bulb in my head.
My hope for this blog is that it will be a place for all of us (students at Toward Harmony and anyone else who happens upon our blog) to learn from each other by sharing our thoughts and experiences. In writing here, I aim to simply get the ball rolling.
So please feel free to share your thoughts, experiences, and questions about balance in the comments section below.