Strength and Balance

What does strength have to do with balance? Everything!

Try this; looking straight ahead, standing, draw one foot up so you are standing on the other foot. Don’t hold onto anything for support. Now count. How long can you hold it without touching the floor with your other foot or without grabbing onto something for balance?

If you practice yoga or Pilates or do a significant amount of core strength exercises, I’m sure you were able to balance on one foot for quite a while longer than you were able to before your practice. Yoga, Pilates and core strength exercises build the strength, the core strength we need, to simply balance.

Elderly people that you see wobbling and tottering about as they walk through the grocery store have lost a lot of that core strength required to help them keep their balance. This is why elderly people are so prone to falling. For those of you who practice yoga, Pilates or core strength training, just how many elderly people do you see in your classes? Few, if any. And for those few, I’m guessing they stand more solidly and walk with more stability than those who don’t.

When was the last time you walked on a curb in a parking lot like you would a balance beam in gymnastics? Not since you were a kid? I do. I do, every time I am met with the opportunity. I will even do so carrying a grocery bag, or two, and my ridiculously large purse. Balance is very important, now, and as we grow older. And balance requires significant core strength.

When did I come to realize this? No one ever told me that balance was improved with improved core strength. I found out when I went on my first ten-day backpacking trip as part of the leadership team for a Boy Scout adventure. I was cardiovascularly fit enough to go on the trip, even though I was dangerously close to the upper weight limit for a woman my height and age.

I hiked and backpacked with the group who would be participating in this great adventure to gain experience and to be comfortable with the group and with my equipment. On one training hike, we decided to camp overnight just on the other side of a stream. There was no bridge, and so, to get to the other side of the stream, we had to leap a few feet, just further than we could step. The first man leapt easily across with his full pack strapped to his back. The next man just as easily. And the next. I was the only woman. I stepped up onto the rock we were to leap from, with my full pack strapped to my back. I could feel that I was losing my balance and I frantically waved my arms in an attempt to regain it. I fell, pack first, and was wedged in the most embarrassing position possible, between two large boulders. It took three men to right me. I was relieved of my pack and I managed to leap across the cold, fast moving water. Almost. Luckily I had waterproof boots on. I was the charter member of what I called “the turtle club”. Anyone who fell for any reason on any trek thereafter joined me in membership. We have three members.

With the training hikes behind me, the actual ten-day backpacking adventure was upon us. I was a bit nervous. Really nervous. We hiked nearly seventy five miles in those ten days. It was a particularly wet, rainy summer in New Mexico and the creeks and streams were all full. Many of the trails we needed to traverse crossed cold, swift water. Sometimes multiple times. On one very rainy day, in a very steep canyon, we crossed on stream thirty eight times. To cross the streams, there were “bridges” that were crafted from a single, split log somewhere between six and twelve inches wide. With all the rain, these log bridges were incredibly slippery, in spite of the hashmarks hacked into the wood with an ax. I was a nervous wreck, but, somehow, guts, I think, in spite of my size and lack of core strength, I made it across all the log crossings without incident.

A couple of years later, I returned to New Mexico for another ten-day backpacking trek. I was even more cardiovascularly fit, and had trained primarily hiking up and down very steep hills. It was a much drier year, and there were very few slippery log water crossings, I was still nervous and felt incredibly at risk for falling, in spite of my improved physical condition. Luckily, again, no turtle club incident.

The third time I returned to New Mexico for a ten-day backpacking trip, I was at the extreme lower weight range for my age, gender and height. In addition to intense cardio training, I incorporated yoga and core strength training. Slippery log crossings and precarious leaps across voids presented no trouble whatsoever. I was in far better command of my balance. Primarily because of the strength training I incorporated, though I’m sure the significant loss of weight makes both strength training and balance an easier road to hoe.

Now, let’s talk about something other than backpacking and the turtle club. Balance. Not in the sense of standing on one foot without support, or tottering, wobbly elderly people, or crossing slippery log bridges over cold, raging creeks. What of balance in life?

Balance in life is, first of all, quite complex, and secondly, very personal, being unique to each of us for our own reasons and circumstances. But, in short, it is the ability to identify and focus on those things we consider important in our lives, afford them each their proper due, their proper energy and priority, and to be able to maintain that focus, energy and priority with shifting and changing circumstances. Like leaping across a creek with a full backpack strapped to your back or crossing a raging, cold creek on a skinny, slippery log, takes a great deal of strength, concentration and, well, guts.

How do we gain the inner strength to achieve balance in our lives? Believe it or not, yoga may again provide some help, but only in that it is a contemplative and meditative endeavor. Not just good for the body and for your core strength, but good for your mind and your mental strength.

The strength we need to achieve to become more balanced in life will first of all require us to exercise, much like we would to be able to balance on one foot unsupported or while walking along a curb or balance beam. We need to exercise self discovery, we need to exercise our ability to shift our focus with changes that occur in our lives, both short term and long term. We need to know what we stand for, before we can practice standing on, we need to know our own, personal core values in order to establish and adjust or focus, and to prioritize what’s important right now.

Like balancing in tree pose, life balance takes a great deal of regular practice and is something we are never truly perfect at. Why is yoga not an Olympic sport? There is no perfection, no perfect 10.0 score. Yoga is a personal journey, a practice. There is never a “perfect” in yoga, there is always room for improvement. The same is true with our practice in life balance, it is a very personal journey, and a continual process. The core values we have this year, may be different next year as circumstances in our lives change. Our ability to have clarity and focus to afford each core value it’s appropriate amount of energy is a practice that must be exercised constantly. Or lost. Like our ability to balance while walking on a curb in the parking lot at the grocery store, bags in hand.

My challenge to you, a double scoop of challenge. Acquire strength. Learn balance. Both physically and metaphorically. Find ways to practice both, regularly, if not daily, and I promise you, even in your golden years, you’ll be able to keep upright in the slipperiest of conditions, and you’ll have the inner peace and tranquility afforded only those few that know what balance in life is, and how to achieve it.


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