Your body is an engineering marvel. It provides a structural support system for all your body weight on your feet, which are relatively small in comparison. That is even so where some of us are heavy with really tiny shoe sizes! Not only must we be able to bend forward, backward, laterally but we must be able to rotate in a fixed position, all without falling. Our body must also respond to external stress, tension and remain mobile and agile. At least that is how our body is supposed to work in its prime condition. However, several things can go wrong that affect your body and balance. This blog will help you understand some of your body mechanics and how Tai Chi can help you control balance problems.
Your body is delicately balanced, with the heaviest bony structures (the pelvis, the ribcage and the head) placed along an S-curved vertical axis. Each one complements the other in a system of balance and counter-balance. This system allows for maximum flexibility while acting like a shock absorber. It is necessary to maintain the S curve of the spine while making sure the head, the ribcage and the pelvic girdle maintain a balanced position relative to each other as well as to gravitational forces in order to keep everything functioning at maximum efficiency.
The ideal posture involves gravitational forces falling equally on the anterior (front) and posterior (back) of the body. Look at the image below to see an example of what happens when we allow the head to fall in front of the line of gravity. The muscle groups responsible for an upright posture end up working harder to keep the body in a vertical position.
This is a problem because the skeleton is designed to support the weight of your entire body while your muscles are not designed to do the same. As you can see in illustration above, the force of gravitational force is traveling through the muscles of the back and not through the skeletal system. Additionally, the work is falling on the back muscles and is not shared or dominated by the work of the abdominal muscles.
Consequently, in this situation, the muscles in the back need to work overtime to compensate for the lack of support from the abdominal muscles and the skeletal structure to maintain an upright posture. This exhausts your back muscles an if you maintain this dysfunctional posture you will develop chronic back pain. Also, since your abdominal muscles are not doing their part to help you maintain an upright posture, they become weak and flaccid. Over a period of time the weak abdominal muscles may contribute to a number of chronic conditions including digestive and respiratory disorders.
C. Mackenzie, professor and and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine is quoted to the effect of “if generalizations were to be made about the causes of human diseases, it would be along the line of failure of accommodation to the erect posture.” (The Thinking Body) pg 46 Mabel Elsworth Todd copyright 1937.
In anatomical terms we refer to this system of muscles and bones working together as the musculoskeletal system. The muscles need to stay strong and supple in order to guide the bones into superior alignment. If the muscles grow too weak or stiff then they can pull the bones out of optimum alignment.
The bony structures are levers and have no way of moving except when the muscles that exert force on them put them in motion. Even while standing still the muscles are constantly active in order to hold you in an upright position. While you seem to be standing in a motionless position, millions of muscles and nerve fibers are are constantly relaying messages back and forth to each other to control for the natural sway factor each time we inhale and exhale so us to keep us still and upright.
This seems unbelievable and I don’t blame you. So try this exercise to test it out: find a corner of a room and stand a few inches away from the corner with your back to the adjoining walls. You should have someone watch you just in case you begin to lose your balance. Cross your arms over your chest then try closing your eyes and breathe deeply. Do you notice the slight sway back and forth every time you inhale and exhale? Do you notice the slight adjustments constantly being made to maintain your standing position? This is an example of the constant relay of messages from the proprioceptive senses to the neuromuscular system. Balance, even when standing still is full of compensating minuscule actions.
Many of us think we are standing up straight when in fact we are not. Due to poor habits, injuries, or something that happened to us, we often develop compensating behaviors in our bodies that we are not aware of. These behaviors will turn into dysfunctional habits if we are not careful to recognize them early on. Once they become habits we no longer notice if we are standing with one shoulder rotated slightly forward, or with one hip slightly higher than the other.
While we may not notice these seemingly small changes in our posture, we are still subject to the laws of gravity and if we are not in perfect alignment with gravity these small variations in posture can turn into big problems over time. One muscle group can start working overtime to try to withstand the constant pull of gravity, and become tired, fatigued and finally toxic. It is no different than how we can become tired, fatigued and eventually irritable when asked to work too long without a break! Especially if we are doing something we are not used to doing or are not trained to do. Our muscles behave in a similar fashion.
When all of the muscles engage with just the right amount of tension to support the bony structure and bring the entire skeletal system into alignment with gravity we are structurally sound and hence solid. When one or more muscle groups are too tight or too slack we lose that structural soundness.
It is easy to understand this concept if you visualize a tent. If the ropes connecting the poles to the stakes all have the correct amount of tension, then when you look at the tent you see and feel that it is structurally sound.
However, if one of the ropes is too slack or too tight it pulls the entire tent out of structural soundness. Now when you look at the tent it won’t look or “feel right” to you, that is because the tent is now in an unstable state.
You are the just like the tent. If all of the muscles exert just the proper amount of tension to keep you upright then you too will be solid and stable!
To begin the practice of the Tai Chi for Strength and Balance form there is nothing more important than to start from a solid base. That is why at the beginning of the form we have you stand still for a few moments before beginning to move. That moment of stillness is keenly important, for in that moment we are calling into focus awareness our alignment. In that moment we are feeling the effects of gravity on our structure. If there are any weaknesses we attempt to correct them as best we can before we begin our form. If you would like to purchase the Tai Chi for Strength and Balance DVD, please visit our store: http://www.taichiforhealth.net/store/
Troyce Thome & Faith Overton, Tai Chi for Strength and Balance