Want to Improve Your Balance? Take Off Your Shoes!

Want to Improve Your Balance? Take Off Your Shoes!

by Nina

Eagle Pose Outside by Melina Meza

“Balance is a complicated equation involving vision, muscle strength, proprioception (the body’s ability to know where it is in space), and attention. As people age, those elements deteriorate.”

Well, if the New York Times can write about falling twice in one week (see A Tiny Stumble, a Life Upended), then so can I! Because after reading part 2 of their series on falling, I have a lot more to say. The main article detailed what can happen after an older person falls, saying, “life is upended in an instant — a sudden loss of independence, an awkward reliance on family and friends, and a new level of fear for those who fall, and their contemporaries.” So, there I was, getting all depressed again. But at least the article end with a quote that confirmed what I wrote on Monday (see Morning Wakeup Call: Preventing Falls with Yoga) about the downward spiral that happens after people fall and become fearful of falling again.

“Dr. Tinetti warned that excessive tentativeness can actually increase the risk of falling. “People who are more cautious cut down on their activity,” she said, “which makes their balance worse, their strength worse, and reflexes that prevent falls worse.”

But it’s the supplementary article on Steps to Avoid an Accident  that really got me upset. (Yes, I feel a rant coming on.) Here is what they recommended:

“Regular exercise classes can help, especially those that include balance drills, such as standing on one foot, or working with Bosu balls, the squishy hemispheres seen at gyms.

“The regular practice of tai chi has also been found to help. Tai chi involves very slow, purposeful movements in coordination with breathing and muscle activity, which in turn affects respiration, balance, and gait.

“Integrating balance and strength work into daily life — standing on one foot while brushing your teeth, for instance, or simply putting one foot in front of the other — can help as well.”

Uh, yes, although they came up with the brilliant idea of brushing your teeth while standing on one foot, they did completely forget to mention yoga. Yoga is particularly beneficial for balance not just because it includes so many balance poses but also because it cultivates muscle strength, proprioception (the body’s ability to know where it is in space), and attention, which the NY Times mention as being needed for good balance. When we work in our all our poses—whether or not they are balancing poses—with careful attention to our alignment, we are developing our proprioception and our attention. (My teacher, Donald Moyer, who always has us work with subtle alignment cues in our poses, has observed how his long-time students have developed very refined proprioception over the years.)

But in the end, there was something else the article didn’t even mention that made me feel rant-y: our feet! I’m a firm believer that exercising with bare feet is the best way to keep your feet healthy, strong, supple and agile, which in turn will improve your ability to balance. Imagine if you wore thick mittens all the time. Wouldn’t it be hard to use your hands effectively? Now think about your poor feet being trapped in their shoes all your waking hours. No wonder so many older people become less agile. I once watched a woman who had been born with no arms eat an ice cream cone and take care of her baby just with her bare feet; they’re capable of so much if we just let them out of their little prisons. That was a lesson to me about the power of our feet that I will never forget.

Of course we do yoga with bare feet. And moving into and out of a variety of yoga standing poses in bare feet definitely helps keep our feet more agile. As a matter of fact, in an early post of ours Friday Q&A: Feet and Comments, we addressed a question from someone who had trouble balancing in Tree pose and who also wore orthotics. Shari actually recommended that the reader spend at least some of her time practicing with bare feet to help her with her balance:

“If you wear orthotics in my mind it might be good to explore in yoga wearing them in some type of non-skid sock so your toes can still feel the floor when you are practicing your balancing poses. It sounds like you have very high arches so to contact the floor without your orthotics will be difficult. I might suggest that you explore doing the balancing poses (such as Tree pose) with your orthotics and non-skid socks, then take them off and try in your bare feet directly afterwards. Sometimes this can work to build muscle memory to teach your feet what to do. I wouldn’t push your feet to hurt your knees though. Be patient and kind to yourself when you try this.”

The NY Times article didn’t even mention how important it is to walk on uneven surfaces! If you’re always walking on a flat surface—especially wearing shoes—your feet and the rest of your body are going to be, well, just plain inexperienced and unprepared to handle any sudden unevenness, like a crack in the sidewalk. Of course, hiking on a dirt trail is effective for training your body to handle uneven surface. But it strikes me now that all those people taking photos of themselves doing yoga out in nature are doing something really good for their feet—and their balance—even if they are torturing us with their selfies. So maybe we should all start experimenting a bit with doing yoga outside.

But if you’re not ready for that, in the same post in which Shari stressed the importance of balancing in bare feet, Baxter recommended a very simple yoga vinyasa, Tadasana (Mountain pose) to Urdva Hastasana (Upward Arms pose), to help keep your feet healthy and improve your balance. He said that this exercise can strengthen the foot muscles that are associated with a healthy arch.

  1. Start in Mountain pose.
  2. Inhale and lift your heels off the floor as you swing your arms up into Upward Arms pose. Focus on keeping the balls of your feet even on the floor as your rise up.
  3. Exhale as your lower your heels down to the floor and release your arms by your sides. Focus on keeping the balls of your feet even on the floor as your lower down.
  4. Repeat for at six rounds or more.

Baxter also recommended that practitioners with flat feet should practice their standing poses keeping the balls of their feet grounded as they lifting their toes off the ground. This will encourage strengthening of the medial and lateral arches of their feet.



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