"Yoga, by nature, is about finding balance," yoga therapist… (Image Source / Getty Images )
When my editor assigned me a story on balance, I wondered if it was some sort of sick joke. I am a full-time working mother of two who is running so hard my head spins for an hour every night in the dark making compulsive lists of what I have to do for job, kids, husband, school, soccer, piano, life. On weekends, I run to exhaustion to quiet my monkey mind. People talk to me about balance and I laugh.
I know I am not alone. Life is getting faster, and people are expected to do more and more at higher and higher speeds. But medical and mental experts agree, balance -- both physical and mental -- is essential to our daily well-being and long-term health.
I set out on a quest to find some simple exercises that can be integrated into everyday life to restore my mental and physical balance -- and to see if there is a link between the two. Here is what I found.
We are born, we learn to walk, then run. As we age, the process reverses. Our eyes and ears get weaker, our muscles atrophy, we move less. Some of us take medications that further impair our balance. In order to balance, many of our body's complex systems must interact: the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), the vestibular system (brain and inner ear), the visual system (brain and eye), muscles, tendons and bones (which allow us to move) and a web of position-sensing nerves called proprioceptors (which tell us where our bodies are in space).
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 07, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Balance: In the Jan. 12 Saturday section, an article about physical and mental balance identified a UCLA center as the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. It is the Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Harvard Medical School recently published a special report called "Better Balance," in which the authors point out that bad balance, particularly in older adults, can cause injuries and even death. According to their report, in 2009, more than 22,300 people 55 and older died in fatal falls. Four out of five of those were in adults 65 and older.
Abbie Appel, a Florida-based fitness expert who trains clients in a number of exercise regimens, including Spri, TRX Suspension, JumpSport and Resist-A-Ball, said it is not just older people who need to work on balance.
"Being older, your eyes are not as good, your ears are not as good and your body gets weaker," she said. "But everybody needs to train their balance. People who do balance training reduce their number of injuries, and improve their stability and strength."
She recited a horrifying statistic: More than 50% of American adults don't move enough, and 25% of American adults don't move at all -- except to walk to their cars, to their desks, then home to the couch, to the TV. Balance training can improve your body awareness, improve your posture and increase coordination and agility, she said. Balance training can also increase focus. "If you are able to control your body, you are able to control what you are doing, and you are able to control the different aspects of your life," she said.
Dr. Malcolm Taw at UCLA's East West Center, who specializes in integrative medicine and balance disorders, said the core theory of Chinese medicine is balance.
Allergies, temporomandibular joint disorder, tinnitus, dizziness and vertigo are all symptoms of imbalance. Those symptoms can be alleviated through acupuncture, which rebalances the body's internal systems, Taw said. But minor imbalances in the body can be rebalanced through lifestyle, diet, approach to life and daily activities, he said.
Yoga also is about finding the mind-body connection to live a healthier, more balanced life.
"Yoga, by nature, is about finding balance," said Laura Kupperman, a life coach and yoga therapist based in Boulder, Colo. "When you look at the yoga system, it is all about the physical practice of finding balance between effort and ease. It is not about practicing to get the perfect backbend. It is about practicing for the rest of your life -- for when you step off the mat."
Here are some recommendations to improve balance from these specialists.
Harvard's "Better Balance" report recommends walking workouts, sturdy shoes and reducing medications, which are listed in the report, that could cause balance problems. It also offers a series of simple exercise regimens (sitting, standing, balance in motion, balance on a beam, yoga balance) that require little more than a chair to get started. These exercises generally target an older, sedentary population and will not offer much to fitter, younger people. You can order the report for $20 at www.health.harvard.edu or download the PDF for $18.