I have many students who have sought out tai chi training specifically to improve their balance. A decline in the body’s stability can be incredibly unsettling, whether it’s from an injury, a health condition, or the ageing process, it can really knock your confidence. However, with practice and determination, it’s possible to halt – or even reverse the decline with some simple tips and integrating some healthy practices into your day*.
Find Your Centre
The spine is the centre line that runs through your body. Quite often when we’re standing, even on two legs, our posture is leading us slightly to the left, right, forwards, backwards. Check yourself next time you find yourself standing and see whether your weight is equal between both legs, or are you shifting to one side or the other. Likewise, do you have more weight on the toes or heels? A really good way to get a feel for this is to stand and close your eyes, take note of how the body shifts and moves, even when you think you are standing still.
When we use the spine to balance the body, you can imagine a central column holding you up correctly, connecting you from above and below. You can do this as a standing exercise, with or without closed eyes.
Focus on the spine lifting you up from the crown, tuck your chin in a little to straighten the neck. With your feet shoulder width apart, bend your knees slightly and tuck your coccyx (tailbone) in a little so that it is pointing down to the ground.
Feel a lengthening and straightening of the spine from the top of the head, to the tip of the coccyx – this is your central column and the leader of your posture.
Make Yourself Bottom Heavy
We spend most of our time in our heads with hardly any awareness of what’s going on in our bodies.
Planning, thinking, stressing, checking our phones, watching TV, working on laptops, processing information – these are all activities which keep 99% of our awareness and attention in our heads.
Coupled with the upper body tensions in the neck and shoulders that many of the above activities cause, there’s no wonder that many people are walking around ‘top heavy’ and therefore unbalanced.
A practice, such as tai chi and qigong is a body awareness practice. You’ll learn how to ‘root’ your posture and feel stability in the lower part of our body.
You can practice a standing exercise (in the same posture as above) and imagine that your feet feel very heavy and as though they are sinking slightly into the ground. Feeling the length of the spine, as in the previous exercise, will allow you to relax the body, and when this happens you naturally feel heavier through the feet – and your connection to the ground becomes stronger.
As we get older our muscle mass increases, as does the density of our bones. By integrating leg strengthening exercises into your routine, you’ll dramatically slow or even stop the rate of declining strength in your lower limbs.
When we think of leg strength exercises, squats naturally come to mind – although these might be difficult if you do not have the mobility and flexibility. Assisted squats (whilst holding onto something or someone with your hands) are a great alternative. Getting in and out of a chair, walking upstairs, up a hill, are also effective.
Tai Chi, qigong, standing meditation (focusing on the spine and connection from the feet to the ground) – and other static exercises, such as standing on one leg, will be of great benefit.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Reading about it is one thing but unless you actually put your knowledge into practice, then it’s next to useless.
Daily training is key – several times per day is even better. Little and often is the best way to fully integrate balance training (and improvements) into your daily life.
Three great ways to do this are:
Cleaning your teeth – stand on one leg.
When you boil the kettle – do a standing meditation where you focus on your spine and rooting your feet to the ground.
After you go to the bathroom – do a squat, or several step-ups, or balance up on your toes to increase your ankle strength.
I believe that effective training – the type that is life changing (and improving!) is simple, straight forward, easily accessible – and easily integrated into your lifestyle. It sounds boring but making it part of your daily routine, where you don’t even have to think about it too much or set time aside to do it, is the number one most effective way to improve. It’s then just a part of you. Your focus can then be on living a healthier and happier life!
*I’ve seen some great results from students of mine who have really improved their balance. Please be sure that you are training safely and it is advisable to consult a medical professional before starting a new exercise routine if you are not sure. Also, some exercises (such as a squat) are best taught by a fitness or health professional if you are attempting them without having learnt them properly.