Adapted for Centered Riding Equestrians
by Janis Sharkey, STAT, AmSAT
Certified Teacher of the Alexander Technique
Balance. What is it?
Balance isn’t static. It is dynamic and ever-changing. It exists within a relationship of opposing forces. Gravity is the force from below. It tells us where we are and where we come from. We situate ourselves in relation to gravity. We move away from it as naturally as trees grow. This action is what Alexander teachers call direction.
How do we use gravity to gain balance without tightening muscles? Each time we tighten we feel it, our horse feels it and it essentially pulls us “off” balance. Meanwhile, we need only look at a balanced rider or performer and we recognize balance immediately. How? Because movement in balance is effortless. We see grace in movement. There is no restriction. Nothing holds us. Our muscles don’t hold us back and we flow.
How do we achieve this?
First, we look at what moves and what does not move in our own bodies. Mostly, bones don’t move much. They point out the direction of our thinking and tell us where we are in relation to the ground. Humans naturally desire to be up-right. To be efficient in our upright posture we need to use the least amount of effort. We do that by being in balance.
Balance. How do we achieve it?
We have two feet to stand on. The feet are designed to support our weight. The natural arches allow our feet to support an immense amount of weight and still remain balanced and upright. In fact, in our culture, because of how we’ve had to adapt our bodies to the design of our furniture and tools, we easily forget where balance is. It is lost in the slump toward the computer or TV screen. It is lost in the squinting and straining to see a blackboard. The daily mis-use of our bodies, over time, becomes permanent habits. Keeping that in mind, we begin to look for balance in our feet.
The design of the foot is that as we press weight into it, the arch springs open and lifts us up. We rise up, tension is released and circulation improved.
Support the Feet. Use the Tail.
There is value in considering that if our spines were longer, if we had a tail, so to speak, we would have better awareness of balance. Our tail could help us identify our relationship to the ground. If long enough and strong enough, it could even serve as another “foot.” If we had three “feet” supporting our bodies we would have a strong tripod as our foundation. A tripod is the most stable foundation there is. If you can visualize a strong tail supporting you, you may begin to have a different relationship to your feet, your balance, your body and your environment.
Balance Between Muscle Structure and Skeletal Structure.
Two support structures that are important for balance are the skeletal structure and the muscular structure. They are very different and yet they work together to create balance.
The skeletal structure gives us our direction. It tells us where we are going. It is the framework upon which the muscular system is draped. It represents the qualities of direction, force, hardness, thought and thinking. It is unyielding and rigid. It is unbending.
The muscular structure gives us movement. It supports the direction of the skeletal structure. It softens and yields to the direction of the skeletal structure and to the thought to move. It represents the qualities of softness, yielding, feeling and touch. From time to time it is necessary for muscle to become rigid, to steer the organism back to balance. Otherwise, the deep, toned muscles close to the bones are responsible for maintaining balance in tandem with the bones.
When the structures work together they allow us to move through space with grace and strength with very little effort.
The key to effortless movement lies partly in our definition of tension. When we talk about tension what we are really talking about is excessive tension, extreme tension. We are talking about a tension that constricts our muscles, prevents the flow of blood, and prevents our bones from moving freely in our joints. Keeping that in mind, when we begin to explore our bodies we want to look for the places where there is excessive tension. It is easy to find. It is those places where we’re not moving fluidly.
A new theory says that the relationship between bone and muscle is akin to that of Buckminster Fuller’s tensegrity structure. A structure of rigid tubes (bones) which are spaced apart by taut cables (toned muscles) can create a stable, stand-alone structure many feet tall. Compression upon this structure results in it simply springing back. However, if you twist or torque the structure, it breaks or collapses. When the tension or tone is just right in our musculo-skeletal structure we have upright posture and we move freely. If the tone is missing our bodies slump, we’re off balance and our bodies feel heavy.
The spine, like the tensegrity structure, is easily damaged, sometimes severely, when it is twisted or torqued.
Finding Balance and using it to Walk.
- Consider a long spine in both directions--to the ceiling and to the floor. Let the tail image help you.
Consider your relationship to the ground--two feet and a tail, forming a tripod.
Play with shifting ALL your weight into the heel of one foot while maintaining contact with the ball of the opposite foot.
Then shift it all into the other. Keep in mind the strength of the tail supporting you while you shift weight back and forth between the two feet.
Head, Neck, Jaw and Vision
Consider there are three parts of the head. The boney structure above the cheek bones. Think of it as hollow, filled with nothing. It rests, in balance, on top of the spine.
Find the spine and where it meets the skull by thinking about the back of your throat. Think up along the back of your throat. Think behind the nose. Now, even higher, behind the eyes. Now consider that the spine is directly behind the throat. This is about where the spine and head meet. Allow the muscles in your throat to relax. Allow the head to turn freely at this point.
The jaw is not attached to the skull. If you had no flesh, your jaw would simply drop off. The tension in the muscles around your jaw can keep your jaw tight and prevent you from turning your head. Consider letting those muscles go. Let the jaw be free. Let the tongue and the muscles under the tongue relax. Let the jaw drop.
Consider that vision is simply light entering through your eyes, passing through the hollow chamber of your skull and forming images on the movie screen at the back of your skull (the visual cortex). Allow your eyes to simply let light in. Give up looking at things. Let the world come through your eyes into the skull and to the visual cortex.
Additionally, consider that, like a fly, you have extra eyes on the top of your skull that actually look toward the ceiling. With those imaginary eyes carefully inspect the ceiling. This gaze will direct the spine, and the rest of the body, upwards.
As you let light enter through your eyes, take in what is above you, below you, to either side of you, as well as what is in front of you. This is called panoramic vision. Use this vision to keep you aware of your surroundings. By remembering to see from the visual cortex your awareness comes from further back in your skull. It promotes a sense of depth in vision and greater awareness.
Walking begins with a focused balance. When the spine (tail) and feet can shift balance and remain upright, walking becomes effortless. By envisioning the weight shifting from heel to heel we are able to keep our weight from being too forward on the front of the feet. If we have our weight in the front of the feet we are always falling forward--off balance. If we maintain the bulk of our our weight among the three points, left heel, right heel and the long tail idea, we will not only find balance, but the steps we now take, in relation to ourselves and gravity, act as a buoyant and vitally energized springy step which recharges us with every step.
Whether you’re strolling or winning a marathon, the way we find balance, the way we experience and trust our bodies to move appropriately determines our vitality and our health. Poor posture inevitably leads to poor health. Poor coordination due to lack of balance leads to less trusting of our own physical skills.
Awareness is the first step in defining ourselves and our physical use. As we become aware we can shape the way we use our bodies and develop graceful, poised and skillful movement.