Your Feet Were Made for Balancing
Can you stand on one foot easily? Have you taken a fall or almost taken a fall and been concerned about your balance? Are you over 60? If you Google “balance and aging” there are myriad articles both scientific and lay on the causes of age-related loss of balance. Many of these articles discuss medication, inner ear issues, and dizziness as causes but very few of them talk about the feet. The feet are the foundation so why not start there?
Recently I was hiking in Colorado on some rather rocky and irregular trails. The terrain on these trails required me to really pay attention to each step—to place each foot just so, in order not to twist my ankle, trip on roots and rocks, or, on some of the more narrow trails, not fall down a hill. All of this is exacerbated by the fact that being blind in my left eye, I have no peripheral vision on the left. So suffice to say, I had to concentrate on every step I took. I had to balance every time I lifted one foot and put down the other.
Yoga is all about balance. Balancing emotions, balancing our working life with our personal life, and, balancing strength and flexibility in our physical bodies. As a yoga teacher I emphasize all of these aspects of yoga in my teaching. Recently, however, the practicality of physical balance in aging people has been of particular interest.
Many, if not most of us find we begin to have challenges with balance as we age. Now I am not a doctor, or health care practitioner, and don’t have any formal training in kinesiology, biomechanics, or human movement science. However, as a 75-year-old, one-eyed yogi, I have used my body as a laboratory to determine how best to teach balance to my students as well as to benefit my own practice and life. I had to teach myself balance poses again after I lost the vision in one eye. What I have discovered and found confirmation for, is that the feet—the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones of the feet are the source of balance.
If you have been or have become more sedentary as you have aged there is no doubt of some muscle loss, loss of flexibility, and most likely stiffening of joints. There are 26 bones in each foot. Fully a quarter of all the bones in your body are in your feet. More than 100 ligaments tie together the fine bonework, and there are more than 30 joints in each foot. There are scores of muscles and tendons that orchestrate the movement of your foot. Feet that have been encased in shoes for most of their life and have not been adequately exercised, lose strength and flexibility—just like the rest of the body.
If your loss of balance IS NOT caused by medication, inner ear problems or dizziness, here are some things you can do to improve your balance. This is by no means a complete list, but a place to start.
Take your feet for a walk. Get comfortable shoes that give your toes plenty of room, have good arch support, and start walking. Make sure you deliberately walk heel to toe. I am not being paid to say this but the shoe brand I really like is Hoka. Try to walk at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week—minimum.
Walk barefoot whenever you can at home.
Try this toe and foot exercise routine: Place one foot on top of the other thigh and interlace your fingers between your toes. Rock your toes back and forth 10 times. Then make circles in each direction 10 times. Release your fingers and then hold each toe individually and make circles in each direction 10 times and then gently pull on each toe 10 times. Finally, take both your thumbs and massage up and down the sole of your foot 10 times. Repeat on the other foot. Do this several times a week.
Barefoot, stand with both feet parallel (look to make sure your inner big toe mound and inner heel are on the same plane.) Stand as high on your toes as you can for 10-15 seconds. Lower heels and repeat several times.
Barefoot, stand pressing both feet firmly into an uncarpeted floor or a yoga mat. Feel the muscles of your feet and legs engaging as you do this. Pay particular attention to pressing the big toe into the floor. Release the firm pressure. Notice the difference. Repeat as much as you feel like it.
Stand up and sit down from a chair as many times as you can in 30 seconds. Do this barefoot and consciously do this pressing your feet firmly into the floor as you stand. This will strengthen feet and leg muscles. Do this once or more times a day.
While brushing your teeth, standing in a grocery store line, rinsing dishes at the sink, etc. press one foot firmly into the floor and lift the other foot off the floor. Hold as long as you can. Change sides.
If you have a home yoga practice, practice balance poses like tree, eagle, and dancer. Use a wall if you need to.