Life in Balance

My daughter sent me an article about balance. Here’s the link:

How do our bodies balance?

It’s a simple explanation of the elegant systems within our ears, brains and eyes that allow us to stay upright, move through space and observe the world around us without it seeming like a jiggling film camera.

It got me thinking about balance. About ten years ago I had a free health assessment at a local gym. I was shocked to discover that I couldn’t balance on one leg. As we age our balance deteriorates if we don’t keep challenging it. Even though I was only in my forties I had unwittingly put myself at risk of falling, and potentially breaking bones.

My treatment was yoga and when I started classes I also discovered an extensive list of other things I could no longer do. I couldn’t touch my toes, join my hands in the centre of my back, balance in any position that required me to life one foot off the floor or tip my body sideways without feeling dizzy. I contemplated walking away. Ten years later I’m eternally grateful that I didn’t (thanks largely to my very supportive teacher, Emma).

I can now stand on either leg. I can stand on one leg with my body parallel to the floor, bring my leg forward without touching down on the floor and put it my calf across the other knee, squat down on the standing leg, move the free leg back behind me and take hold of it with my hand, lean forward into ‘dancer pose’, bring my free foot back to the front and up to the inside thigh of the standing leg (tree pose) and then do it all again on the other side. I’m in my fifties.

The balance article reminded me of a few important lessons that I’ve integrated over the last decade. The first is that we are never too old to change.

The second is that with time and practice and patience we can achieve what seems unachievable. I would have been happy with standing on one leg. I go through my balance routine as part of my home practice most days now. I’m still amazed by what my body can do. I know a lot gets written about goal setting but I’ve always been of the view that sometimes a soft goal is better than a hard one.

I could have set a SMART goal (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound). It would have looked something like this:

I will balance on one leg for two minutes by the end of September this year.

Instead I went with a kind of open-ended goal:

I will keep improving my balance.

I think SMART goals are great for some things. If you have a job that needs doing, something that has a finish line, then setting a clear goal can definitely help you get there. But a lot of the goals we set when we’re recovering from cancer are not so concrete. Sometimes a specific goal can actually be a disadvantage. There’s no way I every would have set standing on one leg for several minutes while moving through four different yoga poses as a goal. It would have felt daunting, perhaps even impossible.

Sometimes our best strategy is to just take small steps in the right direction, and then to keep taking them. Here’s something I have written on a piece of paper and pinned where I see it every day:

There is no upper limit to how well I can be!

It reminds me to keep returning to my health goals, to find new ways to improve my knowledge and my daily habits, to challenge whatever I have been doing to be sure I’m on track. Sometimes I make small adjustments and sometimes I completely abandon something in favour of a better alternative.

I also remember that everything in yoga has layers. Balance is not just about physical balance. It’s about balance in all things. It doesn’t surprise me that when I’m not well, or when life has become a bit stressful, my physical balance also gets wobbly. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since yoga became part of my life I am generally living a more balanced and flexible life.

I was surprised by the extent to which my bilateral mastectomy impacted my balance. It makes sense. Having almost two kilos removed from the front of your body is bound to have an impact. Balancing exercises helped me to recover my balance and to feel at home in my new body.

I have come to believe that improving my physical balance has had profound effects on my life in so many ways.

How’s your balance?

You don’t need to sign up for a yoga class (although of course I recommend it!). There’s also practices like tai chi and qigong. Most exercise classes will have some element of balance and so will dancing. If classes don’t work for you there’s now loads of free resources available online.

Or you could just try setting aside a few minutes each day to stand on either leg. If that’s easy for you then try moving while you stand on one leg.

Whatever strategy you use I recommend adding some form of balancing to your recovery routine. It will help you to avoid falling over in old age. You might also find, as I have, that the benefits extend far beyond the physical ability to stay upright.

And the final lesson in all of this? We lose what we don’t use. The shocking thing about that health assessment ten years ago was that I had no idea my balance had become so poor. We get into routines. We often choose the path of least resistance, both physically and emotionally. Sometimes what we really need is a challenge. It helps to remind us of the things we need to work on.

Maybe that’s why so many people report that they are making much better choices about their health following cancer than they were before cancer. True, we shouldn’t have to fight for our lives to appreciate how precious they are, or to identify the bad habits that are life limiting. I don’t recommend it. But as long as we’ve got to go through it we may as well leverage the advantage.