From physical therapy to the hottest glamour gym, fitness enthusiasts everywhere are jumping on the wobbling, jostling, and teetering balance training bandwagon.
From a proprioceptive perspective (i.e., from the perspective of sensory receptors, chiefly in muscles, tendons, and joints responding to stimuli arising from the body), learning balance work is highly specific because the nervous system learns it not in general but relative to the learning of specific skills.
We are able to learn new balance skills more rapidly when the skills we are learning are complex. Some teachers too often wrongly assume, however, that the more rapid acquisition of these new skills is due to a general physical development of the kinesthetic sense rather than an improvement in our ability to focus and concentrate as we learn each new skill.
The mechanical ear of proprioception is mechanoreception (reception that responds to mechanical stimuli such as tension and pressure). One of the three aspects of mechanoreception is movement – or kinesthetic sense. The other two aspects are position sense and force/tension sense. It is important to remember that movement (kinesthetic sense), position sense, and force/tension sense are, in fact, sense aspects of mechanoreception rather than attributes. And they are senses that a person is born with, just as one is born with the senses of sight, hearing, and taste.
Proprioception, then, is not something athletes develop like strength or endurance, but, rather, it is a “sixth” sense athletes have that is critical and that should not be overlooked or ignored. Regarding the recent pop balance culture, unless one intends to compete on a pneumatic wobble surface, or on a playing field on rollers, balance training will transfer more rapidly if it is approached from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Top down balance training actively perturbs the structural alignment to illicit the body’s natural falling defense – the righting reflex.
This righting reflex is hard wired into the human system, so we cannot alter it. However, skills to coordinate reactions subsequent to the righting reflex can be learned. And we can learn to coordinate our actions so that our center of mass remains aligned with our center of gravity, even when actively facing resistance.
If we lift a leg off the ground and have a friend push us, as our center of mass displaces off of our aligned center of balance, our leg instantly comes down to protect us from the fall. We can, of course, interfere with this by allowing our hands to break our fall. Regardless, righting ourselves so that we do not fall becomes imperative in our mind, overriding all other thoughts. Our mind is rightly concerned with our situation, and designed to be so. It is a matter of survival.
In the yoga flows, there are numerous falling and rolling skills one can learn for engaging the ground. These skills demand extensive conditioning to wire our system. Likewise, in developing balancing skills, this wiring is not balancing that we learn. Rather, it’s improving our coordination through learning how to perform various stunts on equipment.
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