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Improving your Balance Before, During and After Pregnancy

I. General Information

Balance consists of a set of physical skills which can be greatly improved through the practice of yoga. 

  • Balance improves with practice
  • Balance improves with strength
  • Balance improves with flexibility
  • Balance improves with YOGA

Our sense of balance develops from birth.  If you’ve ever observed a baby learn to be a toddler and then learn to walk you have seen the development of balance.  We are all able to balance to a greater or lesser degree, maintaining our body in position or in movement.  The impressive balance skills displayed by a ballet dancer or professional football player have been developed through lots of hard work and practice. 

Balance can be described as one’s ability to sense and/or maintain the position of one’s body in response to outside forces and accelerations.  Our sense of balance must also register and react to changes within the body such as lengthening of muscles and changes in angles between bones at the joints.  While maintaining our position during a yoga pose is essentially static balancing, dynamic balance is always a factor as we move into a pose or strive to maintain position in the pose.  There are three systems within the body which provide sensory input for balance:

The visual system is critical to balance.  During yoga poses when balance is tested it is important to maintain a fixed visual picture of the environment.  This visual focus should be stressed by the Yoga instructor as it is often neglected by students.  For younger  and/or more able students, the visual aspect of balance can be challenged by changing the visual field during poses, i.e., looking about the room while holding the balance pose.  This technique should be used with caution, especially if any members of the  class appear to be challenged by ability or age.  The loss of visual acuity with advancing age is a significant factor in the corresponding loss of balance ability.  For this reason balance practice during yoga, with appropriate poses and props (wall or chair), should be part of yoga practice for older populations. 

The vestibular system, otoliths and semi-circular canals located in the inner ear, provides information to the brain about head movement, positioning, gravity and acceleration.  This input is independent of visual cues.  The input we receive from the vestibular system is gradually and significantly reduced with advancing age.

The somatosensory system provides information to the brain from receptors located in the muscles and skin – both for positioning and recognizing forces applied to the body.

Integration of sensory information sent to the central nervous system occurs at the spinal cord for reflex actions, in the lower and mid-brain for automatic activations and in the brain cortex for voluntary actions.  Precise processing of sensory inputs is required for correct actuation and maintenance of body position.  It is important to exercise both the sensory aspects of balance and the motor responses.  Through our yoga practice we enhance our balance skills as well as our strength and flexibility.
Kinesthetic awareness, or the ability to know where your body parts are in 3-dimensional space, is required for every movement we make. So it\\\'s not surprising that balance can be learned, challenged, and improved. We can train our bodies to improve the proprioception within the muscles, just by creating balance challenges for ourselves through our Yoga practice as well as off of the mat.

II. Considerations for Pregnancy

There are several physiological adaptations to pregnancy that affect the woman’s ability to maintain adequate balance and subsequently increase her risk for injury and falls. In the latter part of pregnancy and into the postpartum period, the hormone relaxin causes dynamic instability in joints. For this reason, women are advised to avoid all activities that increase the risk of falling, like climbing ladders, skiing, and hiking on uneven terrain. In fact, most falls occur while walking down stairs or stepping off of a curb.

As pregnancy progresses, the body’s center of gravity continues to change. Pregnant women have a higher center of gravity and the growing baby tends to pull the mother’s weight forward making her unstable. With increased body weight and negotiating daily routines with decreased visibility from the protruding abdomen, many pregnant women are also distracted. Women with a history of ankle sprain or injuries affecting the knees and/or hips are at a greater risk for falling during and after pregnancy.

For women who do little to prepare their core muscles for pregnancy, balance becomes quite a challenge. That is why it is important for women of childbearing age to practice balance exercises before pregnancy and continue into the postpartum period.

III. Points to Remember

  1. Mental concentration and visual focus are crucial in balance poses.  With each pose, focus on a spot in front of you at about a 45 degree angle.
  2. Extending through your body/legs/arms in a pose will enhance your ability to balance.  Should the pose begin to break down, i.e., you are hopping or jerking to stay on one foot – leave the pose and try again. 
  3.  Core strength is an important part of balancing. Keep the abdomen pressed toward the spine while trying to balance. This will also help to lengthen the spine and create stability in the torso.
  4. Spread the toes of the supporting leg if balancing on your feet to give you a good base of support. When balancing on hands, spread fingers apart and in both cases, feel the weight of the body widely distributed throughout the entire hands and fingers or feet and toes depending on the balance pose you choose. Try not to put uneven pressure on your wrists.
  5. Never lock your knees or elbows. Keep arms and legs as straight as you can engaging stabilizing muscles without putting too much weight on vulnerable joints.
  6. Try holding each pose for 3-5 breaths. If you can hold longer, great. The important part of bringing balance into the body is doing the same number of reps on each side or holding poses the same amount of time on each side. You can also try holding a pose for a few breaths on both sides and then repeat, trying to hold longer the second or third time. The more you practice, the better you will become.
  7. It is usual to feel more balanced on one foot than on the other. Most people are not symmetrical in their bodies. They tend to be stronger on one side more than the other. One aim of practicing balance poses is to bring balance into the body, i.e. front and back, left and right, inside and outside. And when you feel more balanced in the body, you tend to feel more balanced mentally and emotionally as well. In this way, Yoga teaches us balance from the inside out.
  8. Be sure to practice in a location free from obstacles, next to a wall,  just in case you lose your balance.

Next month, I will show you some specific exercises to improve balance before, during and after pregnancy

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