Balance, by which I mean physical balance when upright, is a concern often expressed by potential students prior to taking up their studies at Tai Chi. They want to know: can Tai Chi help them improve their balance? While I'm generally hopeful and upbeat about how Tai Chi can serve students in this regard, there are multiple factors and considerations that come into play where balance is concerned. I feel it is prudent to have a basic understanding of these different factors in order to fashion a reasonable and realistic approach to helping students improve their balance through Tai Chi.
Functionally, balance is what keeps us upright, and from falling down. That's the fundamental role of balance, a role that is a uniquely important to humans who, as bipedal creatures, have but two legs to stand on. Other standing creatures have four or more legs. Birds, of course, have just two legs, but for most birds walking is not their primarily means of mobility. Also, birds maintain balance during walking by head bobbing, which you and I are thankfully spared from. No head bobbing here.
Concept of Rooting
The concept of rooting, also important to Tai Chi enthusiasts, is sometimes co-mingled with balance. However, rooting and balance are not one and the same. It is possible to be balanced without being rooted, and possible also to be rooted without being balanced. Imagine the highly developed sense of balance necessary to walk along a high wire. Yet, you would hardly expect a fully commensurate rooting ability from someone whilst they were in the act of high-wiring. Mere balance would suffice. The tightrope walker requires balance, but not so much rooting. Conversely, imagine a skilled competitive athlete, say a football linesman or a wrestler, who may be knocked off balance during interactive play, yet still has the rooting wherewithal, even as he falls, to thwart his opponent's intentions. Though these two examples represent extreme scenarios, I think as a general rule good balance sets the stage as a prerequisite to good rooting. Having now distinguished between balance and rooting, let's get back to balance.
Balance is a function of several properties and variables. These include muscular tone or strength, posture and carriage, vestibular function, and your ability to feel or sense your body generally and your legs and feet in particular, as well as the absence of mitigating factors such as pain or arthritis, etc.
Muscles that are strong and well-toned, especially in the middle and lower body, serve to support and stabilize your body by providing a solid and reliable base and core. Muscles that are weak, or that lack the requisite stamina can fail to provide the necessary support during prolonged Tai Chi practice. When the right muscles fail, the wrong muscles – synergists – must pick up the slack. When that happens your balance and efficiency of movement must suffer accordingly.
Happily, Tai Chi is an excellent method for developing powerful legs and leg muscles. It does this by continually challenging both the extrinsic muscles and the intrinsic sinews, and even the bones, to reinforce and/or expand their limits. The slow, steady, and potentially taxing demands of Tai Chi build muscular strength and stamina. This is especially evident in the larger slow twitch muscles of your thighs, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings. Strong muscles that are also symmetrically balanced serve to provide a solid foundation, and also to support an ergonomically correct posture.
Before moving on to our next variable I must emphasize that while strong muscles are good, muscles that are both strong and smart, i.e. well innervated, are better. I'll have more to say about this in the section below on interoception.
Posture and Carriage
Posture and carriage are also important variables for good balance. Posture is how we stand. Carriage is how we move. A good posture is one that is neither tilted nor twisted nor stooped nor arched. Tai Chi, generally, advocates for a plumb centerline, which serves to facilitate balance in several regards. Most obviously, if your body is plumb you are less likely to tilt or twist off your centerline. Paying attention to your alignment along a central axis that ideally extends from the ground up through the perineum (hui yin) and through to your crown (bai hui) will help to insure a correct vertical organization. A properly upright posture minimizes both the effects of momentum and of any centrifugal disequilibriums that might otherwise ensue from a posture deviated off its vertical axis. A correctly upright posture also causes the (good) stress of gravity to fall more properly on the bones. This contributes to skeletal integrity as bones are known to develop in accordance with the stresses placed on them.
Vestibular function is an involuntary sensory mechanism seated in the inner ear. Vestibular function is concerned with the relationship between your body and the world outside your body, especially as regards balance while upright. It plays a critical role in both balance and spatial orientation. Vestibular function often declines naturally with age, which is one reason why vertigo is more common amongst the elderly. Vestibular decline can be compensated for (to a degree) by improving on the other variables noted here.
Your ability to self-sense also contributes to balance. There are several ways of self-sensing, each of which carries special significance for Tai Chi enthusiasts.
The first of these is third person awareness, which is a bit misleading because there is no third person involved, nor even a second… more on this. Then there is proprioception, which I regard as potentially more voluntary as compared to vestibular function (more on this as well). Also there is interoceptive awareness, which is entirely voluntary and entails profound first person awareness. Let's take a closer look at each of these.
Third-person awareness occurs whenever you experience your body as any other person might observe you. If you look at your foot, or observe yourself in a mirror, or even just imagine yourself visually as seen from the outside you are engaging in third person awareness. However, merely observing yourself casually is not enough to promote change. You must act on what you observe if you are to improve the way you carry and comport yourself. This kind of self-awareness can be especially handy for Tai Chi practitioners who, by virtue of their slow motion movement become better able to use what they observe, for example in a mirror, to actually enact postural corrections. Many of the students I work with who have chronic postural issues require regular reminders to take full advantage of their third-person observational opportunities. Paying more effective attention while moving slowly is a learned skill that requires much time and rehearsal.
Practice and Repetition
Proprioception is linked closely to vestibular function, but differs in that proprioception provides the brain information about your body from the inside out, i.e. whether your body is in motion, and how or where your different body parts are in relation to each other. I have no evidence that vestibular function is either elective or learned, or that it can be improved through practice. Conversely, I do believe proprioception, while not elective (you can't turn it on/off), has plastic features to the extent that it can be improved with practice. It is well known, for example, that dedicated athletes can improve their proprioceptive skill level, i.e. 'muscle memory' through practice and repetition.
The most effective approach to improving proprioceptive awareness involves practice that is mindful - the more mindful the better. Mindful practice links your cortical brain's attentional abilities with enhanced messaging between the somatosensory cortex (among other brain areas) and the voluntary muscles being recruited for any given task.
While mindful practice will produce your best results, it is noteworthy that there are different kinds, or levels, of mindfulness at your disposal. You may be "intentively mindful," such as when your mind and body are simply focused on completing a particular goal, i.e. being "goal oriented." Intentive mindfulness can help you improve your proprioceptive abilities, but only inadvertently due to the primary focus being on goal versus on attention to the underlying mechanisms of performance. Your most effective kind of mindfulness for the purposes of balance (and overall body mastery) is interoceptive mindfulness, or simply interception.
Interoception, which usually elicits a "huh, say what?" when I first mention it, is your truest form of mindfulness as regards first-person body awareness. Interoception is the bodily equivalent of its more familiar and mind-oriented counterpart – introspection. As compared to your automatic and sub-cortical proprioceptive function, interoception entails a much more voluntary and conscious process. In fact, interoception, as a deliberate function of the cortical brain, works best when you invoke it consciously. It is the explicitly cortical nature of interoception – bringing your awareness of your bodily self from the amorphous background into the explicit foreground - that makes it so very useful for Tai Chi'ers.
When you develop a conscious intention to perform an action with your muscles, and then act on that intention, your brain must allot the necessary resources for that action to occur. If you repeatedly have the same conscious intention to perform an action, or if the action demand exceeds the existing resources, your brain will need to generate and allot additional resources. It is your interoceptive attention toward more precise control over the nuances of posture and carriage, power and force, and speed and velocity that serves to continually challenge your brain to improve its resources for such tasks. Resource-augmentation can include possible neurogenesis, greater dendritic density, and enhanced synaptic efficiency, all of which fall under the general rubric of innervation, and serve to streamline task execution, including the task of balance.
Interoception allows you to enact highly nuanced micro-adjustments that can be applied along your full continuum of Tai Chi practice. Interoception enables you to make precisely the right adjustments with precisely the correct velocity and precisely the desired amount of force or softness at precisely the correct places throughout your Tai Chi form or during push hands (tui na). That's a lot of precision. In other words, interoception can help your body become smarter as regards any particular task, gain including balance.
Your interoceptive focus on process-leading-to-goal means that changes, such as improved body awareness and balance, are deliberate rather than inadvertent. This is critically important because the resulting changes are then more within your realm of volitional control. Interoception, therefore, can be very empowering. I regard interoception as every Tai Chi'ers potential best friend.
In summation, muscular support, posture and carriage, vestibular function, and self-sensing that can include third-person self-observation, proprioception, and/or interoception, are the key factors that contribute to good balance, as well as toward many other Tai Chi attributes. If any of these properties are missing or compromised your balance will suffer accordingly. Keeping these various factors individually in mind during Tai Chi practice will improve their collective and cumulative effects in maintaining or restoring your best balance.
The above article by John Loupos is reposted with the author's permission.