BOOK REVIEW: Better Balance by Salamon and Manor

Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls (Harvard Medical School Special Health Report Book 6)Better Balance: Easy Exercises to Improve Stability and Prevent Falls by Suzanne E. Salamon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Balance is one of those qualities that one takes for granted until it fails. Actually, given our bipedal stance, it’s extraordinary that we aren’t falling down all the time. Achieving a stable upright posture takes a lot of complex anatomy and physiology operating flawlessly. I picked up this book because I believe a yoga teacher should be cognizant of the range of capacities for balance that might be seen while teaching. If one teaches students in their 20’s to their 40’s, the need for balance modifications and capacity building might not come up much. It’s when one deals with the very young as well as older students that one sees flawed balance in large measure. [And—let’s face it—the very young can fall down 30 times, pop right back up each time, and be all the stronger for it, and so mature students are the major concern.]

This isn’t the first book in this series of Harvard Medical School Guides that I’ve read and reviewed, and probably won’t be the last. (see: “Your Brain on Yoga,” “Guide to Tai Chi,” and “Low Back Pain.”) I’ve found the series to be beneficial because it presents scientifically sound information, but isn’t afraid to give alternative approaches—such as yoga and tai chi—their due when the studies show that said activities are of benefit. This book is no exception. At several points the authors mention tai chi as being beneficial, and the book includes a yoga balance workout as one of the six that it contains.

The book is organized into 13 sections (i.e. chapters.) The first chapter describes how our vestibular (inner ear), visual, and proprioceptive (the nervous system elements that track where one’s body parts are) systems interact to keep us upright.

Chapter 2 presents an overview of a range of conditions that affect balance. Some of these influence balance specifically and exclusively, but many are conditions that one might not associate with balance problems though they’ve been shown to increase the risk of imbalance. There are sections about which medications have side-effects adversely affecting balance as well as what your doctor may be able to do about balance problems.

Chapter 3 is a “Special Bonus Section” and is of particular importance to mature readers or those who care for said individuals. The topic is preventing falls, and this section describes common causes of falls and offers checklists of considerations for setting up the environments in which those with balance problems will be active.

Chapter 4 introduces various types of activities that improve balance, and chapter 5 is a brief guide to considerations relevant to beginning a balance workout such as whether to consult one’s doctor and what safety precautions should be considered.

In chapter 6, the authors propose how balance workouts can be merged into one’s overall fitness plan. A lot of this chapter is an introduction to exercise—e.g. how much is needed, and what the benefits are. Then there are some tips about how to smoothly merge balance with other exercises.

Chapter 7 presents more specific considerations for beginning balance workouts. Unlike chapter 5, this section provides information about equipment, warm-ups, and how to interpret the instructions for the workouts. The latter is beneficial because the workouts are in a one page per exercise format, and this section negates the need to be needlessly repetitive.

The next six sections (chapters 8 through 13) are various balance workouts that are organized in an easiest to hardest format. The first is a beginner’s workout, which is performed with a chair—used for sitting in some exercises and as a prop in others. The second is a standing balance workout that features simple static balance maneuvers. The level of challenge is similar to that of the first workout, except that one is without a chair prop. The third workout adds in movement to help maintain balance through steps and motion. The next workout is similar but utilizes another prop, a 360 step (a circular step of similar height to the more common Reebok rectangular step, but circular.) The penultimate workout uses a pseudo-balance beam. The author’s mention a product put out by Beamfit, but other manufacturers produce a similar product. It’s a low, dense foam beam that sits on the floor. The last workout utilizes classic Hatha Yoga poses, and features both expected poses like tree pose (vrksasana) and others such as down dog (adho mukha svanasana) that might come as a surprise.

There’s a resources section and glossary at the end. The book presents many graphics, most notably photos of each of the exercises in the six workouts.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who needs an overview of the problems of balance and what can be done about them. It’s short, readable, and user-friendly.

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5 Reasons to Write Poetry

We’re a week into National Poetry Month. I’ve posted a few poems with more to come, but here I’ll reflect upon the benefits of writing poetry. Some may point out that this is one-sided because the pantheon of poets is littered with opium addicts and suicidal depressives. I read a BBC article citing research showing poets were 20 times more likely to be institutionalized than the non-poet population. I maintain that those bards were broken from the beginning, and that there’s another side to the story.

 

5.) Poems are puzzles, and puzzles make you problem-solve. This may be more true of structured poetry than free verse, but a poem wrangles words into a relationship designed to create a desired outcome–often an emotional state. With structured poetry one faces a tight puzzle that’s constrained by syllable counts, the relation of stressed and unstressed beats, or rhyme schemes. But even free verse cuts away everything that dampens a desired resonance. That’s done by a series of strategic choices.

 

4.) Poetry aids emotional management. A study by UCLA researchers found that poetry writing dampens the activity of the amygdala (the brain’s bringer of fear) and, of course, gives the pre-frontal cortex something to do (besides creating catastrophic scenarios–which is its go-to occupation under stress.)

 

3.) Poetry helps build better prose. Some writers will be more concise and others will be more graphic, but there’s always a benefit to be had. I found a NaNoWriMo blog post that tackles this topic nicely, so I’ll just link.

 

2.) Poetry activates attentiveness. This is especially true of a form like haiku, which consists of natural observation unembellished by analysis or sentiment. However, all poetry styles require one examine the world intensely enough to see the old anew. This post may be of interest on the topic.

 

1.) Poetry can access the unconscious. As a practice, I often just put pencil to paper write whatever comes without intervening or directing my conscious mind. Yes, most of it’s crap.  Or not even crap–more like gibberish. But when I go back through these later on, phrases often jump out at me as interesting or evocative, and these often find their way into the heart of actual poems. This is a particularly beneficial practice when one is stuck.

Chi: The Power of What Isn’t

Every morning I start my day with chi kung (a.k.a. qi gong), and many days I do tai chi (tai qi.) For those who are unfamiliar, chi is usually defined as “life force” or “life energy.” However, defining chi is neither simple nor will one find a consensus agreement. Some say chi is  “breath,” at which point its existence becomes a much less controversial, but also less explicative, concept. Others would say that chi is much more broadly dispersed than the “living” so “life force” is an understated definition.

Chi Kung are exercises combining breathing, movement, meditation, visualization, and self-massage that are used to keep one healthy. Because yoga also contains these components (e.g. breathing, movement, and meditation; though with very different specifics) some have even been known to call chi kung “Taoist yoga.” The idea behind these exercises is that chi is lost through living (some activities more than others), and can become blocked in the channels through which it is believed to move. Various exercises are used to replenish and ensure healthy circulation of the chi. Tai chi is a series of martial arts forms that are also considered to have the effect of replenishing and / or enhancing chi.

Two questions may leap to mind, especially among those who know me as a skeptic. First, do you believe in chi–despite the lack of evidence that it exists? (When I mention this lack of evidence, I am obviously not defining chi as breath or bodily fluids, in which case the most rabid skeptic would have to acknowledge its existence. However, then an entirely different set of questions is raised about the vast and complicated nature of chi kung exercises needed to circulate oxygen, which travels through blood vessels and not through channels or meridians. In other words, there’s no reason not to abandon a lot of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) / Taoist conceptions of health if one considers a narrow definition of chi.) Second, if you don’t have any reason to believe that chi is a real thing, why bother with the exercises?

First, no, I don’t believe in chi as a substance or physical entity in the way that your average Taoist priest does. I don’t mock or ridicule those who do, and I acknowledge it could always turn out that they were right and I was wrong and that my current state of ignorance combined with an incorrect deference to Occam’s Razor led me astray.

However, I have a pretty high standard for believing a person, place, or thing exists. I need to be able to observe it.  If I can’t perceive it directly, but there is some indirect sign it exists, then that indirect sign needs to be the simplest possible explanation I can imagine given my current state of knowledge. (Yes, I realize that Occam’s Razor isn’t a law, it can always be that an unlikely explanation is the correct explanation. I also know the raft of indirect signs of chi, and, yes, I’m saying I can imagine simpler explanations than an energy source that is immeasurable but powerful enough have bodily effects.) While I don’t believe in chi (or meridians, or the yet undiscovered organ called the “triple heater”) as physical things, I do believe in conceptual chi which is an object of visualization.

Moving on to the second question, I practice these exercises because they make me healthier.

This, of course, raises another question, “How can these exercises be effective if chi is not real?”

Now I have to go Socratic on my hypothetical questioner. The Socratic dialogue goes like this:

S: Have you ever been to a scary movie?

A: Of course, I have. What kind of a troll has never seen a scary movie?

S: I’m Socrates. I’ll ask the damned questions around here, thank you very kindly.

So while you were watching said movies, did you ever get startled? That is, did your pulse ever pound a bit harder; did you ever take a gasping breath; did your hands ever grip the armrest with white knuckles; or did you ever get butterflies in your stomach?

A: Of course, that’s part of the horror movie watching experience.

S: So, then, you were under the impression that the events you were watching were actually happening, and that the killer might come out into the theater after you at any moment?

A: No, of course not. Don’t be absurd!

S: And yet this thing that was not real–that was just symbolic or conceptual–had actual physiological effects?

[At this point Socrates breaks into his superiority dance.]

I think visualizing chi flow has positive benefits both mentally and physically. The mental benefits may be clear. The physical benefits result from putting oneself in the moment and conducting activities (deep breathing and movement) that help one de-stress. This process of de-stressing helps one to be healthier. Does it matter that one does the exercises as they have been handed down from ancient China? Probably not, but I believe that trial and error (even without complete information about anatomy and physiology) yield some impressive results. Of course, there are many other systems (e.g. yoga) that can work equal wonders using an approach that is quite different in its detail. (I also don’t believe in Chakras, but can imagine great benefits from behaving as if they exist.)

MindOverMedicineI just started reading a book by a medical doctor named Lissa Rankin. Rankin’s book, entitled Mind Over Medicine, presents evidence from a large body of scientific literature suggesting the mind often plays a major role in wellness by way of mechanisms that aren’t yet fully understood, but which defy the traditional view of Western medicine.

Rankin was intrigued by the vast number of anecdotal cases of what doctors call “spontaneous remissions.” Spontaneous remissions are when a patient becomes healthy in a way that defies explanation (i.e. they had no treatment, they had insufficient treatment, and they had an illness for with the body’s immune system is normally believed incapable of doing the job on its own.) She wasn’t satisfied with these one-off stories involving placebos, fake surgeries, busted radiology equipment, faith healing, etc, but rather wanted to see what the scientific literature contained by way of scientific double-blind studies on the subject.

She found there was evidence to support mind over matter when it came to illness, and that there was a fledgling explanatory literature. She also learned that while there was a large database of spontaneous remissions, there had not yet been an attempt to determine whether there were common characteristics of those who showed the “placebo effect” (getting well while being in the placebo group of a double-blind study) or other spontaneous remissions.

My point is that there is good reason for skeptics to consider that there may be a lot more to health and well-being than our current paradigm suggests.