Discovering and Rediscovering Balance
by Rena Urso
Last month, we explored how to find more balance in our lives as performing and teaching artists. This month, I’d like to dig a little deeper into whole-body balance.
In Body Mapping, we focus on six primary places of balance in our bodies, each with many sense receptors to aid us in this process of creating balance.
The place at which our head sits on top of our spine.
The place at which our arm structures suspend over our ribs.
Our lumbar spine.
Our hip joints
Our knee joints
Our ankle joints
I entitled this column discovering and rediscovering balance because frequently when working with students, their first instinct as they take in new information about Body Mapping is to become static once they think they’ve found balance. Afraid of losing it, they freeze in place, holding what they perceive to be balance, thus creating more unwanted tension in their bodies.
A fundamental part of this process is allowing yourself to go off balance so that you may bring yourself back. It’s like a series of text messages sent back and forth between our brain and our body; both are excited about the ease felt in these brief moments of balance and can’t wait to return.
Let’s get started . . . Stand up. Notice what you do naturally without any adjustment or judgment. As you settle in, note how your feet are making contact with the ground. Close your eyes and explore micro movements as you alternately nod your head up and down and side to side. Pretend you are drawing a tiny infinity sign with the tip of your nose as you release your jaw and become aware of the space on the backside of your neck. Your head balances on top of your spine at the Atlanto-Occipital (AO) joint – where the atlas (C1) meets the occiput of your skull. Now . . . put your index fingers in your ears and angle them down just slightly. If your fingers were to connect in the center of your skull, you would be pointing right at your AO. Continue to allow your neck muscles to be long and free, and release your head up and over your spine. How does this differ from where you were moments ago?
The arms are suspended from above and supported from below, and ideally, should float with ease over the ribs. There are many deep and superficial muscles that make arm movement possible. The place where the arms make direct contact and form joints with the torso is where the clavicles (collarbones) meet with the sternum (breast bone). Try these movements . . . roll your shoulders back and forward a couple of times, bring your scapulae (shoulder blades) toward one another and then back to center, shrug, release, and allow your arms to hang freely. Take note of how this feels.
Moving down to the lumbar spine, try to organize yourself around this largest, most substantial area of the spine, which lives deep inside your abdominal area, and is more forward than you likely envision. If you have routinely delivered weight and balance along the backside of your body, this may be a different sensation as you become front of the spine oriented.
As you continue to make subtle adjustments, you’ll begin to enjoy more ease in your breathing. You may also notice that your arms feel lighter, too. Why? We move according to what our body maps in our brain tell us, whether correct or not. If our body maps are just a little off, movement can lack coordination and ease and induce tension and possibly injury; whereas, if our body maps are accurate, movement will be good. As you adopt whole-body support and balance, you’ll start to see the positive impact it has on everything else you do.
The hip, knee, and ankle joints are somewhat linked in that when we lock up in one of these areas, it has a ripple effect on the other two. Alternately, as we find more space and balance in each of these areas, it has an almost immediate positive effect on the other two. While standing, fold forward, and locate the crease in your legs where this fold happens. Your hip joints lie along this crease or line, though more deeply inward, and with upward facing ball and socket joints. Marching in place, a few wide legged squats, and more forward folds – either seated on the floor with legs outstretched, or while standing - will also help you locate these important joints. Because this is the center of our bodies, much is dependent upon it, so properly mapping this area is essential.
Many people habitually lock their knees when standing, with or without their instruments. For years, I was a habitual knee locker, and, in fact used to deliver my weight down one leg, locking my hip, knee, and ankle joint on that standing leg. You can imagine how that negatively impacted my playing. If your tendency is to lock your knee(s), simply let go and allow for soft, balanced knee joints. Carefully going back and forth between locked and balanced knees and observing the effect on your breathing is a helpful way to reinforce this new mapping.
And finally, the last place of balance; our ankle joints. Shift your weight back and forth between your heels and the balls of your feet, ultimately settling in the middle over the main arches of your foot. Try rolling a tennis ball under each foot; top to bottom, side to side, and in a circular motion. In addition to feeling awesome, this is an easy way to free up the muscles and fascia. After doing this, take another forward fold and notice the improvement in your hamstring flexibility and mobility. Also, notice how much more of the soles of your feet are making contact with the earth. This simple exercise can greatly improve your overall balance.
To help you discover better seated balance, find a straight backed, armless chair that isn’t overly cushioned. Sit on your hands, and palpate (examine by touch) your sit bones. After locating these two boney protrusions at the bottom of your pelvis, remove your hands. Take some small movements, rocking side to side, or a few small circular motions before settling in with a neutral pelvis, ultimately finding good balance, poised over your sit bones. Imagine there are little tiny feet on the bottom of each sit bone, assisting in this new found dynamic balance. Want to take it one step further? Swap out your chair with a large physio ball. I always tell my students; “we can’t have lousy balance when we sit on a ball or we’ll roll off!”
Now, while seated or standing, take a long, slow inhalation and exhalation through your nose and notice what has changed. Even if the adjustments you’re making are subtle, you will reap the benefits in all that you do.
Unraveling years of tension and imbalance takes time. Be patient and adopt an attitude of curiosity as you thoughtfully replace each of these old habits with something better. Journaling about your new discoveries will help you on your journey and deepen your practice. If you wish to go further in any specific area of the body, I invite you to peruse my many previous columns in The Flute View, or feel free to reach out to me directly!
Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus, and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts – home to her popular biennial summer flute course, The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts, taking place again this July. As a Licensed Body Mapping Educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops and masterclasses all over the world. An active freelance musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. Additionally, she is a certified yoga and meditation instructor and member of the NFA Performance Health Committee. Rena lives in the Chicago area with her husband John and their dogs Lillie and Po. She is available for personal or group Zoom Body-Mapping sessions if interested. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.