Your Sense of Balance

The following is excerpted from Black Belt Magazine's article, "The Real Sixth Sense."

Balance is controlled by a combination of three senses; the vestibular [system], vision, and proprioception.

The sense of up and down is provided by the vestibular system located within the inner ear. It consists of three semicircular hollow tubes that are set at angles to each other. These tubes are filled with liquid that flows through the tubes depending on head tilt and movement. Lining the tubes are hair-like nerve endings that, when stimulated by the movement of the fluid, transforms this motion into a neural signal. This provides information on the position of the head, telling the brain when the head is tilted forward, backward, and side to side, similar to a carpenter's level. While the vestibular system supplies information about head position, it does not communicate the overall positioning of the body itself. This information comes from two other sources: vision and proprioception.

Vision tends to dominate and override all other senses including our sense of balance. You can test how much vision influences your balance by first standing on one foot with your eyes open, and then with the eyes closed. Most people will begin to lose their balance with their eyes closed. However, vision is not essential to balance and in certain situations, its input is detrimental to performing complex physical movements. Gymnasts, acrobats, high platform divers, and martial artists must train their nervous system not to rely on the eyes for balance.

For example, dancers and figure skaters, when performing pirouettes, focus their eyes on a point in the horizon. As their body spins, the head and eyes remain focused on that spot until the neck will not twist any further, then the head turns around quickly ahead of the body and again focuses on that same spot. If you allowed the head to spin in tandem with the body, the overwhelming visual and vestibular sensations would cause immediate dizziness and disorientation. (Notice young children spinning and falling to the ground.) The same principle is needed to execute a spinning kick or hand technique. The eyes must focus on the target, while the body feels it way through the movement.

This feeling your way through a movement is done by the third sense involved in balance, Proprioception. (Also known as the kinaesthetic sense) This sense is the result of the combined information the brain receives from the Golgi tendon organs. These are sensors within every muscle that measures the amount of tension each muscle is exerting. This information enables us to sense physical movement and posture, as well as how heavy an object is, or how hard to throw a ball. It is also the sense of being  ‘in’ your body.

Information received from all three senses is processed, and directions are sent to the various muscles groups to maintain balance. Therefore, we know why the Samurai could not cross the gorge; he could not suppress his visual input over that of his proprioception that caused him to lose his balance on the log.”

(Originally published in Black Belt Magazine, The Real Sixth Sense)

Balance of course also references the more metaphorical sense of balance. Making time for activities that nurture the many facets of a balanced life – your balanced life – will actually make you feel like your sense of balance is stronger too.

Balance & the Chakras

The main function of the root chakra is to protect your physical body and provide a grounded connection; this aids you in making choices that reflect a sense of balance.

As the third eye or brow chakra connects us to our multi-sensory experiences, it too plays a role in the reliability of your balance.

Chakra balancing is about calibrating your entire system to work in alliance – imbalances in any chakra compromise your integrity and can be influential in this context.

Fun Facts

Most people rely on their sense of sight to manage balance. Strength of balance comes from severing that dependence.

Continued Learning

Super great content made for curious birds without a science background.

Balance - BBC Science & Nature: Human Body & Mind

The Real Sixth Sense - chinastrategies.com, originally published in Black Belt Magazine

Slow Down & Maintain a  Sense of Balance - Healthy Planet

Researchers Discover Gene that Contributes to Sense of Balance - wustl.edu

Balance Awareness Week - Vestibular Disorders Association

Be in touch with your body.

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