Balance and Your Nervous System

This month, I've had the wonderful opportunity to help run a class taught by fellow Feldenkrais practitioner Becci Parsons on improving balance for people with peripheral neuropathy. This means that because of nerve impingement or nerve damage, they can't feel their feet to one degree or another. It's a very scary condition - imagine going through your day, unable to tell without looking where your feet are under you. Every bit of uneven pavement can feel treacherous, and standing on one foot is out of the question, which is a conundrum, since walking requires being on one foot at a time.

Think of what happens physically when you're afraid. You tense up. Your sympathetic nervous system in charge of fight or flight kicks in. If you don't trust your feet, they tense up too, decreasing your ability to feel the ground regardless of nerve damage.

Try this - whatever you're doing right now, increase the tension in your feet. Lift or curl your toes, stiffen your arches and your ankles, and notice what changes in your sensation of the ground. Notice what that tension does to your breathing. If someone were to push your shoulder, even if you're sitting, how likely is it that you'd fall over?

Now imagine you're standing barefoot on soft grass or moss. What do your feet feel like? What changes in the rest of you when your feet widen and soften and toes connect more fully to the ground? If someone pushed you now, chances are pretty good you'd literally bounce back up. A column that is not attached to the ground can be toppled over very easily, but a tree with roots sways in the wind. We may not have actual roots, but our nervous systems have the ability to connect to the ground as though we do.

Getty Images

Getty Images

It's been a delight to watch the participants in Becci's class develop the idea that their feet could be friends with the ground, even if they can't totally feel what's happening. By simply increasing that quality of that connection, they have become more grounded and decreased their fear level. We all have a better chance of having functional balance when we can access our parasympathetic nervous system and make friends with the ground.