Balance: Blue Belt Minor Thesis 

By Bryan Martin

Coming from 7 years of gymnastics, I didnít think I would have much of a problem with balance. Even after 7 years of doing nothing but pushing buttons, I figured I would be just a little rusty. At first I was fine. I felt where I was off a bit and got it back pretty quickly. But as I trained and learned proper posture and stances, I found I was having more problems then I thought I ought to. So being an analytical kind of guy, I decided to look into the issue. 

Just brainstorming, I quickly realized that the balance required for gymnastics is different then the balance required for martial arts. In gymnastics, most everything is inline. A round off back handspring back tuck only needs a path 1 foot wide (the girls do it on a 4Ē beam!) The hands, feet, torso and momentum, is all in a straight line, on the balls of your feet (the heel is used mostly for a spring), with all turns and twists done around the center of the body. In Kenpo, one of the first things you learn is to get off the line. Feet are no longer side by side, but in a fighting stance, shoulder width apart, heels rooted to the ground. Body posture erect and ready to go in any direction. All very foreign to a gymnast. 

Another thought that came to me was my glasses. When I was in high school, I had glasses but never wore them. Stigmatism and the near sidedness werenít bad enough to out weigh the pain in the butt glasses were. Now that Iíve been wearing them for awhile, Iíve gotten used to them. I take them off when I train, and I was wondering how much that may be affecting my balance. Did some research and this is what I found:

"Stand on one foot for 15 seconds with your eyes closed."

If you're over 40 you probably couldn't do it. If you're between 25 and 40 you may have had problems, because after 25 your sense of balance begins to decline.

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. I got to 15 seconds but after that I was pretty wobbly. As soon as I opened my eyes, I straightened right up. Told me my vision was a big part, and my astigmatism wasnít helping. When light rays strike your eyes, the nerve fibers send impulses to your brain that provide your brain with visual clues that aid in balance. For example, when you are outside, buildings are aligned straight up and down, or sidewalks are straight out in front of you. With astigmatism those straight lines arenít always straight, as the picture shows. Mines not nearly this bad but

Iím going to have to learn to deal with it until I can get contacts. Or better yet, lasics!

So, back to that part about ďtraining my nervous system not to rely on eyes for balanceĒ. I thought that meant the inner ear, also called the vestibular apparatus. On each side of the head, it is composed of three semicircular canals and a utricle and saccule, yada yada yada. I searched for some exercises and found something very interesting: Balance exercises primarily challenge the proprioceptor system. The term proprioception refers to a sense of joint position. Iíve always had a good sense of body position from gymnastics, but how does knowing were your leg is related to the inner ear and balance?

Your ability to maintain your balance depends on information that your brain receives from three different sources -- your eyes, the muscles and joints of your body, and your inner ears.

Especially important are the impulses that come from your neck, which indicate the direction in which your head is turned, and the impulses that come from your ankles, which indicate the movement or sway of your body in relation to the floor when you are standing. This kind of input provides your brain with information about the surface you are standing on -- whether it is hard or soft, bumpy or smooth. 

Wow, I did not know that. And with this bit of info, it dawned on me. The worst place Iím having balance problems is towards the end of Long 2 with the 3 twist stances at a 45. With the head facing the direction of travel, but moving 180º three times, the legs in forward bows, heel rooted, dropping into twist stances with the legs and ankles all bent out of shape, and my glasses on the dash of my car. Iím surprised I was able to stand at all!

This got me curious as to what else was involved in balance that I didnít know about. More research! 

When you are healthy and both sides of your vestibular system are functioning properly, the two sides of the vestibular system send symmetrical impulses to the brain. That is, the impulses coming from the right side conform to the impulses coming from the left side. 

All of the sensory input concerning balance, from the eyes, from the muscles and joints, and from the two sides of the vestibular system, is sent to a central area in the brain, called the brain stem, where it will be sorted out and integrated.

The brain stem also receives input from two other areas of the brain -- the cerebellum, which is your coordination center, and the cerebral cortex, which functions in thinking and memory. As the brain stem is integrating all the input it receives concerning balance, the cerebellum may contribute information about automatic movements that have been learned through constant practice, e.g. adjustments in balance needed to serve a tennis ball. 

The cerebral cortex contributes previously learned information. For example, you have learned that icy sidewalks are slippery and that you have to step on them in a different way in order to keep your balance. 

Some of the impulses that leave your brain stem go back to the cerebral cortex, carrying information to your thinking centers that tell you its okay to see trees whirling in circles as you turn cartwheels. As you practice these and similar new activities, your brain learns to "read" different kinds of sensory input as normal. 

The impulses from the sensory receptors to the brain stem and out to the muscles form a pathway. With repetition, it becomes easier for the impulses to travel over the same network or pathway, until many activities of keeping your balance become automatic. Physiologists say that these nerve pathways become "facilitated." This is the reason why dancers and athletes practice their activities over and over again. Even very complex movements become almost automatic over a period of time. Anyone who has learned to ride a bicycle, swim, or ski can relate to this idea.

Itís amazing what the brain can do! I had no idea it was such an intricate mesh of going onís. I now see how much visualizing (roots coming out of you feet into the ground) and focus can have on your balance. Combined that with the balancing exercise, and practice, practice, practice, I will be able to work through my balance issues. 

Much of the info in my thesis was found in an article written by 

Mary Ann Watson, M.A. Vestibular Disorders Association
Balance Awareness Week each year for the third full week of September

2 Balance Exercises:

1. Stand near a support, rise to your tiptoes 10 times. (Repeat with your eyes closed)
2. Stand on one leg, flexing the other leg slightly. Repeat 10 times. 
(Repeat with your eyes closed)
3. Repeat exercise #2, but lift your leg to the side. Repeat with the other leg.
4. Stand in a heel-toe position (right foot ahead of left foot, with toes touching heel)
(Now try it with your eyes closed)
5. Practice walking heel to toe across the room. (Like walking a "tightrope")
6. Repeat exercise #5 with your eyes closed. (Now try it again backwards) 
7. Stand on one foot and lean forward to touch the ground with your hand, without the other foot touching the ground.

1. Assume a standing horse stance, with arms held at your sides, with the option of moving them out to retain balance during the drill.
2. Starting with the right leg, front kick and set down.
3. Still with the right leg, side kick, then set down.
4. Again with the right leg, back kick, then set down.
5. Repeat with the left leg.

-When you think you're ready, do the kicks (front, side, back) without setting the leg down after the first front kick. Obviously, you need to set it down when switching to the left leg. 

-Remember to maintain your systems kick chambering form. Experiment with lower horse stances as balance and leg strength increases.

-This drill should help with balance while kicking, leg strength, multiple kicks, and multiple kicks to different targets.



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©2004 Bryan Martin