During my California trip two friends of mine—who are considerably older than I am—had falls. One received the advice that she needs to build her core muscles or she’ll keep losing her balance and falling. All those present for the conversation later were older and for all of them this was a revelation. I was a little surprised until I realized that I’ve been building an inner sense of physical balance since I started taking tai chi in 1977 and I think I’ve assumed that most other people know it too. While I agree with the doctor that strong core muscles are important I think aging well with physical agility and balance requires more than just a strong core.
In tai chi we talked a lot about moving from your center, or sea of chi. One of the main reasons a lot of dancers really like tai chi and chi gung is that the flowing movements build a strong chi and help you move from your center, which is key in dancing. After a few years of studying tai chi I injured my knee in a car accident and all the bent knee work caused me to drop the practice. I made my way to yoga eventually, where I began to learn a lot about the importance of having flexibility as well as strength in your muscles. When I added Robert Masters’ Psychophysical Method and reorganized his work to create my trigger of release sets, I began to really understand how crucial it is to have fluidity in your joints and your movements.
I internalized so much as my body learned all these things over 35 years that although it informs a lot of advice I give to students and the way I perceive people’s exercise needs, I haven’t consciously formulated and expressed my thoughts until now. In order to move through the world with physical ease and balance, to minimize the likelihood of falling and to fall well (lightly with minimum to no injury), you need to be centered and flexible and fluid as well as strong. I’ll be 60 soon and I’m stronger, more fluid, more flexible and more centered/balanced than I was in my 20’s. I’m old enough to be seeing how well that is serving me now and, even more, how well it is going to serve me as I grow older.
I was fortunate that the troubles with my muscles and my health started when I was young so that I was pushed to do all this work. Unfortunately most young people (and yes, I know there are many exceptions—still not the rule) aren’t suffering the effects of stiff muscles or poor balance or pain so they don’t see the value of practices like yoga or the triggers work. If they’re interested in exercise at all they’re usually following the peculiarly American prescription for exercise that’s hard and fast—and will most likely lead to painfully knotted muscles, stiff joints and poor balance as they grow older.
I never gave the core muscles piece a lot of thought. I’ve always worked on abs (literally since I was about 14) and my yoga practice includes a lot of strength postures. The Five Tibetan Rites actually do a nice job of working the core muscles. So I feel like my core muscles are in good shape but I haven’t assigned as much importance to that as I have to having a strong center and ability to stretch and move fluidly, so I’ll have to contemplate the core muscles and how they fit. My theory at the moment is that a strong sea of chi is more important but since it hasn’t become measurable or of scientific interest, the focus of the medical community is on the core muscles; I also think most of the practices that build chi also work on the core muscles but I don’t think the reverse is true – exercises that purely build the core muscles often don’t build and center chi.
I do know that if you want to have a healthy old age the earlier you start working on creating a balance between strength and flexibility in your muscles and keeping your joints fluid and your sea of chi holding strong, the more easily you can flow into being a senior without losing your mobility or suffering a lot of needless falls. The work is up to you. You can’t take a pill or get a shot for this.
C’mon. Dance with me. Sway with me. Let your body flow. Your spirit can’t really flow if your body is stiff and out of balance. Take care of it. Sway with me…