Fear of falling: when tensing up changes balance and stability

Ice Skating at Somerset House, London November 2018

Fear of falling affects all of us at times, specially in winter.  But reacting by tensing up is not the answer as it alters our balance, affecting stability and making us more likely to fall. This was clear when I visited two of London’s pop-up ice rinks over the Christmas holidays.

Anxious skaters were hesitant and stiff, intent only on keeping upright. As they tensed, their weight shifted.  This put them off balance and they became more unstable. By contrast confident skaters moved in a fluid and poised way. They were more springy and supple, allowing their balance to look after itself. They had energy and time to take in their surroundings, which in turn helped with stability.    No fear of falling for ice marshal at Somerset House, London

Fluid and effortless movement

At Somerset House the most skilful skaters were the ice marshals, easy to spot in fluorescent jackets.  They were everywhere at once, swooping in whenever a skater took a tumble. They floated round, upright and alert, eyes taking in their surroundings. For them skating on ice seemed as natural as walking on grass.

Gliding on the ice without fear of falling at Tower of London ice rink

At the Tower of London one skater stood out for her easy flowing style.  She skated forwards and backwards with equal grace, turning and stopping to let her two less confident friends catch up. Like the ice marshals, she looked up and out, aware of her position on the ice and the space around her. And bending at the hips, knees and ankles she used her body’s natural spirals to skate round, shifting her weight onto each leg with fluid co-ordination.

No fear of falling on the ice for children at Somerset House, London

Children falling without fear

The Polar Bear Club was in a separate space reserved for under-8s.  Here there was falling but no fear. Every minute, it seemed, children collapsed on to the ice. But by holding on to the weighted bears they stood right back up and continued to skate.

Falling was part of the experience and the fun.  No-one tensed up or got hurt and the adults encouraged and assisted. As Olympic ice dance champion Christopher Dean put it “The Christmas pop-ups are a really good taster. Especially for kids, who don’t tend to see the fear in it that adults can.”

Ice skates, Somerset House London

Tensing up affects balance and stability

Back at the main rink the disco beat urged skaters round.  But fear of falling made it hard for some even to step onto the ice. Then, once on the rink, some clung to the side, easing round by hand.  “Keep your glove on, Emily!” yelled a protective but unhelpful dad, as Emily tensed her shoulders and gripped the barrier.Street art, London South Bank

Fear of falling is not just a problem when we skate. Cycling on muddy ground recently I noticed that I tensed my legs the minute I moved off the path and onto the mud. As soon as I let go of the tension I felt more balanced and in control of my bike.   It can also be a common response to ageing, pain, post-op recovery or just moving on an unfamiliar surface like ice or mud. What was clear as I watched the skaters was that tensing up to guard against a fall only made a tumble more likely.

Details of a small pilot study showing the positive effects of the Alexander Technique on older people with a fear of falling.

Skating polar bears, Somerset House London

Fear of falling on the ice at Tower of London ice rink

 

On balance

18th century silk shoe
18th century silk shoe

Term 7

The pleated oak panelling on the walls of the Linenfold Parlour disappeared from view as I wedged on the heavy virtual reality headset, took hold of my high-tech walking stick and departed for Anxiety Island.  I was visiting the Footnotes exhibition as part of London Craft Week and Dutch designer Eelko Moorer wanted to test my stability in three virtual scenarios.  A number of research studies have shown the effect of Alexander Technique on balance, so I was curious to see what mine is now like.

Four artists, including Moorer, have responded to footwear from the London College of Fashion archives. The shoes are displayed at Sutton House, an atmospheric Tudor townhouse in east London, now run by the National Trust.  Oak linenfold panelling, Sutton House

The exhibition theme in the Linenfold Parlour was Balance, hence Moorer’s involvement, with his inspiration being five shiny black leather orthopaedic shoes selected from the archive. According to the Footnotes catalogue:

“In his work there is an underlying preoccupation with balance, often taken to extremes through his focus on the psychological and physical impact that objects can have upon the human form.”

Headset on and guided by a fashion student following my virtual reality trip on a separate screen, I moved in jump-cuts towards a busy outdoor plaza as a computer-generated crowd criss-crossed around me. Many people find this disconcerting and scream. But I was calm and stable on my feet, not worried about being jostled or knocked over.

Next my guide directed me to a narrow gap in a towering black wall. Standing on the threshold I noticed virtual spiders, from tiny to giant, crawling over the floor and walls to a rhythmic soundtrack of lightly clicking arachnid feet.  My heartbeat and breathing were steady but I declined the invitation to enter, calm but not quite ready to embrace the full spider experience.

The final destination was an outdoor space where suddenly the floor ahead dropped away, leaving a gaping hole and darkness below.  I stood happily, seeing clearly through the headset that there was no ground beneath me as I looked down, but completely aware that my real feet were firmly planted on wooden floorboards and I was in no danger.  After I’d taken the headset off my student guide thanked me for undergoing the experience, as not all visitors are up for it. At the same time she seemed disappointed it hadn’t unnerved me as much as she’d anticipated.

I, on the other hand, was cheered by ten minutes with the headset.  It showed that I’m living more fully in my body than before starting Alexander work and have a more co-ordinated and accurate sense of where I am in space. I hadn’t been drawn in to the virtual reality landscape but stayed calm and grounded without going off balance.  I’d given myself time at each stage rather than feeling rushed or disorientated by the changing visual cues. For me these are huge steps in improved proprioception, integrated body use and balance, and responding to the unknown.

Exploring the rest of the exhibition, I appreciated the beauty and craftsmanship of faded silk and worn leather, even though I can no longer wear narrow shoes with pointed toes. ” It’s not you, it’s me” I whispered through the glass of each display case. My toes are opening out, I’m putting my best spreading feet forward and I definitely need more space.

Woman's silk ankle boot, c 1860
Woman’s silk ankle boot, c 1860

Woman's silk buckle shoe, c 1780
Woman’s silk buckle shoe, c 1780

Woman's silk ankle boot, 1850s
Woman’s silk ankle boot, 1850s

Leather women's ankle boots, c 1870
Leather women’s ankle boots, c 1870

Leather woman's puzzle shoe, late 19th century
Leather woman’s puzzle shoe, late 19th century

Woman's leather boot 1880
Woman’s leather boot, 1880

Shoe tree for a military thigh boot, 1850
Shoe tree inside a military thigh boot, 1850

Leather ankle boots, 1870s
Leather ankle boots, 1870s

Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10
Silk satin wedding shoes, 1909-10

Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10
Spangle, metal thread and bow decoration on silk wedding shoes, 1909-10

 

 

 

 

 

The hunting season

Hunting look-out post

Summer holidays

Hunting in rural France is etched into the landscape.  Not just in the blood of deer or boar, but in structures and traditions embedded in local life. It’s common to spy simple wooden look-out posts at the field’s edge, camouflaged car parks, or towering structures giving high vantage points.  I don’t venture into the forest if I hear guns and dogs, so when I chance on them these places are silent and sinister. Even on a sunny day, the wires, pulleys and platforms for hanging game always hint at some darker purpose.

Shelter for cars

Wooden look-out post

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting days are noisy, and start early in the morning mist.  There are distant horns, the jingling of dog bells, then much shouting and intense activity as hunters hurtle by car down steep woodland tracks to the latest sighting. Gunshots echo. It goes quiet at lunchtime, as the rough-hewn tables and benches in the woods become scenes of satisfied meaty feasting.  A forgotten dog wanders by, sniffing its way home.

This year I was present at the start of the hunting season in mid-August.   It was a national religious holiday for something quite different, but the celebrations for Saint Hubertus, the patron saint of hunters, seemed to take centre stage.  Behind the altar in the village church hung an embroidered stag, magnificent in his pagan glory. A troupe of musicians on traditional hunting horns played out the service, then performed to the crowds outside before heading for the cake stall and the vin d’honneur we’d all been waiting for.

Cake stall

Hunting horns

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the celebrations were over, I wondered about the implications for the body of being a hunter. FM Alexander had something to say about this. Concentration on one spot was to be avoided, he wrote, it stops you from seeing accurately what’s going on around you.  More important for the true hunter was a general alertness, an ability to take in the whole landscape, to be prepared for whatever happened wherever it happened.  He also saw in animals hunting in the wild a reminder for humans to wait, hold back and not spring into action immediately.

Thinking about hunting over the holidays gave me a way of seeing the changes in my own perception.  I’m moving away from a focus on detail, what I want to happen, what I’m hunting, to a wider awareness of my own reactions and what’s going on around me. I’m less likely to be wrong-footed, more likely to pause, see what’s hidden, what’s really out there.  It’s taking time, but I’m becoming a better hunter.

Gargoyle

Player and hunting horn