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

 

Stillness and movement

Stone basin, Kyota Garden
Movement in a thoughtful way

The Kyoto Garden in London’s Holland Park is set aside for quiet and contemplation. Movement there is slow and considered. I went through the gateway one Sunday morning and soon began to see why. As if I had turned off a motorway into a tranquil rest area, the outside noise dropped instantly away. My breathing slowed and I caught, clearly now, the gentle trill of falling water. Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Designed for the 1992 Japan Festival, this is a traditional Japanese ‘stroll garden’ encouraging visitors to move quietly through the landscape, discovering new aspects as they proceed and allowing nature to ‘unscroll’ before them. The key elements are water, rocks, fish, stone ornaments, trees and flowers, all carefully placed to encourage an appreciation of natural beauty and meditation on the wider world, represented here in miniature.Kyoto Garden, London

Everything open, receptive and calm

I followed the arrows clockwise round the pond, several koi carp keeping silent pace as I approached the waterfall.  My fellow visitors stood or padded by, talking in hushed tones. A young man sat cross-legged, headphones in and contemplating the water, moving every few minutes to catch the sun.  A dad in shorts and sunglasses perched on the rocks by the water’s edge, pointing out to the toddler cradled in his arms the multi-coloured shapes gliding below. Even the wildlife here seemed open, receptive and calm.

Koi carp, Kyoto Garden, London

Squirrel, Kyoto Garden, London

Bird bath, Kyoto Garden, London

Peacock, Kyoto Garden

Time to stand still and think

As the path turned towards the waterfall I had to make a choice about where to place my feet.  I stood still for a moment and looked at the smooth surface of the large flat stones ahead. I compared them with the more uneven jumble of smaller ones set alongside. Both paths led to a frothy pool of foam beneath the tumbling water. So this was not about where but how. I was being quietly wrong-footed. The deliberate duplication in garden design was prompting me to stand still and think about my next move.

Stillness and choice

Those large flat stones underfoot would give confidence and I could walk purposefully, looking out and ahead at the next view.  But putting my feet on the smaller ones would mean glancing down, away from the garden, going more slowly  and thoughtfully before reaching the water’s edge. One was not better than the other – the point was to have a deliberate moment of stillness and choice before launching into movement. How I moved and what I experienced would be different depending on my decision.Movement comes out of stillness and choice, Kyoto Garden, London

Waterfall, Kyoto Garden, London

Awareness and heightened senses

The Kyoto Garden encouraged me to be still, though not static. I had to keep moving but be thoughtful about it, senses heightened, aware of myself and what and who was around me. I needed to allow the landscape to unfold, in a quietly active way and be open to surprises.  The narrow path was circular so I could go round as often as I liked seeing it differently each time.  And time itself  became a thread in the natural tapestry as reflections and shadows and people changed over the morning. It felt good to be in an outdoor space that respected and promoted stillness, sensory awareness and conscious movement.

Staying calmly within myself

My own capacity for all these things is growing as I learn to quieten my thoughts and reactions. Then through stillness I have the choice of which path to take. In movement I’m more able to stop at any point and remain integrated and in balance. And as I become more able to stay calmly within myself my field of awareness widens and deepens. In turn movement flows more easily.  The stroll garden reflected me back to myself. So at the change of seasons I’ll return and be still and move through it once again.

Written in Term 7 of my Alexander Technique teacher training

Stone basin, Kyoto Garden, London

Kyoto Garden

Stone, Kyoto Garden

Bamboo fence, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Peacock feathers, Kyoto Garden

Kyoto Garden, London

Animal attraction

Manege, Jardin des Plantes, ParisTerm 6

It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège?  Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?

Tai Chi in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris

But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.

Skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions.  Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Bird skeletons, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Turtles, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Spines in Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris

The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Palaeontology, Paris

Prehistory, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Fossils on the first floor

At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this.  It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human?  I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.

Feet of Bactrian camel, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Feet of Bactrian camel – thick pads between the toes stop it sinking into the sand

Deer skeleton, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris
Deer use strong muscles in the hind legs to jump. Front legs act as a pivot for changing direction.

There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement.  And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché  standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.

Model of human foot, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.

Arteries of the brain, Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.

Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.

Dodo Manege, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Vertebrata by Quentin Garel
Vertebrata by Quentin Garel