by Jack Heggie
Do you have trouble with balance when you ski? Do you feel tight in your spine, hips, and thighs? Here is an easy exercise series for better balance in skiing that will make you a different person on skis.
In the early part of this century, physiologists studying movement in animals discovered a group of reflexes they called the tonic and self-righting mechanisms, which affect the way individuals stay in balance and deal with gravity. Almost80 years later, we are discovering how important these mechanisms are for active sports like skiing, and we are learning ways to use them to improve our performance.
The tonic mechanisms are those responsible for muscle tone — this is, the state of muscle contraction before the muscle is activated. If you lie down and relax, some residual, you will find that your muscles do not become completely slack due to some residual contraction. This is called tonus. And when you are standing — even standing completely still — the tonic mechanisms keep enough tone in the muscles to help you remain standing. If that tone weren’t there, you would collapse in a heap.
The self-righting mechanisms are those that bring us back to an upright position when we lose our balance. If you slip on a patch of ice, for example, the self-righting mechanism takes over automatically to help prevent a fall.
Like everything else about human beings, the tonic and self-righting mechanisms are complex. However, their purpose is clear: to keep us in balance.
Here is a simple experiment you can do right now to get a feeling for how these mechanisms work: continue reading, and as you do, shake your head quickly left and right so that your nose moves an inch or two to each side. You will find that it is still possible to read like this. Now stop shaking your head and instead shake the magazine quickly left and right. As you can see, this makes it almost impossible to read.
What is the difference? When you shake your head, the semicircular canals in the inner ear measure the position (actually the acceleration) of the head and cause the eyes to turn in the opposite direction just enough to remain focused on one point. When you shake the magazine, on the other hand, there is no such mechanism at work, and your eyes can’t follow the movement.
A somewhat more dramatic way to experience this connection between the inner ear and the muscles that move the eyes is to spin yourself around for several seconds, then stop suddenly. This confuses the inner ear and causes the eyes to involuntarily turn — even after you stop — in the same direction as the spin.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what the tonic and self-righting mechanisms do, let’s take a look at how you can use them to improve your skiing performance. At first glance, it doesn’t look promising because these mechanisms are almost completely automatic and involuntary, causing muscles to contract — when needed for balance — without conscious control. But it turns out there is a way to improve our use of them in an indirect way by doing the specific movement with the eyes and head. This is particularly valuable for skiers, many of whom stiffen the muscles in the neck when they ski and hold the eyes rigid in their sockets, making most interfering with the proper operation of the tonic and self-righting mechanisms. This causes the muscles of the spine, pelvis, and thighs to tigmakes most of the movement required for dynamic skiing difficult, if not impossible.
So before you begin skiing, work on the connections between the muscles of the neck and eyes and the rest of the body. The following exercises, adapted from the Awareness Through Movement® system of the Israeli movement therapist, Moshe Feldenkrais, will not only improve your skiing dramatical but will reduce the effort required to ski.
1) Before you begin skiing, put your skis on — but leave your poles aside — and find a flat spot on the slope. Slowly, begin twisting your whole body left and right. Make it an easy swinging motion. As you turn, let your attention go down to your feet, then move it up to your knees, hips, shoulders, head, and finally, your eyes. As you move your attention up, try to feel that each part of your body is moving concerning the other arts, that the hips are turning over the feet, the shoulders over the hips, the head over the shoulders, the eyes in the head (far enough so that you look behind you to the left and right as you swing your body). Continue turning left and right, but don’t strain; pay attention to the quality of the motion rather than the quantity. Let it be an easy twisting motion that goes on almost by itself.
2) Keep swinging left and right, but now shift all your weight to your left leg. Scan your body with your attention as before. Do you turn more or less easily like this? After a minute of this, shift your weight to your right leg as you swing. How is this different from your left leg? Finally, shift your weight to your left leg as you swing left and to your right leg as you swing right. Do this for a minute or so, then go back to the basic, easy swinging motion you started with. Does this motion feel easier now?
3) Rest for a moment, and then turn left and right again — but with this change: Fix your eyes on something at head level, right in front of you. Notice how this limits the motion of your head. The head can still turn left and right, from the foot but not nearly as far. Continue to do this and scan your body from foot to head. Does the fixing of the eyes change the body motion? Do you hold your breath?
As you swing, note what else you can see in your visual field without removing your eyes from the target. Try to pick out some objects on the extreme left and right, top and bottom, of your vision. The eyes should not turn, just the head, attention to, but you can still see other things — though without trying to make out the details. If you move slowly and easily, without strain, and pay attention to yourself, you may be able to find a connection between your awareness of your peripheral visual field and the amount of effort required to turn your body. The effect is subtle and not easy to feel, but it is there.
4) Now let your eyes be free and turn the body easily left and right as before. Notice how the turning radius of the body has increased. Can you feel what has changed in your body to cause this to happen?
5) Continue swinging left and right, and now make another change: Hold both the eyes and the head still in space and let the rest of your body continue to turn left and right. Holding the head and eyes fixed will limit the turning motion of the body considerably. Again, scan your body, noting all details. Notice your breathing and pay attention to your entire visual field. Think of your head and feet, which are still, while the rest of your body turns between them.
6) Continue this for a few minutes until the motion feels easy, then release the head and eyes and let them swing left and right again. Notice how the turning radius has increased even more.
7) Now, pick up your poles and find a wide, easy slope. Try these same swinging motions while skiing very slowly across the slope, first in one direction, then the other. If you hold both poles by the middle in one hand, they will not interfere with the turning motion.
8) After you have spent about an hour doing this entire routine, put the exercise out of your mind and just ski in your normal way.
When you improve your use of the tonic and self-righting mechanisms using this exercise, you will find a surprising improvement in your skiing. The feeling of lightness and ease is almost indescribable. You may feel as if you had been wearing a heavy suit of armor for years without knowing it. Suddenly it’s gone, and at last, you feel like the skier you always wanted to be, graceful, light on your feet, and relaxed. That’s definitely worth an hour of your time.