Saturday, December 29, 2007

On Balance... a good year


Most people kayak for fun, and realize it’s possible to improve quite rapidly. Although getting better at handling a kayak is easy to see, less noticeable perhaps is that kayaking improves the sense of balance, and quickens a person’s reactions. We probably take balance for granted, challenging it daily in ways we never realize, and then occasionally we’ll deliberately “stretch the envelope”. I know a paddler who bought a “tippy kayak” in order to become a better paddler and had problems even sitting in it. The kayak would stay upright by itself but not with him in it. He sometimes fell out, leaving the kayak empty and upright. He was frustrated because he knew other paddlers who could actually relax in it, so he loaded the kayak with weights to make it more stable. Each time he went afloat he reduced the weight a little until one day he found he didn’t need to carry anything; he could balance without help.

One of my own challenges was to stand up in my Vyneck sea kayak; something I saw somebody do on a Welsh lake years ago and vowed to copy. It took me a lot of swimming around, some strategy and some perseverance before I could wriggle from the small cockpit to sit on the rear deck, and then to stand on the seat. It took a lot more practice before I could stand up and then sit back down again without getting wet. My next challenge was doing the same on water that was not flat. Then Kristin stood up on the rear deck of my Legend… and the challenges progressively got more difficult!

So a sense of balance is something we can develop if we try, if we challenge ourselves. One of the improvements we make in time is to relax more, which helps us wobble less. As we learn to edge a kayak to turn, so our hips loosen up and we become more adept at keeping our shoulders above our hips. As our posture improves it helps keep our weight centralized. The improvements don’t just show on the water; as we react more quickly to a wobble on the water, so we react quickly to a spilled glass or a dropped pen.

Balance; In Search of the Lost sense, by Scott McCredie, Little, Brown and Company, 2007

So what is our “sense of balance”? We have sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch as long recognized and studied senses, so the long neglected and under-studied “balance” is truly the “sixth sense”. This year, a friend of mine, Scott McCredie was motivated to write the first book on balance for the general reader. He had seen his father, who had always had good balance, take a fall off a rock in the mountains. He had simply “lost his balance”.

Falling is how a great number of people begin
the slide from health to old age or from old age to death. There is a connection between ageing and reduced balance. Brittle bones don’t help, but balance is something we “use or lose”. In fact if you think about what helps us estimate the comparative ages of people we see, apparent agility and balance, posture and reaction time are big helpers. Someone who has quick reactions, good posture, is agile and has good balance is perceived as younger than someone who moves slowly and cautiously, with poor posture and tentative balance.

Even birds practice... like this one, balancing on one leg in New Zealand....

Might kayaking help us maintain our youthfulness into old age by maintaining our bone strength and challenging our balance in a safe way? Maybe. Smiling a lot might help too, but better; read Scott’s book about balance. He explains far more about the mechanism of balance than I would have thought to ask, including why I have a more difficult time standing and balancing while taking my socks off in the dark than in do in daylight. And also why, on special occasions like New Year’s Eve, my balance doesn’t always seem, well, let’s just say “as good as usual”.

Happy New Year, and may you succeed in balancing all the way into 2008 and far beyond!

(There is a little more about balance on my playak blog...)


Michael said...

Hi Nigel! At Delmarva this year, Dubside rigged up a tight-rope (actually it was some 1 inch webbing) about a meter off the ground with another rope overhead to hang on to. The idea was to learn to walk the tape, gradually letting go of the overhead line. He explained why we are so wobbly at first. It's a natural feed-back action going on in our heads. Once you learn to shut it off, you stop wobbling. It was quite interesting to focus on turning off that 'switch' and then walk the rope wobble-free! Of course the same mechanism is at work as we kayak or try walking our rear decks. Focus is the key to the 'switch'!

Noelani said...

Interesting to know.