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The Vestibular System & Balance In Yoga

If you've attended a yoga class before, you've most likely tried some balancing postures, whether that's standing on one leg, turning your head or having the feet together with the eyes closed. In doing so, you've been working your vestibular system - maybe without even knowing it!

In fact, you use your vestibular system every single day, and it is crucial to keep it in tip-top shape as you grow older so you can remain balanced and coordinated.

It is second in our neural hierarchy, right below vision and above proprioception (I will go into more detail about this in another blog post).

What is the vestibular system?

The vestibular system is a sensory system responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation; it is also involved with motor functions that allow us to keep our balance and stabilise our head and body during movement, and maintain posture. [Source]

There are tiny organs inside the inner ear that sense the different motions of your head and body:

  • Semi-circular canals sense spinning motion.

  • Otolith organs: utricle senses linear movements, saccule senses vertical acceleration.

Why is the Vestibular System so important?

Our brain’s number one priority is safety. Therefore, it will do anything to ensure your head is safe and upright. For example, your brain can produce outputs (symptoms below) if it doesn’t feel ‘safe’.

Common symptoms of vestibular disorders include, but are not limited to:

  • Imbalance or unsteadiness

  • Vertigo – a spinning or whirling sensation; an illusion of the self or world moving

  • Dizziness – a lightheaded, floating, or rocking sensation

  • Blurred or bouncing vision

  • Nausea

  • Hearing changes

  • Anxiety

  • Lack of coordination

  • Problems with concentration and memory

  • Motion sickness

  • Sensitivity to bright lights and noise

  • Headaches and muscular aches.

One large epidemiological study estimates that as many as 35% of adults aged 40 years or older in the United States—approximately 69 million Americans—have experienced some form of vestibular dysfunction.

What can cause a vestibular disorder?

  • Whiplash and blows to the head are common causes of vestibular disorders in people under 50.

  • Exposure to sudden or significant pressure changes, such as scuba diving, rapid descent, or ascent in an aircraft, can injure the ear.

  • Advancing age can also change the vestibular system and result in imbalance, increasing fall risk.

  • Ear infections may also cause damage to the vestibular and hearing structures of the inner ear, including the nerves that transmit signals from the ear to the brain.

  • High doses or long-term use of certain antibiotics can be ototoxic, meaning they cause permanent damage to the inner ear.

  • Migraine or stroke can affect the vestibular system by reducing or blocking the flow of blood to the inner ear or brain.

Testing Your Vestibular System

When testing your vestibular system, it is essential to note you may feel symptoms (such as dizziness or nausea) or struggle with some exercises, so always regress and take time to fully recover before attempting any further movements.

To start, lay in Savasana (Corpse pose) with your eyes fixed on a spot on the ceiling. Then rock your head side to side. To level this up, try with eyes moving with the head movement and finally with the eyes closed.

We can progress this exercise to seated, then to Tabletop, and to standing (first with the feet wide). If you feel super confident and comfortable, try the vestibular drills in balancing yoga postures as long (as there are no signs of threat).

Eventually, with practice, we can add our drills to more complex movements, drawing an X and an infinity symbol with the nose.

Try It Out This Month

This month, we will be playing with some drills throughout our online yoga classes, so make a note at the beginning of the month and notice how you progress by the end. Join me for a seven-day free trial and gain access to all previous classes in the members' section.

If you want me to make some free videos about how to practice vestibular drills at home, let me know in the comments below.

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