| Do you have trouble with balance with you ski? Feel tight in your spine, hips,
and thighs? Here is an easy exercise series that will make you feel like 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. Almost
80 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,
you will find that your muscles do not become completely slack but retain 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
mechanisms take 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 let
and right so that your nose move 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 he 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 our conscious control. But it turns out there is a way
to improve our use of them in an indirect way by doing 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,
interfering with the proper operation of the tonic and self-righting mechanisms.
This causes the muscles of the spine, pelvis, and thighs to tighten and makes
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 dramatically, 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 with respect to 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
you 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 the begin to 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,
but not nearly as far. Continue to do this and scan your body as before from
foot to head. Does the fixing of the eyes change the body motion? Do you hold
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. They eyes should not turn, just the head,
but you can still see other thing - though without trying to make out the details.
If you move slowly and easily, without strain, and pay very careful 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 succeed in improving 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.