12/04/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2014

It's a Balancing Act


The issue of brain hemisphere dominance is still being argued among the scientific community, but there is one thing that everyone agrees on: It's not that simple. We can't assume that one is right-brain dominant because they might prefer to paint a picture than work out a mathematical equation, but I still think there's something to it. I have had to develop my masculine side in order to succeed in my career, while some of my girlfriends have told me that motherhood was in no way second nature to them. As a yoga instructor, when it comes to balance, I've often asked myself: Could the balance of our bodies represent the balance in our lives?

When it comes to our bodies, one thing is for sure: We are a delicate balance of opposing forces. I tell my students, think "puppet on a string, like a marionette." Our skeletons were meant to find support and strength from our muscles without sacrificing range of motion and flexibility. Not an easy achievement as we move through our lives emotionally and physically. Everything affects us. Everything can potentially throw off this delicate balance. There are many balancing acts going on in the body, but for starters, lets consider our right and left sides.

Do Your Really Know Your Right From Your Left?

Sure, you may know your right from your left, but how well do you understand how these two sides work together and what this valuable knowledge means for your health and wellbeing? The simple act of walking is abundant with health benefits that can be multiplied if you are mindful of your opposing sides. Jonathan FitzGordon, a Brooklyn-based yoga teacher who developed The Core-Walking Program, is passionate about the balancing of our left and right sides. "The body is a self-healing machine meant to regenerate itself through proper movement," FitzGordon says."A body that walks successfully through life uses both sides of the body in opposition. When the right leg moves forward, the left arm moves forward as well, and this essential action is missing from the movement patterns of so many people!"

The science of brain hemispheres as it relates to motor activity would indicate that balancing your right and left sides harmonizes both your body and your brain. Through his corewalking program, FitzGordon is helping his students understand the importance of knowing what their left and right are doing because he says, "when the muscles working in opposition are balanced well on both sides of the body, the resulting twists of the skeleton help the flow of our synovial fluid, a secretion that is essential to our joints. The body that moves well is constantly toning the nervous system through the twist of the spine and the coordination of the opposing left and right sides of the body. A well-moving body has a well-oiled nervous system which in turn keeps the brain happy and healthy."

I'm sure you don't have any trouble with the cue "step your right foot forward" -- however, have you ever thought about how you do that very same movement on the other side? Discovering you are stronger on one side or that you have more freedom on a certain side is valuable information. Each cerebral hemisphere contains a map that controls mainly the opposite side of the body. Awareness is how we use that map in order to improve our mind/body connection. We stimulate both sides of the brain when we work on the balancing of our left and right sides. If you are devoting any time and effort to a movement class, whether it be yoga, tai chi, or kick-boxing, it would be worth your while to understand something about how your right and left sides function. Do you habitually stand with your weight on one foot? Do you favor a certain hip when you sit? If so, it's likely that you are taking these habits with you to the gym. In yoga class one must pay attention in weight bearing poses like plank and downward dog: Is one hand or foot bearing more weight? Do you notice any difference in the way your left or right foot is working to support you in a squat or a chair pose? If a tense shoulder blade, is being held slightly higher in your back it may never cause you pain, but if you are lifting weights at the gym continuously there's a good chance that one day it will.

Your two sides have be doing a more or less harmonious dance since you were wiggling inside your momma's belly. We all start out life with a unique way of organizing and moving our bones. Our uniqueness over time turns into ideal or less than ideal habits. Some of the ways we become imbalanced are obvious, like a right foot that is turned out when standing or walking; others are more subtle, one hip slightly higher than the other. Discoveries such as these enable you to start working more intelligently or maybe require some professional help. You may even realize that that recurring headache always starts at a particular side of the head and so you can try to become aware of any tension on that side. The ability to direct relaxation techniques such as breathing, self-massage and visualizations to a specific area of the body is a wonderful skill. Getting to know the particularities of your right and left side can facilitate health by restoring and maintaining the natural flow of body and breath.

Balance Through Breath

The yogi sages were well aware of the effectiveness of the breath and its power to balance and heal. It too works in a contra-lateral pattern through the right and left nostrils. Alternate nostril breathing has long been recommended for its calming effects because it brings us to our center where there is stillness. Balance is soothing. Balance is what we are all trying to maintain in all aspects of our lives. The nostrils like the body are deceptively symmetrical. The left and right are not carbon copies of each other placed on the opposite side. Working with a gentle breath along this delicate, soft tissue helps to harmonize the dualities such as yin/yang, female/male, creativity/intellect. My breathing workshop and the application that I designed, Breathing Lessons, are my way of giving people a means to enhance awareness in order to restore balance through a natural breathing pattern.

Balance Lost And Found

Amy McGorry of Thrive Physical Therapy studio in Manhattan is always working to help people to restore balance. Amy says:

Body imbalances are a set-up for potential injuries. When balance does not exist between right and left sides you can often see a muscle imbalance developing. An imbalanced system is an inefficient system that leaves people at risk for injury. For example, a right-arm-dominant, overhead-throwing athlete at rest, often has a right shoulder that is positioned more forward than the left. It's common to see muscles adapt to repetitive motions. Differences in muscle length and strength in the case of this athlete led to pressure in the shoulder joint and twisting in the upper back region with subsequent compensation running down the spine into the pelvis.

Tamar Amitay, the clinical director at Thrive, says:

Symmetry is something we strive for with posture. When one side is being used more than another, a muscle imbalance may turn into improper rotations leading to a faulty pulley system that can affect the entire spine.

These days many fitness classes, yoga classes and sports warm ups are designed to balance and strengthen our right and left sides, but many teachers have no time to, or just don't bother to do the teaching that creates this awareness. Workouts and sports can become so focused on outward results that the importance of balancing can be gravely overlooked. All physical activities should be at least partially a practice in mindful movement. Perhaps it is time for a "mindfulness movement" movement. Let's challenge the popular term physical fitness. What does that even mean? That your butt is perfectly sculpted? That you can run the quarter mile in record time? So many people are still being lured into the gym by the promise of an improved physique but few learn how to move properly and that ignorance often leads to injury. I realize that a class on the details of proper alignment is not as fun as Zumba, but the upside is that once body awareness is obtained, it stays with you forever, and what's more it will make your Zumba class more effective and much safer.

The "mind-body connection" is a phrase we hear so often these days, I fear we may be losing sight of its meaning. There IS no REAL structural health without an understanding of how our bodies move in space. We were designed to maintain a harmonious relationship between our opposing sides with a calm steady breath that fuels their every action. A lifetime of benefits can be gained by this kind of knowledge and work. My students are always grateful, when they find that, more than just a workout, they're getting a complete re-education in the ways they use their bodies. Although it hasn't been proven, who knows, maybe there is such a thing as brain hemisphere dominance. Perhaps working intelligently with the body is making our weaker side stronger both physically and metaphysically. Maintaining a healthy mind and body is a lifetime journey, but in the meantime, all of us could stand to get to know our left and right a little better.