The Art of Equilibrium
A few months ago, my friends took me to a yoga class. Feeling relatively confident in my fitness levels I went along, and to be perfectly honest, I expected the event to be a little dull, and far too easy to warrant ‘exercise.’ A few minutes after we had arrived, a smiling lady entered the room dressed head-to-toe in a sequin ensemble, lit a few candles and some incense, and began playing a CD entitled ‘mindfulness mix.’ I would be lying if I said that running a mile didn’t appeal to me at that moment – I felt as if I was part of a terrible stereotype that had just been confirmed to be true, as well as a strange sense of humiliation at having paid to conform to it. After about half an hour of stretching, bending and leaning, I was ready to leave, before a curious thing happened. The smiling lady had instructed us to adopt a ‘tree pose,’ which, if you’re interested in trying it yourself, consists in placing the sole of one foot against the opposite inner-thigh, above the knee joint, whilst placing the palms of the hands together in front, as though in prayer. The smiling lady adopted it effortlessly, whilst I swayed from side to side, trying to prevent my raised foot from falling to the floor. A couple of minutes later, with the rest of the room still, I was in more trouble than before, and the more I panicked about trying to steady myself, the more unsteady my body became. Eventually I decided that I’d had a satisfactory number of fruitless spasms to admit defeat, and sat on the floor until the event was over.
That evening I felt frustrated. The funny thing is, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was frustrated. Hadn’t I proven myself right? Hadn’t I given myself the perfect excuse to never attend yoga again? The reality was quite the opposite. I felt challenged. I realized how easy it had been to run for miles until my limbs and lungs ached, or to lift weights until my muscles and mind reached crisis point – I just had to take things to extremes, and validation would follow in the form of terrible pain that so many of us now associate with a “good workout.” What really takes effort, dedication, and practice, is balance. And to achieve balance is to reach a standard that requires maximal effort, without transcending the threshold of damage. What I achieved in that yoga class, despite what seemed like ‘failing’ at the time, was a new outlook – one that goes beyond fitness, and one which spans all aspects of life.
The next day I began to think about ‘balance,’ not just in physical terms, but in a much wider context. It may seem trivial at first, but nature seems hard-wired to seek out equilibrium, on all scales, and in all areas. It is spring now, and summer will follow before autumn and winter take hold, but despite all of the changes that will take place, all the transitions, processes and developments, the cycle will repeat itself, and spring will return again. The tides of rivers and seas will fluctuate, but always to a given limit, before returning to previous states. Cells of living organisms will grow and die, before decomposing, only to return to contribute to life in some way in the future. The sun will rise tomorrow, and set in the evening, so that it can rise again the next day. All of these features of the world indicate that nature is somehow bound to bring about homeostasis. Perhaps it is coincidence. Perhaps it is interpretation.
What is interesting is that once I had thought about these things for some time, I realized how much we, as humans, are hard-wired for equilibrium too – perhaps more so than the examples above. You see, the human body is one of the most complex systems that we know of, and for every mechanism within the body there seems to be another, more subtle mechanism which underlies it. To generalize, it seems that the body strives to maintain equilibrium through two overall networks, which I call the ‘dormant’ equilibrium network, and the ‘active’ equilibrium network. To explain this, I’ll outline the former. To keep you alive and thriving, your body needs to keep a number of systems appropriately balanced, and it has systems in place which make it largely able to do so without your conscious effort, hence my calling it a ‘dormant’ network. It includes the heart rate, fasting blood sugar level, electrolyte levels, internal temperature, cholesterol count, circadian rhythm, and many other things. Those which keep such things in balance include the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, adrenals, heart muscle, liver, kidneys, spleen, unconscious areas of the brain, and many other systems which you, as a person, are not directly responsible for regulating. I will now outline the latter. To keep you alive and thriving, your body needs a number of systems to be kept appropriately balanced, and it is not able to do so without your conscious effort, hence my calling it an ‘active’ network. It includes the basal metabolic rate, micronutrient profile, genetic expression, fitness level, mood, immunity, and alertness, among many other things. Those which keep such things in balance are food frequency, caloric intake, activity level, sunlight exposure, micronutrient density, workload, antioxidant intake, social interaction, and many other things which you, as a person, are directly responsible for regulating. Notice that the two overall networks I have just outlined are not independent of one another – in fact, the two are co-dependent. For instance, if your caloric intake is very poor (active responsibility), your hypothalamus will function poorly (dormant responsibility), and the same is true in the other direction – if your heart rate is very poor (dormant responsibility), your basal metabolic rate will be very poor (active responsibility). This also goes for systems within the same networks, for instance, where genetic expression (active responsibility) is tied to immunity (active responsibility), and heart rate (dormant responsibility) is tied to internal temperature (dormant responsibility). What does all of this mean?
To consider the human body as a thriving organism, one must consider the dormant and active equilibrium networks together, as both must be functioning optimally. What this means, is that equilibrium is participatory. In order to thrive, you must recognize the striving for equilibrium that is taking place inside of you with every cellular process, from those within your mind to those within your heart, and honour that striving accordingly. If you do not participate in the upkeep of the active network, you cannot expect thriving in the dormant network. In short, if you do not maintain balance, you will not thrive. So how does one achieve optimum function in the active network? Well, to have an optimal basal metabolic rate, one must eat enough – not too much, but certainly not too little. To have an optimal micronutrient profile, one must eat nutrient-dense foods – not dense to the point of toxicity, but certainly not sparse. To have optimal genetic expression, one must avoid cellular damage and encourage cellular regeneration – this is a tricky one, as it is little-understood, but there are some obvious basic principles to minimizing damage, such as abstaining from regular drug use, or chronic stress. To have an optimal fitness level, one must exercise – not to the point of exhaustion or damage, but enough to build muscle and endurance. To have an optimal state of mind, one must partake in enjoyable activities – not to the point of excess, as this will negatively affect the previous systems, but enough to make one ‘feel good.’ To have optimal immunity, one must encourage a healthy microbiome, lymphatic system, and hormonal balance at the very least, whilst minimizing inflammation, among other things. To achieve optimal alertness, one must sleep sufficiently, and ensure that macronutrient ratios are appropriately balanced so as to fulfil one’s personal distribution of energy expenditure. To summarize, to achieve thriving in the active network, and therefore facilitate the dormant network, excesses serve little purpose. Balance is key, and it is hard-wired into the body whether we like it or not.
Perhaps what I learned in that yoga class was only a simple lesson, and one that we are all already familiar with. However, I myself am guilty of overlooking it at the best of times, and I’m sure you are, too. Balance takes conscious effort, and it is much more difficult to achieve than excess. In this generation we are all looking for a quick solution – a one-word answer or a one-step ‘cure’ that alleviates whatever it is that is currently bothering us. The problem is that these solutions always lead to excesses, either through over-emphasising particular activities or substances to the point of damage, or forbidding activities or substances that would contribute to wellbeing in the right amounts. The real solutions are much more complex, and that is what makes them so rewarding when they are achieved. Standing in a room in silence and holding your body in an unfamiliar way has no simple value, but it does have complex value – it allows the mind to practice focus through emptiness, and it allows the body to practice stillness through force. Taken together, the human finds a moment of balance in an unfamiliar way. One consequence of this, among others, is simply to remind the human of what balance can feel like, which serves to encourage that human’s seeking to achieve it in other areas of life. Another consequence is a pleasant state of mind – a feature which contributes to optimal functioning of the active network. A further consequence, of course, is an increase in physical strength and stamina, both of which also contribute to optimal functioning of the active network.
To conclude, equilibrium is a constant and challenging endeavour, and it applies everywhere. To achieve it, one must be willing to facilitate every system, and this may require a good diet, regular movement, time outdoors, meditation, interaction, sleep, music, academia, and so on, all in the right proportions and never to excess, until the human feels a sufficient sense of stability, and can begin to thrive, both inside and out. This is the art of equilibrium.