Getting to the center of it all, with acrobat Rob Bollinger, gravity's arch-nemesis.

Jul 1, 1997
Outside Magazine

The most destructive force in society today isn't drugs or semiautomatic weapons. It's the common chair. Far-fetched as this may seem, that's the opinion of Rob Bollinger, who says ergonomically incorrect seats have destroyed the posture and balance of generations by tugging at the spine and knocking the body out of synchronization with the earth's gravitational pull. That's why Bollinger hardly uses them. He prefers standing or squatting or standing on his hands. To him, any spare moment is a chance to mull over gravity's complicated gambits and then make a counteroffer. Bollinger says he's walked the stony spine of almost every retaining wall on the Las Vegas strip, where he performs with the Cirque du Soleil, the world-famous humans-only circus troupe from Montreal that many say has made acrobatics more athletic and regained the circus trade some lost respect. "Balance is a process," he says. "Babies, for instance, are walking disasters, embarrassments to our species — and the really young ones can't even walk at all. But over time they get better."

The 36-year old is something of an expert on the subject — a professional balancer, you might say. Five nights a week, he climbs poles, catapults off trampolines, and twists himself into distorted, gravity-defying poses. Bollinger's most trying time of day occurs when he gets a cue from offstage telling him to climb the Chinese Poles. The four green masts are like the poles found in old firehouses, and Bollinger's job is to basically look like he's immune to gravity's pull while climbing them. To the sounds of electric jazz, and sporting ridiculous multicolored tights and a backward mask, he ascends, hopping from one pole to the other, inverting himself, doing somersaults, and striking muscle-bulging poses not unlike a gymnast on the rings. In one impressive moment, Bollinger pauses near the top of one of the poles, jerking his head about in a birdlike staccato, and then swings his legs out so his body makes a 45-degree angle with the pole. "I look like a flag caught in a hurricane," he says. More vertigo-producing still, he torques his body to a boggling 60 degrees, like a forearm in full salute. Then he's upside down, gripping the pole with only his thighs. As the music crescendos, he catches two or three breaths and scampers down headfirst, no hands.

Throughout the routine, Bollinger's millions of balance receptors are rioting, but the illusion comes off as planned. He uses subtle, nearly undetectable movements — for instance, a slight flex of his extensor hallucis longus muscle (that's his big toe, to you) to arrest any teetering of the torso, or a little more bend in the knee to lower his center of gravity and prevent a misstep from becoming a fall. So gravity seems to pull at him from the ceiling or sometimes from stage left, but rarely does the tug appear to come from the ground. "Balance is not something that just happens," says Marjorie Woollacott, a professor in the University of Oregon's Department of Exercise and Movement Science, "but is actually a complicated neuromuscular activity that makes all other human movement possible. Think of it as the system software that runs the computer, making it possible to use word-processing programs or spreadsheets." Woollacott explains that it takes a hundred different muscles firing repeatedly like an automatic weapon for a human to simply stand in place, to have posture. Only after balance is achieved can the brain signal for the surfboard's edge to be set, for the Frisbee toss to begin. "Balance — and its twin sister, posture — is the canvas on which all human movement occurs," Woollacott says. "Without it, even an athletic genius like Michael Johnson would be an idiot rolling in the grass."

The equipment for this crucial function is strung through the body like wires leading to the instrument panel of a 747. One of your cockpits is a walnut-size chunk of brain matter called the reticular formation. This grayish dollop hails from our amphibian past and does the bulk of the work in laying a foundation of body awareness in our subconscious. It soaks up data embedded in our muscles, tendons, and joints. But other critical information originates just around the corner, in the eyes and ears. Processing all this feedback, the brain computes the direction from which gravity is pulling, how the body is oriented in space, and whether the body is balanced or teetering around its center of mass.

In practice, this can be a daunting task. Take a surfer, for instance. He can't trust his vision, because a wave is trickier than it looks. It's constantly growing, shifting, or otherwise changing its shape and angle of inclination. He can't trust the proprioceptors in his ankles and feet, because the "ground" — the surface of the wave — is rising, falling, and generally not behaving like terra firma. "A surfer has to tune out this faulty information and rely almost solely on the balance mechanism of the inner ear for survival," says Woollacott.

Elite athletes figure out how to make use of all the dials and gadgets so there's little guesswork involved in moving through space. "We're not sure," says one Olympic trainer, "but it's possible that among other things, great athletes have superior feedback systems, giving them superior balance and superior posture."

There is some comfort in this for run-of-the-mill athletes, knowing that sport is something of a Marxist-determinist realm: Being awkward isn't really your fault; you've been denied the necessary tools to rise from oppression. But most biomechanists point to a ray of hope when it comes to balance. "There will always be Rocky Balboas," says Jeff Broker. "You can smooth out your own systems with quite significant results — and occasionally somebody with inferior tools but lots of preparation will knock off the best athletes in the world."


It's a topsy-turvy world, so find your space in it

There are countless exercises for improving balance, but significant progress can take years. So might as well have fun, right? Here are some of Woollacott's favorite drills, with a few extra balancing moves tossed in.

Be a tree. Few exercises drive home the "active" nature of balance better than yoga's famous Tree Posture. Stand on one foot, pressing the sole of the other into your upper thigh. Look down, look up, look side to side. Then close your eyes. Switch legs. You'll feel the muscles of the toes, feet, legs, hips, and back hard at work to hold this pose. Do this exercise every day, holding the posture for 30 seconds — or as long as you can. Gradually increase the time till you can make like a tree for an entire episode of Seinfeld. Then go for E.R.

The notorious BAPS (Biomechanical Ankle Platform System). Trainers and physical therapists use this surfboardlike contraption to rehab leg injuries, but it can improve the balance of healthy people, too. Basically it's a plastic board that pivots 360 degrees on a sphere mounted on its underside. By moving the board in a circular motion with one foot, the athlete exercises the neuromuscular receptors of the knee, ankle, and foot. To begin, rotate the board clockwise ten times slowly; then change directions and rotate it five times counterclockwise. Switch feet. Do three sets of ten with each foot daily. ($559; from Sammons Preston, 800-323-5547.)

Stair mastery. Walk up a flight of steps with eyes closed. Then carefully walk down backward with eyes open, trying to keep your trunk as straight as possible. Most people tend to bend forward at the waist when backing down, a sign that their balance receptors could use some TLC. Do this five times, once a day.

Using your feet. Walk 50 yards on your tiptoes, and then walk back to where you began. Walk 50 yards on the outsides of your feet — i.e., with ankles turned out — and then return. Walk 50 yards on your insteps — ankles turned in — and return. Do three repetitions of this complete series daily. "The stronger your feet and ankles," says Woollacott, "the stronger your base, and thus the sturdier your posture."

Slight flexing of toes and feet keeps torso from wobbling. Bending the knees lowers the center of mass to ward off unwanted falls. Receptors in the inner ears, eyes, joints, muscles, and brain work together to make minor posture adjustments and maintain balance.


Walk around your backyard blindfolded. If your ankles and knees — which are loaded with kinesthetic receptors — feel uneasy negotiating your lawn's subtle changes of terrain, then you probably rely too much on visual cues to get your gravitational bearings. (Most of us do.) Running in sand will also tell you a lot about your sense of balance. Look straight ahead and gradually increase your speed. Do you feel as if you're going to fall over? Your sight is telling you that there are no obstacles ahead, but your feet are getting hung up in the sand. You'll need to practice to awaken these kinesthetic receptors.

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