How to balance out your body
There can be no doubt about it — balance is a buzzword. We’re encouraged to create a healthy work-life balance, eat a balanced diet and cultivate internal balance through the practice of yoga, but there is one aspect that often slips under the radar: balancing our right and left sides.
Almost 90 per cent of all human beings all over the world use their right hands for writing and other fine motor tasks such as using a computer mouse, even in countries where people write from right to left. It has been this way for a long, long time. Anthropologists have found that the shift to favouring the right hand (in using stone tools, for instance) began 1.5 million years ago and analysis of ancient artworks has revealed that people were predominantly right-handed as much as 5000 years ago.
Using our right hands for just about everything might not seem a big deal, except that this imbalance extends up our arms and into the rest of our bodies. The majority of people are not just right-handed but right-footed (ie, we use our right foot to kick a ball, or step forward with our right foot first), right-eyed (eg, when looking through a camera or telescope) — even right-eared (such as when on the phone). Less noticeably, we might clasp our hands, fold our arms or cross our legs one way more often than the other.
It’s a right-handed world
This “leaning to the right” isn’t just physical, either. Right-dominance appears throughout our culture; the meanings we attribute to right and left are even similar across cultures.
Chris Mcmanus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London and one of the world’s leading authorities on handedness, says, “Wherever one looks, on any continent, in any historical period or in any culture, right and left have their symbolic associations and always it is right that is good and left that is bad.”
Many of the world’s religions have long emphasised the wholesomeness of the right at the expense of the unfortunate (even evil) left. In Christianity, for instance, Jesus sat at the right hand of God and is even called the right hand of God. In Buddhism, the Noble Eightfold Path speaks of “right speech, right action, right livelihood”; although “right” in this sense is a loose translation of the Pali word sammã, meaning perfect or ideal, Buddhist stupas are walked around clockwise with one’s right side inward while Tibetan prayer wheels are turned with the right hand. In Hinduism and Islam, too, the right hand is for eating and auspicious activities such as making religious offerings; the left hand is used as a sign of disrespect and for, let’s say, bathroom activities.
The sense that right is good, and left is bad, also permeates language. In English alone, right is used to mean correct as well as sane (as in: to be in one’s right mind), orderly (setting things right), compensated (to right a wrong), complete (the bus goes right into town) and immediately (“I’ll be right over”). We talk about our rights and right-of-way; your right-hand man is your most valued assistant; and when we agree with someone, we say “All right”, “Too right” or “She’ll be right, mate!”
Being right-handed has historically been associated with being skilful, too: the Latin word for right-handed is dexter, from which comes dexterity. So even if you’re ambidextrous — ie, equally able in both hands — you literally have “two right hands”.
On the other hand …
The word left seems to get left behind in the popularity race. We eat leftovers, dance with two left feet and give left-handed compliments (a euphemism for an insult or putdown). Our word “left” comes from the Old English word lyft, which meant weak or useless.
Of course, left hands will always be physically weaker in a right-handed society, but the original word implied a lack of moral strength as well. The words for left and left-handed are, in many languages, synonymous with being wrong, awkward or clumsy. The French word gauche, for example, means both left and awkward, in Dutch twee linkerhanden hebben (literally “having two left hands”) means clumsy and in Norwegian venstrehåndsarbeid (“left-hand work”) refers to something done in a sloppy or unsatisfactory way.
Could it be that left-handers are branded clumsy, or feel awkward, because they constantly have to cope with a right-handed world? Even if that were true, the left side still wouldn’t have a chance: ancient Greeks and Romans regarded the left side as inferior, even profane. The Latin word for left, incidentally, is sinister.
In some Muslim countries it is believed that good spirits speak into people’s right ears; evil spirits speak into their left ears. Throughout Africa, South America and the Pacific, right has long been believed to be good and godly, whereas left is bad and evil.
Back to the body
What does all this right-side dominance have to do with our bodies and the way we live our lives? Sydney corrective massage practitioner Steve Bailey, who has been unofficially studying right-sidedness for 20 years, believes that using one side of our bodies more than the other causes all kinds of physical imbalances, from our jaws (such as when we habitually chew on one side of our mouths) right down to our big toes.
“I see the same patterns over and over,” he says. “On the side that’s used, and it’s usually the right side, the muscles contract so much and become so much stronger on that side that they can pull the bones out of alignment, pull ribs out of alignment; people can even develop mild scoliosis, a sideways bend in the spine.”
Along with all this overuse comes a greater risk of injury, either on the side that’s overused or the weaker, underused side, says Steve. “Women generally carry their babies in the non-dominant arm so they can use the other arm to do things. That creates all sorts of contraction and when baby gets heavier the stress on that side [usually the left side] increases. I’ve treated many, many women with that issue.”
Left-handers fare only slightly better in the balance stakes, simply because they don’t do much with their left hand. Very few people are fully left-handed; unlike right-handers, who tend to do most things with their right hand, left-handers tend to use their left hand for fine motor tasks such as writing and their non-dominant right hand for “gross” motor tasks such as carrying a shopping bag, so their bodies get some crossover.
Along with physical imbalances, the meanings we attach to the different sides of our bodies can create problems — in individuals as well as in a broader, global sense.
As long ago as the 6th century BCE, Pythagoras, in his Table of Opposites, linked the left side with femaleness and evil, the right side with masculinity and goodness.
Bodymind practitioners such as Debbie Shapiro, author of The Bodymind Workbook, have extended this simple female-male split. Shapiro says that the right side of the body reflects our attitude to our masculine nature and the male people in our lives (father, brother, husband) and is connected with “the intellectual, aggressive, and assertive, that which Deals with daily reality, practical and work issues, is authoritative, logical and rational”. The left side, on the other hand, “represents the feminine principle … This is our creative and artistic nature, the gentle, receptive, irrational and intuitive … It represents our relationship to the feminine nature, both within ourselves and with others.”
What does our Right-dominance say about the world we live in, then, where close to 90 per cent of people reach out for things or towards others with their right (and arguably aggressive, active and masculine) hand? Steve Bailey suggests that the way we use our bodies is symbolic of the way we elevate the masculine in our culture and repress the feminine.
“I’ve seen this a lot in people’s bodies,” he says. “We lead with the right arm, as if it’s carrying a sword, and we hold the left arm tucked into the body and raised a little as if we’re carrying something heavy like a shield. Look at it on a global level. There’s too much fighting and competing instead of sharing; power games instead of cooperation.”
The natural way
In a world that seems to favour the right side so profoundly and completely, it may seem ambitious to even hope for any right-left balance — unless you believe, as many philosophers have through the ages, that right-handedness is purely cultural and our natural condition is ambidexterity.
In the 4th century BCE, Plato declared that right-handedness was due to “the folly of nurses and mothers” and that by repeatedly using our two hands in “the wrong way” we made them different. The Greeks actually favoured ambidexterity because it was thought to be more efficient to use two hands rather than one in sport and in battle. Michelangelo is said to have painted with both hands. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was even a movement to encourage ambidexterity. One of the supporters of the Ambidextral Culture Society was Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement; that’s one reason Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to this day shake hands with the left hand.
French obstetrician Dr Frederick Leboyer took a different tack: he suggested, in the 1970s, that our right-dominance arises from the hospital birth process, arguing that harsh lights and sounds encourage an attitude of aggression which leads us to favour our right (aggressive) sides. Children delivered using his birthing method, now called the Leboyer Method — which incorporates soft lighting, gentleness, delayed cutting of the umbilical cord and mild massage — have been found to be more likely to be ambidextrous and display a heightened degree of balance between the right and left sides of their bodies.
Professor Chris McManus, on the other hand, believes that we come into the world right-handed, because a gene for right-handedness in humans evolved 2-3 million years ago, around the time we developed language, which is managed by the left hemisphere of the brain. In his view, our beliefs and attitudes about right being better than left have been overlaid onto that basic fact of human existence. (Chimpanzees, our nearest genetic relatives, incidentally, have a 50:50 split for right- and left-handedness.)
Whether or not ambidexterity is our natural state, it makes sense to cultivate more balance in our lives. Using both sides of our bodies benefits us in several ways: greater comfort in the body (less pain, less chance of injury), better brain function (including more creativity) and a sense of balance.
American yoga master Erich Schiffman put it this way in his book The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness: “Being asymmetrical and unbalanced creates a certain inevitable level of stress and strain throughout the body. Working towards a balance within yourself will bring a welcome harmony to the overall feeling-tone of who you are.”
He says yoga is one way to “balance the mental impulse to push, control and be assertive with the complimentary impulse to yield, surrender and be passive”.
Returning to balance
To rebalance our right and left sides, we can start by doing more of the “balanced” activities we already do which include yoga, walking (swinging both arms equally), running, cycling, swimming (breathing on both sides), sea kayaking, drumming and juggling. Having a massage or other bodywork can realign your body so that it’s working more symmetrically, too.
We can also try using our non-dominant hand more, by doing many apparently right-handed things with our left hand. Steve Bailey suggests starting with actions that can be done easily and safely: wiping down the kitchen bench, brushing your teeth, picking things up, switching your bag or backpack to the other shoulder.
The next step is to apply your non-dominant hand to the simplest but most significant thing we do: using a computer mouse. “Because we use computers so much, this single action can have enormous repercussions for the rest of our bodies,” says Steve. “As a natural right-hander, I made the transition quite easily with consistent practice and now have equal productivity and dexterity with both hands using the mouse and in almost everything I do. I even had a left-handed game of tennis the other day. It’s quite liberating to discover what you can do with your non-dominant hand.”
Much of it comes back to learning to trust your non-dominant side. While I was working on this story, I tried to use my left (non-dominant) hand as much as possible in my daily life. It made me realise not just how right-dominant I really am but how unconscious that right-dominance is. Even when we try to be aware when, say, lifting a cup of tea to our lips, opening a door or hanging out the washing, the right-left aspect often goes unnoticed. What I did notice, however, was how little I trust my left hand to do things; and when I did use it, I felt more aware of what I was doing.
Returning to a state of balance is more than a physical shift. It’s about returning home to our bodies and our lives, which is a process, not a destination — the process of learning to trust our non-dominant side, which can bring us more into the moment as we pay attention in situations where we otherwise might have been on auto-pilot. And if we can dare to question such a dominant paradigm as the one that says all things right are beautiful, it makes you wonder: what else can we question to ensure we live more conscious and fulfilling lives?
When left is all right
Despite the worldwide, cross-cultural preference for the right side, there are anomalies. The Incas in Peru thought that being left-handed was a sign of good luck. In large aircraft, for instance, the captain sits on the left side of the cockpit. Ancient Egyptians once believed it was good luck to enter a house with your left foot first. Medals are traditionally worn on the left side of a uniform, close to the heart. Twenty percent of all Mensa members are left-handed. Of the five people that designed the original Macintosh computer, four were left-handed. When typing, the left hand does most of the work, because the most popular letters (a,e,r,s,t) are on the left side of the keyboard. Benjamin Franklin signed the US Declaration of Independence with his left hand. Famous “sinistrals” (left-handers) include Albert Einstein, Beethoven, Alexander the Great, Bill Clinton, Pablo Picasso, Napoleon, Bill Gates, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix (the list goes on, and on).
Louise Southerden is a right-handed writer based in Sydney. Louise would like to thank massage practitioner Steve Bailey for his assistance with this article. To contact Steve, call 0413 382 580 or visit www.bodymindmechanic.com.au.