Over Christmas I met my new grandniece who, at the age of one month, loves to dance. Any kind of rhythmic motion soothes and enthralls her. Whether we grooved to Stevie Wonder or waltzed to Frank Sinatra, her cries would cease, her muscles relax, and her eyes brightly turn to the swirling landscape around her.

While others in the family were curious to discover the object of little Emma’s gaze, my wonder was with the process of how she responded to motion: how she relaxed with the rhythmic sway; how her eyes stayed fixed on the sunlight on the wall even as her body turned, or how she would turn her head to keep something of fascination in her gaze as we spun in the dance.

The responses I observed as we moved to the beat all engage an unseen sensory system in baby Emma – the amazing vestibular sense-of-motion. Hidden in Emma’s inner ear, the vestibular system is the first sensory system to fully developed in utero. It plays a pivotal (no pun intended) role in her development as it works with other senses to help her accurately perceive her own actions and the world around her.

The vestibular sense-of-motion helps Emma fix her gaze and turn her head as I twirl her through space. It helps her sort out the difference between her own motion and what she sees moving in the environment. As she grows, it will play a critical role in her ability to control her posture – even before she can stand and walk, and eventually to balance on two feet. Her sense-of-motion informs her perception of space and will continue to do so as she learns to navigate the world on her own. The vestibular sense also ties to breathing and heart regulation, which may help explain the calming effect of rhythmic movement. Although not yet evident in her behavior, her sense-of-motion will also contribute to cognitive functions such as memory and learning and her ability to read. (To learn more about the vestibular system listen to my TEDx talk)

Dancing with Emma reminded me of the importance of being in motion across a lifetime. The benefit and necessity never end: when we stop moving in ways that engage awareness and our sense-of-motion we start to lose skills we’ve developed from the beginning of life – balance among them.

Interestingly, physical practices* found to best support good balance and overall well being are those that actively engage awareness of our body in movement through space — activities that stimulate the all important inner ear sense-of-motion. As in the early years of life, being in motion helps us be at our best as we age. I look forward to the coming months and years of inspiration watching Emma in motion as she discovers the wonders of navigating life.

*To learn more about other mindful movement practices check out the Mind & Body in Motion Podcasts