By Scott Williams

The original definition of a juggler is “one who entertains by performing tricks or illusions,” according to Andrew Glass, a local juggling expert. Glass, who is from Brooklyn, New York, learned how to juggle various objects at an early age while assisting his mother, who often performed as Tootsie Roll the Clown in and around Long Island. He picked it up as a form of play and a way to connect with those around him. Glass says, “we are all jugglers.”  

I grew up playing lots of soccer and learned to juggle the ball with my feet as it is a large part of the requisite skills related to the sport. However, juggling with the feet or hands is not just beneficial for athletes or entertainers, but for anyone who wants to improve aspects of their life, their self-awareness, and their relationship with others, a kind of cross-training for a wide variety of life skills.

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Glass, who has been working at New Moon in Truckee for 12 years, shares that juggling is an ancient art that was first depicted around 2000 BC on wall paintings in an Egyptian tomb that showed three women juggling. Glass feels the activity is not just entertainment but also a way to play, as well as a means to explore opportunities for both intra- and interpersonal connections. He is quick to demonstrate and point out that even expert jugglers drop the ball on occasion, and feels this is a metaphor for life — you drop the ball and pick it back up and keep going. It is part of the process and worth appreciating instead of being discouraged. It’s the Sisyphean task that we all face as we juggle life’s never-ending tasks and challenges — to endure and keep going even when all the balls are up in the air or rolling away in different directions.

Juggling has also been used to help people as a coping mechanism for general well-being, and a study published in Healthcare in 2022 looked at a group of 20 healthy volunteers with an average age of 70 who took 12 juggling lessons over a month. Everyone learned to juggle at least three balls, which was correlated with boosting moods as well as reducing depressive symptoms. Glass says juggling has also boosted his ability to connect and engage with others, and adds that it not only improves his mood but “brings the value of whimsy, discipline, and balance to the world.”

BE THE BALL: Andrew Glass says the important thing about juggling is not how good you are at it, but how much effort you put into trying.

Juggling does more than just enhance moods; it also improves hand-eye coordination, which involves complex cognitive abilities that unite our visual and movement abilities, allowing for the hand or leg to be guided by the visual information our eyes receive. Hand-eye coordination is especially important for normal child development and academic success, and is also a vital skill that adults use in countless instances on a daily basis. Any activity such as writing, driving, walking, running, and nearly every sport requires the use of neuro-somatic connections to coordinate what you see with the movement of your body.   

Juggling requires moving the limbs quickly and adjusting one’s weight distribution, and can boost balance and posture in general. For example, if you reach for an object but your brain does not coordinate the movement of your arm with the activation of your core muscles to provide a stable base, you could easily fall over. These neuromuscular pathways are readily maintained by various methods and, as physical therapists, we often use aspects of juggling during rehabilitation as we try to restore postural control and stability on one or both legs when we have clients balance on an unstable surface and toss a ball back and forth with them. This is one of the simplest acts of juggling — simply tossing a tennis ball a short distance into the air or bouncing it off a suitable surface, alone or with a partner, and catching it and repeating. Glass even suggests starting with one object to develop consistency and muscle memory, and teaches young children how to juggle using scarves, which are much easier for anyone to catch and toss.

FIERY SPIN: In addition to juggling, Andrew Glass also practices fire spinning, or poi.

Juggling also affects our neural plasticity. At any age, and especially as we get older, our brains are constantly modifying themselves, a process called neural plasticity. Put another way, our brains have the ability to modify themselves depending on what activities we choose to do or not do. Glass shares that this is what he calls his continued “expansion and exploration of what is possible” as he juggles a variety of objects and interacts with people wherever he juggles.

A study published in 2004 in Nature investigated the nervous system’s adaptive behavior to learning a new skill, which in this case was juggling. The researchers were able to confirm training-induced changes in the brain and demonstrated a significant increase in grey matter in the jugglers. Our central nervous system is made up of our brain and spinal cord and can be most simply divided into white and grey matter. Grey matter is the tissue where the processing takes place, and white matter is where the communication takes place. Grey matter consists of neuronal cell bodies that conduct and process information to send to other areas of the body. Although grey matter was thought to be fully formed by our mid 20s, this study demonstrated that the grey matter became denser in the hippocampus, which lasted for several months after the study concluded.

White matter is composed of nerve cells called axons and a covering of fatty white substance called myelin. Myelin ensures the rapid transmission of electrical impulses. In another study involving juggling with a control group, there was no change in the brains of the non-jugglers, but the jugglers grew more white matter in a part of the parietal lobe, an area involved in connecting what we see to how we move. The white matter changes were observed in all the jugglers, regardless of how well they could perform. The authors suggested that it’s the challenge of something new that is important for the brain, not how well one performs it.

IN THE AIR: Andrew Glass loves to juggle for more than just the physical aspects. He says it helps him connect with other people and is a metaphor for life about picking ourselves up after we fall down.

Learning to juggle is not as hard as it seems, and Glass has taught individuals of all ages. He agrees that what matters is not how good you are, but the effort you put out in the attempt to learn and grow, the drive to continue to explore new things. He emphasizes learning the fundamentals and always having something you can juggle with you in order to juggle often. He travels with his assortment of balls, pins, scarves, and sticks to juggle anywhere, anytime, so he can continue to entertain and expand his interactions with others. Glass is always interested in sharing and is available to perform at parties and events, as well as educational workshops to teach others how to juggle. He says that he just “wants everyone to take care of their minds and bodies and to be kind to one another.” 

Andrew Glass can be found under
@leopardhippie on Instagram and YouTube.

~ Scott Williams is a physical therapist at Synergy Healing Arts in Truckee who plays as much as he works. He is passionate about the mountain lifestyle and enjoys all the outdoor things, but also spends lots of time these days doing yoga as well as juggling a soccer ball to keep his mind and body in shape.  

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