Working on Balance
Lately, things have been a bit crazy. Maybe it’s the Scorpio full moon or the transition into Spring or that life is finally starting to open up again; my life has been pretty hectic. Throughout all the craziness, I’ve been finding it more difficult to find time for myself and my practice. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes I find stepping away from yoga for a few weeks actually helps improve my practice in the long run. I get to re-evaluate what’s working and what’s not. However, yesterday I stepped on to my mat and felt off. Specifically speaking, my balance was all over the place.
It’s frustrating because balancing poses tend to be some of my favorites and I’ve cultivate a strong sense of my body and its positioning through my years of consistent practice. But, as I have mentioned before, one of my favorite parts of my yoga practice is how it informs other parts of my life. Of course my physical balance feels off. It’s reflective of my current situation. And while it can be frustrating to compare your current practice to a past practice, I think it can also be seen as a gift since it enlightens the areas that need work and gives me space to improve. If I can cultivate more balance and stability in my physical practice, I can, in turn, apply that to my life off the mat. Because, in reality, that itself is truly yoga, not just what happens on my mat.
This month I want to focus on my balance, specifically “gaining back” my balance and improving my comfort in balancing poses. Below I offer a few tips that I have found helpful for practicing balance in a yoga practice, as well as three poses I am choosing to focus on this month in hopes of regaining and improving my balance on and off my mat.
Tips for Balancing Poses
- Find a steady gaze point
This one may sound rather intuitive but I truly believe a strong foundation for any balancing pose starts with the gaze. When I first began practicing, I didn’t focus on my gaze and allowed myself to look really wherever. However, after completing my teacher training and practicing all sorts of balancing poses, I found that my balance strongly improved when I had a singular point that I was focused on. I think balance is just as much mental concentration as it is physical. Focusing on a steady and singular gaze point will help maintain the steadiness throughout the body
There is also a bit of anatomical reasoning behind finding a steady gaze. By finding a specific point with the eyes, the head is kept steady and therefore the neck is kept in a relatively neutral position (depending on the pose of course). This encourages greater alignment down the spine which, in turn, translates to the rest of the body. Of course with moving balance poses (such as a transition into Warrior 3), it’s important to shift your gaze as your body moves. If you are looking for a greater challenge to your existing balance poses, you can try closing your eyes as well.
- Engaging your core
Core strength is a major factor in almost every active yoga pose. When I refer to “core muscles” I’m not simply referring to the front abdominal muscles but the obliques, the lower back muscles, and even the hip flexors. Essentially, any muscles that would be touched by a corset, I consider “core muscles”. If you think of the human body like a tree, the core is the truck or the strongest and most stable part of the body. The core supports all other limbs and all other functions, among other things.
It might be annoying to constantly hear “engage your core muscles” in a yoga class but I genuinely feel that it is one of the most important factors in yoga. As it relates to balance, its almost impossible to perform any balancing poses with a weak or unengaged core because, like a tree, the core is your truck. It lays the solid foundation within your body to help stabilize and strengthen your limbs while in a balance. For me, engaging my core feels like flexing through my stomach and lengthen my spine to engage my lower back.
- Finding flexion
This tip is a bit more intuitive than the other ones I have offered here. The main idea behind this one is focusing on flexion or tension within the body and using that to stabilize the other parts of the body that are just hanging out. My favorite example of this is keeping flexion in the raised leg while in Warrior 3 pose. While in this pose, you are balanced on one standing leg, with the opposite leg stretched out behind you and arms either in front of you or balanced on blocks (see pic below). I think the natural inclination in this pose is to just let the hovering leg hang out behind while focusing all the attention on the standing leg. This is actually counter intuitive because by not engaging the back leg, the hips fall out of alignment, which makes the balance much more difficult. However, keeping flexion in the back heel engages that leg and helps balance the pelvis.
This is a general theme across most balance poses; finding flexion in certain limbs or areas of the body can help stabilize. My biggest recommendation for implementing this tip is doing a full body scan while in a balance and testing whether holding flexion or releasing it affects your balance. You may be surprised!
- Balancing evenly through entire foot/ hand
This one relates to number 3 a bit. When teaching, I like to say cues along the lines of: “press evenly through the whole foot” or “press all 10 fingers into the mat” when guiding students into a balance. There is a couple of reasonings for this. The first, and probably most obvious, is giving a larger plane to balance on. The full foot versus just the forefoot or the full hand rather than just the palm covers much more space on the mat.
This also helps keep flexion and therefore stabilization through the body while balancing. Keeping tension in the whole hand and foot also helps engage the muscles in the forearm and calves.
Poses I am regularly practicing this month
I think dancer is one of those classic yoga poses that are associate with balance. You see it all over social media in different variations and landscapes. Dancer can technically be considered a heart opener because of the spine extension. It really depends on the level of variation that is being performed. The more classic dancer with one hand clasping the raised foot or a strap requires more balance the further forward that you bring the torso. My favorite modification involves clasping the foot behind you with both hands and reaching through the chest. This puts more of an emphasis on the heart opening aspect of this pose rather than the balance aspect of it. I recommend both variations.
Begin standing and find a steady gaze point for the eyes. Shift weight into left foot and begin to lift the right knee to about hip heigh. Reach the right hand behind (or both hands if doing the heart opener variation) and grasp the right foot. Left hand can reach out in front or stay at the side. Hinge forward slightly at the hips and keep a long spine. Hold for 3 breaths. Release the right foot and repeat on the other side.
Warrior 3 (Virabhadrasana III)
I used to not take Warrior 3 seriously because I thought it was a more watered down version of dancer. I have since come around and I think the main reason in my mindset shift is changing the engagement in my legs. Before, my back leg used to hang behind me with little engagement or flexion. This would put almost all the work and effort on my standing leg while falling out of alignment in my pelvis. The quick fix for this problem was to flex my heel and, miraculously, the entire pose changed for me. (See tip number 3 for more on this). There are several variations of this pose, mainly concerning the arm placement. Arms can be out to the sides, in front of you, or balancing on blocks. Really any arm placement that supports your balance is welcome.
Begin standing on the mat and find a steady gaze point with this eyes. Begin to shift weiht into the left foot, grounding down through the toes and lift the right knee to about hip height. Hinge forward at the hips and reach the right leg long behind you, flexing through the heel. Gaze can stay in front of you or shift to the mat. Arms stretched in front or on blocks. Hold for 3 breaths then return the right foot to the mat and repeat on the other side.
My favorite! Crow tests my mental focus just as much as it tests my upper body strength and arm balance. Crow is just as much a mentally hard pose as it is physically hard for me as I’ve fallen on my face way more times than I’d like to admit. But it’s also really fun and makes me feel like a badass so it’s basically become a staple in my practice. If you are concerned about falling, it can be helpful to have a pillow or blanket below you just in case. Blocks under the feet can also be helpful for raising the hips and making the transition to balance easier.
Begin in a low squat with knees point out and palms pressing together at heart center. Place both hands on the mat, stacking beneath the shoulders and press evenly through the fingers and palms. Walk the feet forward until the knees touch the triceps. Find a steady gaze point in front of you and begin to shift the weight forward so the toes lift off the mat. Hold for 3 breaths then ease the body back to rest on the toes.