Balancing Act

Balance is one of the aspects of yoga that I think is very important. Clearly, I think all aspects of yoga are important, but balance holds a special place in my heart.

Balance is purely about the mind working in tandem with the body using a good technique. The body is important, but a perfectly fit and healthy body may not be able to balance if the mind is not focused.

This may or may not be scientifically provable, but I think it is demonstrated in kids. Children from say age 5-10 are very physically capable, low to the ground and often have zero fear of gravity. They are also like little balls of totally uncontrolled energy and emotion. Their little hearts and brains are going a million miles a minute. Ask a 7-year old healthy child to stand one foot. Tell them they can have dessert before dinner if they can hold it for 30 seconds. I wager they don’t last three. It is actually comical to observe. I have nephews and a niece and am not a parent, so I take liberties and like to laugh at their expense. They CANNOT balance. It is one reason why dance, martial arts, gymnastics and yoga can be great for kids. All of those disciplines will help them focus and channel that boundless and enviable energy!

You may not have boundless energy, but your mind may be going a million miles an hour. One person may be in reasonable or even excellent shape, but balancing on one foot or in complicated postures or on their head is a problem. Alternatively, someone may not feel like they are in particularly good shape, but can stand on one foot all day long without a problem. Why? Focus. The body needs to be physically able to do the task, but the mind is in charge.

I know I talk a lot about aging. I am a little obsessed with it, but for good reason. My family has pretty good longevity, but not everyone was pain free and in good health in their later years.  I want to live even longer than my relatives, but I want to be healthy and stable during those later years. I would imagine you can relate to parts of it. We all have family members who have fallen and for younger people, this can result in broken bones, which are painful and take a long time to heal. In older people, they can be fatal.

As always, I like to follow my terrifying tales of the future with the assurance that it is not inevitable! You can take charge of this no matter what your age or fitness level and work on your balance. There are many benefits of improving your balance, including maintaining mental acuity and better joint health.

As I was saying, a huge part of it is the mind, and then with practice, the body will get on board. The Harvard Medical School said:

“A sharp mind helps you to think — and stay — on your feet.”

How do we improve our balance? As with everything, it is a matter of focus and practice.

Generally, when we refer to “balancing postures” in yoga, we are talking about those that require you to stand on one leg, but all yoga postures require balance, so if you are unsteady on your feet, you may find a chair, wall or barre beneficial. I used to have a regular client in one of my large group classes. She had been practicing for many years, and was in her 80s. She always made sure to get a spot at the edge of the room, so she could use the barre for support. That is not cheating! It is using a prop to help her do the posture well and safely. Hand stands and head stands are also balance. Of course, there are other things involved, but if you lose focus, you risk falling no matter how strong you are.

If you suffer from vertigo, inner ear issues, etc., you will have a harder time. If you are pregnant, your center of gravity has changed, so be careful. If you have particular issues  such as a missing portion of a limb, numbness or tingling in your feet, diabetes, etc., balance will be different for you. This is not to say that you should not do it, but you are dealing with external factors impacting your balance, so be gentle on yourself, and use whatever support you need to.

If your body, in theory, has no reason why it shouldn’t be able to balance, we need to look to the mind to to help, and if you are facing additional challenges to balance, your mind is still key. I would like to first give you some tools; then some ways to practice; some simple postures to get you started; and finally some more challenging postures.

Drishti. A drishti point refers to a point that we look to and focus on in yoga. It can be used in meditation, and sometimes the drishti is the third eye, which is internal. The concept is also important in the asanas.  

“Using a drishti is especially helpful if you are holding a posture for an extended period of time, and will be enormously helpful while practicing balancing poses.”

It is simple to practice in its most basic form. Pick something at eye level that is not moving, and focus on it. There is no need to have this be anything of meaning. Brick walls yield many good drishsti  points where the mortar intersects. A light, a point on a picture, your own eyes in the mirror. You do not want to focus on the head in front of you in class because it may not be stable. Just look at your chosen point. Focus on it. Imagine breathing in and out of it. Focus your energy there. That focus will quiet your mind and help you maintain your balance.

That brings me to the next tool. The breath. You knew that was coming; yoga is all about the breath! When practicing, there are two ways your breath can be married to the asanas: in movement and in stillness. When we are flowing, as in a vinyasa practice, or when we are simply moving from one posture to another, it is best to do this with the breath. Rather than manipulating your breath constantly, find a steady breath pattern and match your movement to the breath, not the other way around. This regularity and steadiness of breath will help you find focus in the movement and keep you steady on your feet. When you are holding a posture, any posture, aside from savasana, some level of balance is needed. Use the same steady and strong inhale and exhale to breathe in a sense of strength and stability. Focus on the drishti and imagine drawing breath from it and breathing back into it.

Focus your mind on the task at hand. To me, this might be the most important thing. As a teacher, I have to work especially hard on balance when I am in front of a class. If I am trying to demonstrate a posture, explain it, look at the students, sometimes show what not to do and make a correction, and sometimes watch the clock if I want to hold the pose for a set amount of time, my mind is not on the pose. However, like with anything else, with practice, we get better. I used to have to be singularly focused in some postures, but now I can hold it while chatting, usually. Even then, though, I might be in something relatively easy and stable, like a lunge, turn my head towards the class and wobble. You have to have your head in the game. If you are worrying about what is happening out of the corner or your eye or you suddenly remember that email you forgot to send. Bam! You’re going to lose focus and lose your balance. You need to work on being in the moment, in your body, in your mind, in your breath. I think this is why kids and perfectly able-bodied people sometimes can’t balance to save their lives. Their mind is in frantic motion. Balance is about finding the stillness.

A still mind will make it easier to find stillness in the body.

Props. Props get such a bad rep for no reason. The mind may play a huge role, but you are still in your body, so you need to train your body too. The body needs to get used to standing on one foot, for example, which you may not do on a regular basis. I maintain that it is FAR better to be standing on one foot, and using the wall or a chair for support and actually standing on one foot than standing there tapping your foot up and down. Your body needs to learn that feeling of stability. Put a hand on something solid, focus on a drishti, breathe, and focus on the present moment and what you are trying to do. If you feel stable, maybe take our hand away, but there is no reason to rush it. The same goes for headstands and handstands. Some teachers oppose doing them against the wall. My philosophy is to use the wall and then slowly work away from it until you don’t need it, and you aren’t afraid of crashing over.

Visualization. Doubt is not your friend. Balancing is a challenge, but if you don’t think you can do it, you won’t. I always like to teach to start in mountain pose. Find your stability first on two feet. Feel the strength of your mind and your body holding you there rooted to the earth. You are a mountain. Nothing is more stable. See your drishti  point, feel your breath in and out and imagine yourself this stable once you lift one foot off the earth. Focus, breathe and then shift your weight and take it in your standing foot putting your other foot in the posture you wish to hold. Breathe. Focus. Relax. Find stillness.

Every time you practice, try to incorporate a balance pose. Work on holding it longer. You can start with 10 seconds and then add 10 seconds till you get to a minute or more.

You can also work on balance in your daily life. I like to brush my teeth in tree pose. You can pump gas, wash dishes, talk on the phone and watch tv while holding tree pose. In these cases, you are training your mind further. Can you focus on the task at hand and let your muscle memory take over with the balance? This becomes crucial when we think about avoiding falls. Falls happen all of the sudden when our mind is elsewhere, so partially, we need to practice living in the moment, so that our wandering mind doesn’t cause us to fall and partially, we need to trust our body to take over and stabilize us even when our mind is wandering.

The following are some short videos with examples of balance poses to practice. I have talked about the curvature of my spine. It is pretty clear in some of these poses.

Seated balance postures

Rolling like a ball and tail bone balance

I have been working on jumping back from crane (legs are higher and ideally arms are straight) to plank. This was one of the first times I managed. Strength, balance, focus and technique all working together.

Royal pigeon

Two-legged balance postures

 One-legged balance postures and moving between them

Inverted balances

II mentioned I am working on headstands. A year ago, I was too scared to  even kick up to a wall or a spotter. I was sure I would crumple. I took a workshop, which gave me the tools and I learned to trust my strength. I have been practicing with the wall. Now, I am working on trying to not use the wall and actually balance. I’m getting there…

I also was playing around with other arm balances recently, so I will share some of those photos.

Starfish and floating lotus

Crow and side crow (working on getting those legs straight in side crow!)

Variation of tripod headstand and my attempt at 8-angle pose.

I am not sure this has a name. It looks like I’m falling, but really, I’m balancing up on my shoulder. I learned this in a pole dancing class. lol.  Maybe it is a yoga posture…probably, but I don’t know.

Have fun!!

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