Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land breaks down core balance-pose concepts and offers three creative ways to challenge your balance in order to improve it.
If I had to choose one family of yoga poses to focus my time and energy on, it would probably be balance poses. Firstly, it’s because balance poses offer potent real-world benefits: Physically, balancing teaches us to tap into the deep muscles that coordinate the separate parts of the body into an integrated whole. Mentally and emotionally, working on our balance helps us develop a keener focus as well as the ability to keep an even keel despite the inevitable wobbles that arise in life.
Secondly, it’s because these benefits are accessible to almost everyone: While some of us have open hips and others can move into deep backbends, we can all learn to improve our balance and gain confidence in our ability to negotiate the rough terrain of life.
Because balance is a learned skill, we must challenge our balance in order to improve it. Before we look at how to do that, though, let’s focus on a few foundational principles relevant to all stability poses and practices:
Like the foundation of a building, the sturdiness of a yoga pose depends on the quality of its base. When it comes to balancing on our feet, many of us are so used to wearing shoes that connecting to sensations there can be challenging. No wonder we then find it difficult to stand on one leg, rise to tiptoes, or transition from one stance to another. Improving proprioception (or sensory awareness) in our feet, learning how to spread our toes, lift our arches, or distribute our weight between the balls of our feet and our heels can go a long way toward helping us stand stronger—both on the mat and off it.
Similarly, learning how to use our hands for efficient weight-bearing is not only helpful in yoga arm balances, but in any action that requires thoughtful awareness of our shoulders, arms, and hands. When we have a mindful connection to our base, we feel more stable and grounded, better equipped to deal with the fluctuations of life.
Most of us are used to connecting to our larger and more superficial muscles—feeling our quads burn during an uphill walk or stair climb, or our chest and shoulders work when lifting and carrying a load. While these familiar muscles are great at driving large movements, they are inefficient for creating the micro-adjustments required for better balance. That’s where our deep stabilizers become vital: These smaller muscles create subtle engagement closer to the bone, supporting our joints and enabling us to coordinate different parts of the body to stand or move together.
Our stabilizers include:
• The “core”—the muscles connecting the spine and pelvis. More specifically, key muscles here include the deepest abdominal layer (transverse abdominis), the deepest back muscles (multifidi), the iliopsoas linking the spine and pelvis to each femur (thighbone), and the quadratus lumborum, which provides lateral support on either side of the lumbar spine.
• The gluteus medius on the lateral hip, a vital support when standing single-legged as it adjusts the position of the pelvis in relation to the standing leg.
• The muscles that coordinate the arms and the trunk, especially when we weight-bear on our arms or hands. Our shoulder stabilizers include the rhomboids and serratus anterior, which work together to position the scapulae (shoulder blades) on the rib cage, and the muscles of the rotator cuff (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis), which cooperate to juggle the head of the upper arm bone (humerus) on its small socket.
These muscles work skillfully together to coordinate the upper and lower body, generating support without rigidity. When we are in touch with our deep stabilizers, we feel centered and integrated.
Learning better balance is like learning anything—we have to be in the process long enough to benefit. As children, training wheels helped us learn to balance on our bikes. In yoga, this means choosing options that meet, and gently stretch, our current capability. So if lifting the foot to the inner thigh in tree pose means immediately falling out of the pose, it might be more helpful to keep the toes of the lifted foot on the floor or the fingertips of one hand on a wall for a little extra support if that allows us to remain in the pose longer. It’s when we stay somewhere slightly unstable that our muscles and our nervous system learn to compensate, creating inner equilibrium that enables us to handle more challenge next time.
Drishti means “focal point.” It refers specifically to where we orient our eyes and, in a broader sense, to where we focus our energy. Our eyes play a large role in balance. While we do use other sensory input (including our sense of touch and feedback from sensors in our inner ear), for most of us vision is our primary means of maintaining stability in relation to our surroundings. We can influence the balance challenge in yoga poses significantly by altering our drishti (more on that soon).
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” (2.2) This advice is particularly relevant to stability work, which depends on a delicate balance between effort and ease. It’s not uncommon to hold our breath when struggling to maintain stability; loss of easy breathing is a sign that we are trying too hard, holding too tightly, creating rigidity rather than stability. If we can let go of our attachment to a pose sufficiently to find ease in our breathing, we may begin to find physical and mental equilibrium too.
Connecting to our base and stabilizer muscles, acknowledging our current capability, and harnessing drishti and breath are useful touch points in any balance pose or practice. But there’s more to improving balance than that. Balance is a learned skill: If we challenge our balance, it improves; if we don’t, it tends to atrophy, as commonly happens as we age. Beyond that, though, the challenges we offer our balance need to mirror those we encounter in life; stability in the varied conditions of real life requires more than what’s offered by the single-legged standing poses in yoga.
Perhaps the simplest way to increase or decrease stability is to use our drishti. To make a challenging pose like half moon feel more stable, we can anchor our gaze to the floor or the wall in front of us. Conversely, to make a relatively stable pose, like triangle, feel more difficult, we can slowly move our gaze to the ceiling or even close our eyes. You may have even practiced blindfolded in class, and will remember that this can create a balance challenge in even the most straightforward postures. Moving our gaze or closing our eyes improves our sense of proprioception, forcing us to rely less on external focal points and trust instead our inner drishti.
Another easy way to challenge our balance is to change the way we connect to the floor. Any time we alter our foundation, we also modify the way the rest of the body must respond in order to maintain position. There are several ways to play with our base:
Reduce contact with the floor: Much of our stability depends on the amount of surface area we have in contact with the floor—the greater the contact area, the easier it is to remain stable. And less contact area with the floor means that our remaining base and stabilizer muscles will have to work harder. Of course, we can decrease the size of our base by standing on one foot instead of two, but that’s not our only option.
We can also decrease the size of our base by moving onto tiptoes, which is why crescent lunge requires more stability than warrior I. Tiptoe work can easily be incorporated into chair pose, goddess pose, the front foot in warrior poses—or to really up the ante, in the standing foot of single-legged standing poses.
We can reduce the surface area in contact with the floor in four-point poses too. Shifting from plank pose into side plank increases the stability requirement hugely by reducing our base by half. Likewise, lifting the opposite arm and leg adds to the challenge significantly in plank pose, in downward facing dog, and in dolphin. The same action from tabletop brings us into one of my favorite all-level stability poses: bird dog. Bird dog can become even more challenging if we float the supporting foot and shin to reduce the base further, or pivot onto the hand and knee on the same side of the body to create a kneeling version of half moon.
Destabilize the base: If you’ve ever practiced yoga on carpet, or on an uneven surface outside, you’ll remember how much harder you had to work to find stability. Like closing our eyes, standing on a wobbly base develops proprioception, as well as awareness and strength in the small, often underused, muscles in the feet and ankles. Besides practicing on carpet or outside, we can stand on one or both feet on soft foam blocks or folded blankets. Standing on blocks in mountain pose and chair pose makes the transition to single-legged poses like eagle, or stepping one foot back to lunge or warrior poses, significantly more difficult.
The same principle applies in floor poses. Placing foam blocks under hands and feet in plank pose or under hands and knees in tabletop makes it more difficult to lift a leg or hand. A block under the supporting hand in side plank hugely increases the workload on shoulder, core, and hip stabilizers.
Balance on the arms or hands: Balancing on our feet is basically what we are designed for. Balancing on our arms or hands, as we do in arm balances like astavakrasana (eight angle pose), requires a different skill set. Our shoulder joints are designed for mobility; creating a stable enough base there to support the rest of the body requires mindful attention and body awareness. Adding the additional distraction of turning things upside down, as we do in headstand or handstand, might just heighten our proprioception and fine motor control beyond anything else we do in our asana practice.
Any time we test our balance in a new or different way, we learn; it doesn’t matter whether we are able to balance on tiptoes or on our hands—it’s about the lessons gleaned along the way. As well as strengthening us physically, working on a reduced or unstable base can be a helpful reminder that in life, as in yoga, conditions aren’t always ideal. In fact, the lessons we learn from working through adversity are often the most powerful lessons of all.
In real life we are rarely required to hold a static balance pose. Instability arises much more often when we are moving—going up or down the stairs, biking or running, and negotiating rough or slippery terrain. So it’s critical that we improve our coordination during transitions as well as in static shapes.
Slow and smooth: Fast movement emphasizes our prime mover muscles and develops their fast-twitch fibers. Slow and controlled movement, on the other hand, awakens our deeper stabilizers and focuses on their slow-twitch fibers, which are key to fine motor control and coordination. Moving slowly and smoothly through any transitions will improve coordination, but those that involve maintaining equilibrium while shifting our base (such as moving from one side of bird dog to the other or flowing between chair pose and high lunge) will be particularly beneficial.
Practice standing up and lowering down: Difficulty rising up from the floor and lowering down again can become a huge barrier to independence as we age—which is why the SRT, or Sit Rise Test, is considered a key indicator of life expectancy—so it’s worth working on this transition throughout our entire lives. Options to play with include the following:
• Shifting between a cross-legged seat like sukhasana (easy pose) and standing
• Slowly transitioning between a low lunge and a high lunge
• Rolling from happy baby to standing in chair pose, and the reverse
• Moving from tadasana to malasana (garland pose), and then easing down into a seat, and the reverse
Move over obstacles: A barrier to maintaining balance in real life is the fact that we aren’t always standing on a grippy yoga mat on a smooth, flat surface. Very much like working on an unstable base, rehearsing movement over or around obstacles can better equip us to bridge the gap between yoga practice and reality. Try using yoga blocks to mimic real-life obstacles—for example, stepping forward from downward facing dog over a block, toe tapping sideways over a block from chair pose, or stepping backward over a block from chair to a warrior pose.
One benefit of improved balance in daily life is the creation of neuromuscular pathways that enable us to respond to the unexpected—such as slipping or tripping. Incorporating unfamiliar transitions during yoga practice offers a controlled way to create these pathways between mind and body. The options are virtually unlimited, but you could start by playing with these movements:
• Start in half moon on your right foot with your right hand resting on a block or the floor. Sweep your left leg parallel to the short edge of your mat, creating an L shape, then return it to its starting position. If this feels easy, repeat the movement on the fingertips of your right hand, or with your right hand hovering above the mat. Try both sides to compare the experience.
• Start in bird dog with your left arm and right leg lifted. Step your right foot to the outside of your right hand, sweeping your left arm back by your side as a counterweight. Lean over your right foot and slowly rise to standing in warrior III with your left leg extended behind you. Control the transition back to your starting position, trying to keep your left hand lifted to reduce your reliance on the floor. Try both sides and compare the challenge they offer.
• Start in a revolved low lunge with your right leg forward and torso turned to the right. Smoothly rise to standing on your right foot. Sweep your left leg out in front of you, and turn your torso to the left, transitioning into parivrtta hasta padangusthasana (revolved hand to big toe pose) before slowly returning to your starting position. This transition will feel steadier if you can fix your gaze on the floor or wall in front of you and will be more challenging if you move your gaze as you twist your torso in opposite directions. Once again, try both sides for comparison.
Mindful transitions move us beyond simply getting from one shape to another and encourage us to be present in every moment along the way; they remind us to embrace instability and uncertainty, creating a sense of inner equilibrium that is not dependent on our environment. In fact, learning to find ease in the ambiguity of yoga transitions can also teach us to maintain composure in the face of real-life uncertainty.
The benefits of balance work never end!
All of us, regardless of age or level of yoga practice, can learn better balance. The key is to start by connecting to our base and deep stabilizing muscles, choosing balance options that allow us to stay long enough to benefit, and being mindful of how we direct our energy through our gaze and our breath. Once we have these central principles in mind, we can be more creative—challenging our balance by moving our gaze or closing our eyes, varying our base, and testing both static and dynamic stability. In fact, because we benefit most from varying the ways we test our stability, we will grow even more by incorporating unfamiliar poses and movements that bring our yoga practice closer to the obstacles we face in real life.
But the benefits go far beyond physical stability: By challenging our ability to deal with uncertainty on the mat, we create the resilience we need to move more gracefully through our lives beyond it.
Photography: Andrea Killam