This is the third in a series of articles that will cover a number of variations on classical yoga practices in the hopes of supporting teachers in finding safe and beneficial ways for all students to participate.
Standing poses offer so many benefits to our students: They can improve posture and balance, as well as improve concentration and increase strength. The special combination of balancing and strengthening is particularly effective for people with osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones are severely weakened, as well as its precursor, osteopenia. We usually think of bones as the inert skeleton that supports the dynamic muscles and organs. But bones are vital, living structures, and like muscles, they respond to challenges by getting stronger.
Standing poses are weight-bearing and can strengthen the bones and improve their structure. Balancing poses can also help students improve balance and avoid falls. Post-menopausal women are particularly at risk for osteoporosis, so adding strengthening and balancing poses to yoga classes is essential for this population.
Tadasana, mountain pose, is considered the foundation pose for all standing poses. If someone is unsteady on their feet, then tadasana becomes a challenging balancing pose, and the same tips that we might offer for other balancing poses can be applied. For example, using a drishti, or focus for the eyes, can greatly improve balance in tadasana.
People who have difficulty standing without support can be offered a variety of adapted ways to practice tadasana and other standing poses. Standing with the back against a wall or standing behind a chair while holding on to the back of the chair can offer needed support to avoid falling.
It’s important that the supporting leg(s) in standing poses be engaged, so that the muscles are being challenged. Sometimes, students hyperextend the knee of the supporting leg(s), and this causes pressure on the joint as well as reducing the potential strengthening benefit of the practice. Strengthening the muscles around a joint is the most effective way to protect that joint (and prevent hyperextension), and this is important because joints, being the most mobile parts of the body, are the most prone to injury. Protecting the joints is especially important for people with hypermobile joints, which are common with some disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome.
If standing is not possible, tadasana can be practiced by sitting in a chair. Or, if a student is practicing in bed, standing poses can be translated into supine poses that offer some of the same benefits. For example, tadasana can be practiced supine in bed (taking a form similar to savasana). If a student is practicing in bed, a series of accessible supine asanas can flow from savasana. Here is one possible series: supta padangusthasana, hand-to-big-toe pose with a strap; pavanamuktasana, wind-relieving pose/knees-to-chest pose; jathara parivartanasana, abdominal twist; and supported matsyasana, fish, with a bolster under the upper back.
Tree Pose Variations
Tree pose, vrksasana, provides strengthening and balance and can be adapted in many ways. Tree pose can be done with a variety of leg positions to make it more accessible. To begin, have the student try placing the toes of the bent leg on the floor with the heel resting against the foot of the standing leg. If the student is stable here, he or she can try raising the foot a little higher up on the supporting leg, being sure to avoid pressing it directly into the knee.
Another option for the bent leg is to rest the foot of that leg on a block. This extra support allows for some additional elevation.
If there is weakness in or a lack of control of the bent leg, the student can try resting the knee on a chair. The chair will also aid the student’s balance.
To assist with balance, students can stand with their back against a wall, arms out to the side with the palms on the wall, or stand behind a chair, holding on to the back of the chair. Another option is to stand behind a chair and turn perpendicular to it. Then the student can hold the back of the chair with one hand and engage the other arm in the pose.
There are many different arm positions that can be used in tree pose. Palms together at the heart may be the most gentle. More active positions include straight arms extended overhead in a “Y” or palms together overhead with the fingers interlaced and index fingers extended. In raised arm positions, be sure that the shoulders remain relaxed as the arms lift.
Or the student can use a strap around the ankle to hold the bent leg in place. This doesn’t help with balance but can offer more structure by connecting the raised leg and hands.
Like tadasana, tree pose can also be practiced while sitting in a chair if standing isn’t an option. In this variation, the element of balance is removed from the pose, but many of the other elements remain. From seated tadasana, place the left ankle on top of the right thigh, with the left knee out to the side. If the leg is not comfortable in this position, try crossing the ankles instead. The arms can be in any of the tree pose variations.
For students who aren’t able to stand or sit, tree pose can be practiced from a supine position. To allow students to experience the grounding quality of standing poses in a supine position, it can be helpful for them to press one or both feet into a block placed against the wall or the footboard of a bed.
King Dancer Variations
Natarajasana (king dancer), like tree pose, offers many diverse benefits, including weight-bearing and balancing. It also has the benefit of stretching the hip flexors, in particular the psoas muscles, which are deep core muscles that are often involved in lower back issues. The psoas muscles connect the legs to the torso, running from the vertebrae in the lower back over the pelvis to the inner upper thigh. Many people who spend their days sitting at a desk may end up with shortened and tight psoas.
Supported King Dancer
Stand in tadasana facing a wall, an arm’s length away. Place the left palm on the wall at shoulder height. Find a drishti point with the eyes. Ground down into the left foot and engage the left thigh.
Bend the right knee, bringing the right foot up behind you. Reach back with the right hand and take hold of the right foot or ankle. (If it’s not possible to reach the foot, a strap can be used to connect foot and hand. But be cautious to not pull the strap with the arm muscles. The action of the pose is the lifted leg extending which allows the foot to move up and the knee to move back.)
Slide the left hand up the wall.
If balanced, lift the left hand off the wall.
Inhale: lengthen the left arm up; exhale: ground into the left foot. If steady, hold the pose for a few breaths.
Repeat on the other side.
For more support, the raised foot can be placed on the seat of a chair behind the student while the hand can reach toward the foot without taking hold of it.
King dancer can also be practiced lying on the side on the floor or in a bed.
May these variations serve you on your way to making standing balancing poses more accessible.