Perhaps second only to “improved flexibility,” “better balance” is oft touted as one of yoga’s major benefits. But as any seasoned yogi can tell you, the poses that are lauded for their balance-boosting benefits (tree pose, half moon, dancer pose, and crow, for example) are the very same poses that can make you feel anything but graceful, grounded, and steady.
Surely I can’t be the only one who’s found herself desperately bargaining with God as the “balance” portion of class draws near: Dear Lord, if you could please do me a favor and let me NOT crash into the person standing next to me, I promise I’ll actually sit and meditate today…
But divine intervention aside, what can we do to avoid toppling over when balancing poses come up in class?
Here are some simple, straightforward pointers for finding a greater sense of steadiness (and confidence!) in four common balance-focused asanas.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Don’t underestimate the power of drishti.
You may have heard your teacher tell you to “find your drishti (focal point)” in this and other one-legged balance postures. But there’s a little more to it than just staring at whatever happens to be in front of you. How to select the perfect visual focal point? First, pick a spot that’s not too close to you (about six to ten feet in front of you is a good guideline), and choose something that's not moving (like not the person in front of you; if she falls out of the pose, there goes your focal point!). You may also find that choosing a focal point that’s closer to the ground makes it easier to stay steady.
Start with your feet a little closer together.
If you come into tree pose from a wide stance, you'll have to work a lot harder to "re-negotiate" your weight distribution and rediscover your center of gravity when you shift onto one foot. When you set up the pose from a narrower stance, shifting your weight onto your standing-leg foot is a less "dramatic" feat, setting you up for a more stable tree right from the start. Try beginning in mountain pose with your feet four to six inches (about two-fists distance) apart and parallel, then shift your weight onto your left foot as you bend your right knee, and place the sole of your right foot below or above your standing-leg knee.
Move your leg independently of your pelvis.
Often, when we try to turn out the lifted leg in tree pose, we end up taking the pelvis with us, destabilizing the pose. Keep in mind that this pose isn't about how wide you can open your knee out to the side. Rather than trying to crank your lifted-leg knee open as much as possible (ouch!), back off the external rotation (turnout) in the beginning and focus on aligning your pelvis before you worry about how much your lifted leg is turned out.
From your initial setup in tree pose, balancing on your left leg with your right knee bent, and your right foot pressing against your standing-leg thigh or calf, lift the sole of your right foot off of your leg so that only your heel is pressing against it. Then pivot your right heel on your thigh (or calf), turning your toes to point more toward the front surface of your left leg, and your right knee to point out at only about a 45-degree angle (as opposed to directly, or nearly directly, out to the side where it may have been before). This will take a little of the external rotation out of your right hip, therefore helping to re-align and stabilize your pelvis.
Keep your two frontal "hip points" (often also referred to as "pelvic points,"technically known as your anterior superior iliac spines, or ASIS) pointing straight ahead. With your hip points both pointing straight ahead, pivot on your right heel as you externally rotate your right leg. You'll likely feel a little bit of engagement/work in the right side of your butt as you do this. Only externally rotate as much as you can without taking your hip points with you.
Press your foot against your leg and your leg against your foot.
This oft-given cue is oft-given for a reason: Many practitioners find that this simple "trick" helps tree pose feel a lot more steady and strong. Remember, your foot doesn't need to be all the way up to the inner thigh in tree pose. Instead, your foot can press into the inner calf. Any spot above or below your knee joint will help you feel steady, without putting unnecessary pressure on the knee of your standing leg.
"Un-grip" your toes.
Do you grip your mat with the toes of your standing-leg foot? While "hanging on for dear life" is an understandable reaction to feeling unstable, next time you're feeling a tad wobbly in tree, try this instead: Un-grip the toes of your standing leg foot, and rest them on the mat (or, if you tend to roll to the inner edge of your standing foot, you may find it helpful to initially lift your toes away from the floor to give a little lift to your inner arch). Let the three "corners" of your feet (the mound below the big toe, the mound below the pinky toe, and the center of the heel) ground into the support of the floor beneath you.
If you're like me and your standing-leg foot tends to cramp up, you might even find it helpful to visualize "breathing" down into your foot. And yes, I know, you can't literally "breathe into" your foot, but if foot cramps often cause you to exit your one-legged balance poses sooner than you'd rather, this visualization can be incredibly soothing and stabilizing.
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon)
These instructions will focus on the common transition to half moon from an "open hip" standing pose like warrior II, side angle, or triangle. For a more in-depth look at half moon, which explores an alternate pose entry, check out my article Alignment Tips for a Wobble-Free Half Moon Pose.
Take your time, and don’t forget about your standing leg!
While it can be tempting to "pop up" into half moon, "slingshotting," "cartwheeling," "shooting forward," or [insert here your favorite expression for coming into half moon too quickly] into the pose is a surefire way to feel unstable once you get there. There's no need to hurry! Take your time and set the stage for a steady ardha chandrasana right from the start. From your starting pose (for clarity's sake, let's assume that it's side angle pose with the right leg forward, and you've already brought your top hand to your hip and your gaze down toward your right foot): Bend your front knee and keep your front heel glued to the floor as you step your back foot forward halfway, place your right fingertips six to ten inches in front of the pinky-toe side of your right foot, float your left leg up off the floor, and shift your weight into your right foot.
There's no rush to straighten your standing leg! It's fine to keep it slightly bent while you find your balance.
Speaking of the standing leg: Align your knee and press into the ball of your big toe and your outer heel.
Keeping your front knee bent to start can also be useful for helping you to track and align your front knee. Ground down into the ball of your front big toe, and aim your front knee toward the pinky-toe side of your foot. Keeping that stability and alignment, you can begin to straighten your front leg, grounding down into your outer front heel as well as you do so. You can continue to return to these two points of grounding (the mound below the big toe and the outer heel) any time you need to regain a sense of balance in the pose.
Don’t swing your top leg back.
Swinging the lifted leg back behind the body is a common half moon mistake that brings your body into a wobbly backbend instead of a steady balance. To find more steadiness in the pose (and give your poor low back some relief), actually bring your lifted foot forward a little at first. Then, bring the foot of your lifted leg in line with (but not behind) its matching hip, and see if you find a greater sense of equanimity in the pose.
Press and resist.
As with the previous pose, a little resistance can go a long way when it comes to steadying your balance.
In half moon, try this: Keep your lifted leg at hip height (not higher) and imagine that you're pressing the foot of your lifted-leg straight back into a wall. At the same time, resist up, as though someone were trying to press your leg down.
You can also work with resistance (specifically, the resistance of the floor) with your standing leg: Resist your right foot out against the floor, as though you were trying to turn it out, but can't because it's glued to the floor (this will help you maintain the external rotation of your front thigh), and at the same time, press your foot down into the floor as though you were pushing it away from you.
Extend your top arm and (maybe) look up after you've found your balance.
If you choose to extend your top arm up, and maybe even turn your head to look upward, do both of these things last. Initially, keep your top hand on your hip and your gaze down or straight ahead as you find balance in the pose. Wait until you're totally steady in your half moon before reaching and looking upward. Think of these additions as "final flourishes" rather than "pose essentials."
Natarajasana (Dancer Pose)
Keep a hand on your heart to start.
Instead of immediately extending your free arm (the one not holding your foot) straight out, try first bringing your hand to your heart. This encourages your chest to broaden and lift, bringing more of the backbend into your thoracic spine (middle and upper back), and taking it out of your lumbar spine (low back). In my own practice, I find that in addition to the physical prompt to focus my backbend more in the thoracic (and thus, not so much in the lower back, which tends to de-stabilize the pose), this simple gesture also reminds me that asana comes from the inside out—as an expression of my own unique practice, my own unique self, and who and where I am in this very moment. This is a thought I find inherently grounding.
Press your foot against your hand, and your hand against your foot.
Similar to pressing foot against leg and leg against foot in tree pose, this simple, commonly cued action creates resistance and can be incredibly stabilizing. Holding on to the inner (big-toe) side of your foot with your same-side hand, keep your toes a little bit "active" (spreading apart from each other) as you press foot against hand and hand against foot. Gradually let your foot win this "arm wrestling match" with your hand, kicking your foot against the resistance of your hand while moving it back and up with control. Think: press back, lift up; press back, lift up as you work into the pose.
Lift your foot up faster than your body comes forward.
Instead of leaning forward into a bent-back leg version of warrior III, start with your torso relatively upright, and let your back leg lead the way. It's sometimes said that we shouldn't start to move forward at all until the back foot is higher than the shoulders, but this cue may not work for all bodies. The intention behind this cue, however, is generally good to keep in mind: As you start to bend forward into the pose, keep your leg moving up and back at a quicker rate than your body is moving forward to help with balance and to maintain the middle back backbending/chest-opening aspect of the pose.
Move from your core to "square" your pelvis.
Similar to tree pose, there's a tendency in natarajasana for the hips and torso to roll open to the lifted leg side, making the pose less stable. Though a cue to "square your hips" is commonly given to rein in wayward pelvises in dancer pose, I'm generally not too crazy about this instruction. That's because while it does tell me where my hips/torso should be in the pose, it doesn't tell me how to get them there. In natarajasana, if my right leg is lifted, and I notice my upper body is rolling open to the right (as it would for half moon, for example), I focus on drawing the right side of my belly toward the left side of my belly (or, in other words, my right hip point toward my left hip point), recruiting my deep core muscles in order to make my upper body more "square" and my dancer pose more solid and strong.
Kakasana (Crow Pose)
Practice with a “crash pad.”
Let's get real: It can be awfully hard to find your balance when you're worried about falling on your face. That's why practicing with a "crash pad" (a bolster or stack of blankets) can be especially helpful when learning to balance in kakasana.
As you set up for crow, place a bolster or blanket stack in front of you (lengthwise) so that it will be there to "catch" you if you need it. Stand behind your crash pad in tadasana, with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees, place your hands shoulder-distance apart on the floor on either side of the bolster, and lift up onto the balls of your feet. Bend your elbows (back toward your body, not out), and bring your knees up high on the backs of your upper arms. Keep your gaze slightly forward instead of looking back at your feet. Start to shift your weight forward (an action that's crucial for balancing on your hands with both feet off the floor, and that can be considerably less daunting with your bolster/blanket "safety net"). Lift one foot at a time, with toes spread. When your second foot lifts, press the inner edges of both feet together. Push the floor away; round your back, and move your chest forward. Don't purposely face plant onto your crash pad (though you might experiment with gently touching your forehead to it, without actually bearing weight on your head/face), but trust that it's there to catch you if you need it.
Use a block (or blocks) to give yourself a lift.
If liftoff is challenging, try starting with the ball of one foot up on a yoga block. Experiment with the height that works for you and your proportions, possibly stacking two blocks on top of each other to get a little more height. As you play with balance here, experiment with first lifting either the foot on the block or the foot on the floor—see which works best for you.