As a working mother of two school age children, I’m the first to admit that balance doesn’t always come easy. There are times when commitments and responsibilities pile up and I feel as if I’m racing from one place to another.
Whether it’s parenting, working life, a busy social life, or any other number of reasons, I’m sure we’ve all been in that place where we feel we’ve ‘lost our balance’.
Yoga extends beyond our mat. It’s how we live our life. So it’s no surprise that what’s happening in daily life affects how we practice on our mat. In balance poses, this is particularly evident.
Life is always changing and many things happen in life that can throw us off balance; such as unexpected news, major life changes, illness/injury and stress, to name a few.
There are many ways we can bring balance into our yoga practice and it’s not just from a physical sense.
To begin though, let’s look at the physical.
What happens physically in balance poses?
Balance is defined as:
“an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.”
Standing balance poses in yoga offset our natural centre of balance. When we lift one leg, the body needs to adjust to the changing distribution of weight, through strength in the standing leg and stability in the core. In hip opening balances, like Dancer Pose, instability is invited into the core as the hips open, and it becomes a gentle play between strength and letting go as you extend into a backbend and open the hip.
Here are some things you can do physically to aid your balance:
- Establish firm foundations – You may have heard your yoga teacher tell you to spread your toes and ground all four corners of your feet. This helps you establish a stable foundation. Without this, balance is challenged, even before you lift a foot off the ground.
- Ease into your balance pose slowly – This enables you to find the right depth/modification of posture for your body and ability. It then becomes a gentle play between balancing yin and yang energy, which leads me to the next point.
- Find softness and strength – For muscles to lengthen, like the hip flexors need to for Dancer Pose, they need to relax. Holding tension in the body will cause resistance in the muscles, limiting extension. By their very name, balance poses require ‘balance’ – of strength and softness. Keep softness in the knee joint of the standing leg, by micro-bending the knee. The more strongly you activate the muscles, the quicker the muscles will fatigue and the more tension you will hold in your body.
- Activate your core – Core activation is one of the foundational building blocks in yoga. Your core stabilises your spine, torso and pelvis. It also taps into your “inner fire” energy (Manipura Chakra) which is the “can do” centre in the body. Accessing this place is vitally important when it comes to arm balances. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll stick to standing balances, which still require subtle core activation. For tips on Crow Pose, you can read our blog Advancing Your Practice.
- Don’t let the lifted leg become lazy! – When you are working with standing balances such as Leg Raise or Warrior 3, the lifted leg needs to be activated. Remember the song from your childhood – “the leg bone’s connected to the… hip bone…” A wobbly leg will lead to instability in the hip and your balance will unravel.
- Prepare your body first – Depending on the balance pose you are attempting, openness is required in the hips, hamstrings and thighs. Over time and through regular yoga practice (on and off the mat), your body will open and tension will release from these areas. Before you attempt a standing balance, prepare your body first with postures that release tension from any areas that are particularly tight in your body. It also helps to work on some core activation postures and techniques too so that you train the core muscles to activate instinctively.
Beyond the physical body
Now that we’ve explored some of the physical requirements for balance poses, let’s delve a little deeper. Some of these comments made in classes may resonate with you.
“I can balance on my left leg, but not on my right.” (or visa versa)
One of the benefits of yoga is the ability to observe the body. Sometimes we can balance well on one side of our body and not on the other. This may be the result of an injury, or it could indicate something deeper. Whatever the reason, it’s always an opportunity to make the enquiry. Is it a result of a physical injury? Often we feel more comfortable dealing with the physical first. If it isn’t a result of a physical injury, explore other reasons.
Metaphysically, our left side relates to feminine energy and our right side: masculine energy. Are you more dominant in feminine or masculine energy? If you are struggling to hold balance on either side ask yourself – What’s this? And perhaps not in a class situation, but afterwards take a look at what’s going on off your mat; in daily life, and observe whether there is imbalance. Then think of ways that you can bring more balance into your life. Read our blog Balancing Yin and Yang Energy for ideas on how to balance feminine (yin) and masculine (yang) energy.
“It’s not happening for me today.”
We all have days on our yoga mat that are frustrating. When it seems that no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to balance or get ourselves out of our head. Whilst we should always practice with Ahimsa (kindness to ourselves), there is a subtle line between giving up, and letting the ego take a back seat while we try. Sometimes we would rather not try than to risk “perceived failure”. This “perceived failure” is perhaps falling out of a balance pose.
We fall many times in life, for a whole range of reasons. Falling is not failing. What matters is that we have the courage to get back up. How many times did you fall off your bike as a kid? Did it stop you riding? We have all fallen at some stage. Laugh it off, refocus and try again. Or else, go to Child Pose and use it as an opportunity to examine your reaction to falling. This is where yoga happens.
There is a saying – “The pose begins when you want to leave it.” Breathe through the resistance in your body and acknowledge whatever comes up. It may surprise you to learn that resistance is sometimes deeper than the physical body.
Teacher: “We’re going to focus on balance poses today.” Most students: “Urghh…”
In my early days of teaching yoga I was very conscious of how much students didn’t like balance poses. I myself remember turning up to a yoga class after a big day at work and being told the focus of the class was balance. I wanted to roll my mat up there and then and run from the room.
What I’ve discovered over my 12 years of practice is that the times I learn most from my yoga practice are when I am injured, challenged or out of my comfort zone. While it’s not always an easy experience, it’s an opportunity for reflection and the peeling back of layers to get to the bottom of my resistance. What manifests physically in our body and our reaction to situations is a result of samskaras (mental and emotional imprints from our past). Unless we reprogram our reactions and beliefs we will not change our future reactions. Yoga is an opportunity to peel back the layers and reprogram new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. The inner work and practice we do off the yoga mat is just as important as the work we do on the mat.
Physical injury is the body’s way of telling you to stop or slow down. Being out of your comfort zone is an opportunity to overcome fear, and challenge is an invitation to discover your inner strength.
Yoga is not just a physical practice. The definition of yoga is the joining together of mind, body and spirit. When we find balance in these elements we will be a step closer to finding balance on our mat.
Read more: http://www.wildplacesyoga.com.au/a-deeper-perspective-on-balance/