Balance poses help us with the juggling act that is daily life, we all strive to achieve a sense of equilibrium. In yoga, finding skillful balance and a sense of ease in a pose is a metaphor for finding balance in our own lives. The mat provides a place to develop concentration and awareness that can be transferred to the rest of the day.
Balance poses build strength because we have to support our own body weight. This increased strength is not only physical; balance poses also help us develop mental and emotional stamina. They are also integral poses for increasing core strength in the abdominal and low back areas, thereby improving overall posture.
To achieve balance poses with the greatest of ease, use the following techniques:
1. Focus your awareness on the breath. Breathing steadily and evenly provides an anchor for even the shakiest of poses.
2. Find a drishti, or focus, for the eyes to gaze upon (one that will not move).
3. Engage the entire body, particularly the core muscles of the abdominal area and lower back.
4. Don’t be discouraged – it can take time to build physical stamina and mental concentration.
5. Working with a teacher on new or challenging poses can be helpful.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Stand with your legs together and straight. Stretch out your toes on your left leg to gain more balance. Lift your right foot off the floor and place it in one of the following positions: against the ankle of your standing leg, across your standing leg, or pressing the sole of your foot against your calf or the inside of your thigh on the standing leg. Avoid placing the sole of your foot on the inside of your knee, as you want to avoid placing lateral pressure on your knee. Different arm positions can make the pose more challenging. Repeat on the other side.
Focus: On the breath, lengthening the spine, and pressing the foot into the leg and the leg into the foot.
Variations: Arm positions can vary and include arms out to the sides; palms of the hands together in front of the heart; palms of the hands together overhead; arms outstretched overhead. Each variation provides a different sense of balance.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
Stand with one foot forward with the knee bent, the other foot back behind you (in Warrior I). Start placing more of your weight on the front foot as you lift the back foot off the floor. Straighten the front leg and extend the back leg behind you with your toes pointed away from your body. Keep your hips level and begin with your palms together in front of your heart. Repeat on the other side.
Focus: Engage the abdominal muscles by drawing gently in at the navel and keeping the hips level.
Variations: Arm variations create more challenge. If you have low back pain, keep the arms close to the body, otherwise, you can experiment: spread your arms like wings, or for a greater challenge, extend your arms out in front of you alongside your head.
Vashistasana (Side Plank)
Begin in plank pose, the start of the push-up position, with your hands beneath your shoulders, legs straight and together, and hips in line with the rest of your body. To come into side plank, place more weight in your right hand, and lift your left hand toward the sky, stretching your hand away from your shoulder. Stack your left foot on top of the right. Engage your abdominal muscles and reach your top arm upwards. Release from the pose by bringing your left hand back down beneath your shoulder, and roll back onto your toes. Repeat on the other side.
Focus: Squeeze your inner legs together and reach your top hand up to the sky.
Variations: Different leg positions allow you to build up to the full pose. Rather than balancing with the feet stacked on each other, start with both knees and lower legs on the floor. Then build up to balancing on the side of just one foot, with the other knee bent and the foot crossed in front of the bottom leg.
Poses in which we remain standing on our own two feet help us find our place in the world.
Poses standing on one leg are more challenging and further inspire us to stand on our own. They also develop core strength and build the muscles of the legs and buttocks. These include variations of tree pose, warrior III, half-moon, standing big-toe, and dancer.
All balance poses add an element of play into practice, and provide a sense of accomplishment. Through practice, we suddenly find ourselves in a pose we never thought possible. Use the mat as a playground, laboratory, place to experiment, and source of inspiration to more successfully juggle the balancing act of daily life.