Yoga helps you find your balance. In the most obvious sense, you gain control of your daily movements as a direct result of practicing “asana” (postures). It becomes easier to put on your shoes, to catch yourself when you trip, or to hike up a mountain trail. If you are a diligent yoga practitioner, you will become more graceful over the course of years, and be less likely to injure yourself. Simply the act of daily attempting the postures trains the body, creating muscle memory that kicks in throughout all areas of life, not just on the yoga mat. Indeed, many seniors have found that a regular yoga practice allows them to maintain high levels of activity well into retirement, when bone density may become an issue, and falls carry an increased risk of serious injury. Even a beginning yogi can modify balancing postures, with the assistance of chairs, blocks, or the wall. Starting with a modified version and working your way up to the traditional posture can help ease the way towards developing the confidence to progress in your practice. Here are a few balancing postures to try, with various modifications.
Tree Pose: The traditional posture has the raised foot resting on the thigh, hands above the head. But the raised foot can also be lower, toes resting on the ground, and the sole of the foot on the ankle. Work your way up as you gain confidence in your balance. The second foot placement is between the ankle and knee. The heel should be underneath the knee, toes pointing straight down, just above the ankle. Once you’ve mastered that, move the foot up to the thigh. Be sure to maintain proper foot alignment, keeping the foot pointing straight down and fully above the knee. Avoid pushing on the knee joint with the raised foot, as that can cause injury. If your balance seems a bit wobbly, float your fingers against a wall or on the back of a chair. For an extra challenge, try prayer hands behind your back.
Thread the needle with leg raise: Raising the leg during thread the needle is both a balance challenge and a core strengthener. The raised leg is opposite the shoulder resting on the ground. Lift the leg on an inhale, pushing through the heel and flexing the toes. Drop the elbow down to stabilize yourself if you become shaky.
Chair pose: Traditional chair pose keeps both feet on the ground. Practicing chair with one leg up, ankle resting on the opposite knee, will train you to be able to lift one leg at a time and balance easily on the other. Sink your hips low, keeping hands together at heart center. Try to rest your forearms on the raised leg. Keeping your gaze low on the ground in front of you, and focussing on a single point, will help you remain stable. To increase the challenge, try to grab your standing ankle with both hands.
Chair pose, airplane variation: Begin with traditional chair pose; hands are up in the air, knees bent, hips set back. Take a deep breath in, and on an exhale sweep your hands back and up while lowering your chest down to your knees. Try to lift your heels off the ground – this can be a large movement, coming on to your toes with the heels elevated a few inches, or a slight movement with just the heels lifting less than an inch. As you breathe in again, return to chair pose. Repeat 3-5 times, always going with your breath.
Crow pose: Although many beginning yogis see this pose as unattainable, it really is much easier than it first appears. Successfully achieving crow pose is more about finding your fulcrum, the balancing point where your knees are resting on your elbows, than it is about arm strength. Yes, you do need arm strength. But you need not be a weight lifter with giant muscles to find your way into this pose. The key is bringing your gaze low, between 12 and 18 inches in front of you on the ground. Elbows point straight back towards the short end of the mat. Open your knees out wide, tucking the elbows directly under the knee. Slowly and carefully, begin to shift your weight onto your elbows. Once you find the fulcrum where your weight begins to pull you down in front, shift back. Practice rocking back and forth on the fulcrum with your toes resting gently on the ground. If you feel confident enough to come up onto your toes, try lifting one foot at a time ever so slightly, and then trading back and forth. Having a block underneath your forehead can alleviate the fear of falling. If practicing at home, surrounding yourself with pillows can help as well. For an extra challenge, cross your ankles before coming into the pose. Try to go back and forth, crossing and uncrossing and switching which foot is on top. See how many times you can switch, and then try to beat yourself the next time!
Side plank: Traditional side plank is quite a challenging pose. But there many variations of this pose that allow a beginner to confidently progress, eventually achieving the most difficult version. To begin, keep the lower knee down on the mat, with the foot perpendicular to the body, off the mat. Intermediate students can stagger the feet, with both knees off the ground. This gives a wider base on which to balance. Finally, stack the feet, keeping both knees elevated. If wrist pain and weakness is an issue, try side plank with the forearm down. Weight is distributed over a larger area, alleviating pressure on the wrist. For an extra challenge, try to lift the upper leg. Begin by floating it just a few inches above the lower leg, and then try to progress into lifting it higher and higher.
While trying these poses, remember that yoga is a “practice” and life is the real thing. Everything you learn on the mat can be taken applied to situations outside of the studio. In a physical sense, increasing your ability to balance on the mat will increase your confidence as you move through life, and decrease the chances of injury. But in some ways, the physical effects of yoga are only secondary to the psychological effects. While we are training the body to balance, our minds receive benefits as well. We learn to balance the monotonous demands of our daily lives with the pursuit of happiness, and the temptation of immediate pleasures with the satisfaction of holding out for something better down the road. In some ways, all of life is one great balancing act, between giving energy to others as parents, friends, or employees, and taking needed time to ourselves for relaxation and self care. The balance of self care is so important because if you fail to care for yourself, you lose the ability to care for others as well. So take some time today to work on your balance – physical, emotional, and psychological. Find the sweet spot between pushing yourself to go further, and patiently allowing time for growth without injury. Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and look for the balance between relaxation and productivity. Most importantly, find a balance between what you bring to your mat, what you leave behind, and what you take home.