You know when you’re really tired and ready to hit the mat for that final Shavasana? Then the yoga instructor tells you “Ok, now repeat on the left side”? There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just to watch you sweat. It has to do with BALANCE. Achieving physical balance allows us to strive for those cool postures, but in yoga it means so much more. The path of yoga for balance leads us to greater mental and physical stability in our lives.
Humans are bilaterally symmetrical so perhaps we have a natural tendency to seek equilibrium. We seek balance when we are standing on two feet, grounding equally in the left and right sides of our body. It’s pretty easy to tell when we lose that balance because we fall over. Similar to the balance of stability, we try to even out our bodies to achieve equilibrium. I want to be able to do on my left side, what I am able to do on my right. This is not often the case, but with practice it certainly can be. Equally important, we find balance of the mind when we juggle keeping a healthy amount of stress and leisure. It is also pretty easy to tell when we lose that balance as we may find ourselves a bit down, tired, or irritated too easily. I’ve found myself out of balance in all of the above. Practicing exercise for balance helps to keep me centered.
We perhaps notice the need for balance most in poses that involve one standing leg or in forward bends. Balance is important for fairly normal activities too though, like showering and walking. Of those that inhabit the earth, we are among the few that actually use only two-feet to balance and we lose some of that ability as we age. Keeping our balance intact comes through lots of practice and repetition. Some days, one side of your body may be fussier than the other, or your muscles simply won’t let you “go there”. All good things take time, so be gentle with yourself on this journey for balance.
Some things before we start:
- Bring awareness to all of the yoga poses for balance by approaching them as slowly as you can. Feel the movement of your body and really work to keep yourself grounded.
- Keep your feet about hips-width distance apart, keeping the vertical of your body aligned. It’s very hard to maintain balance without proper foot placement.
- In a few poses, your vantage point will be the tip of your middle finger. For all the other yoga balance poses, it’s helpful to focus on a point in the window or wall to keep yourself upright.
- Keep your core tight. Imagine touching your spine with your belly button (Yes, the entire time). An active, strong core will help us keep proper alignment.
Below, we show you six of the best yoga poses to improve balance (and don’t forget to repeat on the other side!).
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Tree pose is my favorite balance posture perhaps because it is a foundational pose that I come back to over and over again. This is probably one of the first yoga poses you learned and continues to pop-up in your classes because of the great amount of variation and playfulness of it.
How to do this balance pose:
- Come to stand (feet hips-width distance apart). Arms straight down by sides.
- Keep the right leg grounded. Tighten the right quad, trying to lift the muscle off of the knee cap without lifting your leg.
- Begin to lift the left foot and place it onto the calf or the inner thigh of the right leg.
- Chose a comfortable vantage point and begin to lift the arms parallel with the ears.
- For a bit of fun, you can sway the arms from side to side (if you want to feel the breeze)!
Hold count: 5-breaths on each side.
To release the pose, gently release the arms to the side and bring the raised leg to meet the standing leg.
Beginner modification: If parallel arms cause you to lose your balance, keep them out in a perpendicular T-shape. If that is still difficult to maintain balance, you can keep them in prayer position across the center of the chest. If you still feel you need support, stand near a wall or chair to use as support when needed.
Advanced modification: Hold tree pose for 5-breaths before moving into Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A (Standing hand-to-big-toe pose). To do so,
- Place both hands on the hips keeping the standing leg grounded, bring the opposite knee into the chest.
- Gently grab hold of the big toe (yogi toe grip) and begin to extend at hips-height straight ahead.
- Opposite arm remains on the hip, gently bend the raised leg if necessary.
To release the pose, let go of the big-toe and bring the knee into chest. Gently release to meet the standing leg.
Tips for alignment: Don’t rest the foot on the knee. The calf or the inner thigh properly support the weight of the opposite leg. As your yoga balance practice deepens, you will be able to raise the resting foot higher. If you place the foot on the knee, you will not only add undo pressure but risk the balance of the pose entirely.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)
It’s never a bad time to feel fierce and Warrior II will certainly do that for us. Balance not only allows us to achieve difficult poses, but to hold complex positioning for longer. Warrior II is a full body posture that looks simple only from the outside. This pose will increase your stamina and fire up the muscles.
How to do this balance pose:
- Start standing hips-width distance apart at the front of the mat.
- Step the left leg back with the heel raised, and bending the right knee to 90-degrees.
- Place your hands on your hips, facing forward coming into high lunge.
- Gently bring the left-heel to the ground so that the foot is angled outward about 30-degrees (just a touch!).
- Keep your hands on your hips and begin to twist so that your pelvis is sideways, open and aligned to the wall.
- Open your right arm pointing forward and your left arm perpendicular to the back of the room at shoulder height.
- Gaze at your right middle finger, sink your hips down towards the floor and send your shoulders down your back.
Hold count: 10-breaths.
To release, place hands on the hips and begin to turn to face forward. Begin to lift the left-heel off the ground coming into high lunge. Use the strength of your right leg to bring the left foot to meet the right. Repeat on the right side.
Beginner modification: Keep your hands on the hips the entire time, rather than raising them up. This will help you stay supported while still receiving all the benefits of this yoga balance pose.
Advanced modification: Reach your front arm forward as far as you can, elongating and stretching the side-body. Hold for 5-breaths, then gently shift reach towards the back of the room, elongating the opposite side body.
Tips for alignment: Imagine the inside of the bent knee wants to touch your pinky toe. This will guide the knee outward just enough and help you deepen the pose. Be sure that your knee always stays behind the big toe when bent to protect your ligaments.
Utkatasana (Chair pose)
Chair pose is typically introduced early on, and incorporated into sun salutations (or, the warmup sequence in most Vinyasa style classes). I often find that instructors don’t highlight enough the benefits of balance that come from chair pose. The angular positions in the body combined with the strength used in the legs and abdomen creates a wonderful balance posture for the ligaments and muscles.
How to do this balance pose:
- Begin standing at the front of the mat. Feet are hips-width distance apart, and arms down by the sides.
- Raise your arms parallel to your ears.
- Begin to bend the knees until they are as perpendicular to the floor as possible. Be sure to keep your knees behind the big toes.
- Your torso will gently tilt forward towards your thighs.
- Send your tailbone towards the floor maintaining the length in your back.
Hold count: 6-breaths.
To release, gently press with your heels to bring yourself to stand. Hands come in prayer to hearts center.
Beginner modification: Don’t force yourself perpendicular to the ground, especially if this causes you to compromise your balance. Lower towards the floor very slowly, until you’ve reached your maximum. Overtime, you will be able to deepen your distance towards the floor. You can also roll up a mat and place it under the heels to lessen the stress of the angle between the feet and the shins.
Advanced modification: Use chair pose to reach Eka Pada Utkatasana (one-legged chair pose). To do so from chair pose,
- Bring your hands to heart center
- Ground your left foot and start to raise your right foot off the ground, keeping the left leg bent
- Keep flexing your big-toe towards your nose and cross your right ankle on your left thigh
To release, keeping the foot flexed, release the right ankle from the left thigh lowering it back down into chair pose. Gently press into the heels to come to stand.
Tips for alignment: Squeeze the inner thighs towards each other. This will maintain the position of your legs and strengthen your muscles. If your knee goes beyond your ankle (or you can’t look down and see your big toe) you’ve gone too far.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
In our last post when we discussed flexibility, we mentioned eagle arms as an amazing way to deepen your yoga for flexibility. This week we progress to the full version of eagle, Garudasana, where both the arms and the legs intertwine to refresh the entire body. This is certainly a more challenging pose, because it involves flexibility (that we talked about last time), strength (that we will talk about next time), and balance. You will find that once you unwind from this pose, your physical-body and mind-body feel free.
A small word of advice moving into this pose, don’t be intimidated. Your mind can be more powerful than the physical-body, and we can convince ourselves into (or out of) this pose quite easily.
How to do this balance pose:
- Begin at the front of the mat, feet hips width distance apart. Arms down by your sides.
- Gently begin to bend your knees slightly.
- Raise your arms to give yourself a hug so that your left arm is crossed over your right arm. Touch the inside of the scapula with your finger tips.
- Release the finger tips, keeping your arms crossed, bend your elbows.
- Snuggle the left elbow into the crease of the right elbow so that the back of the hands are facing each other.
- Bring the right hand onto the inside of the left hand so that palms are now touching.
- Raise your elbows so that they are shoulders height.
- Lift your left leg, hooking the left thigh on top of the right.
- Point your left toes towards the floor and wrap the foot around the back of the right calf.
Hold count: 6-breaths.
To release, undo the hold from the back of the calf and untwist the left leg sending it to the mat to meet the right. Uncross the arms and send them down to the sides of the body. Gently come to stand.
Beginner modification: This is a challenging pose, combining one-leg standing and a twist with both the arms and legs. While you are working up to the full balance, it can be helpful to do this pose against a wall for support.
Advanced modification: Begin to curl your upper body so that your forearms are flat on your thighs (almost like a standing crunch), and then release. Repeat on both sides.
Tips for alignment: Make sure you warm up before attempting this pose. It involves a significant amount of flexibility (which is why it’s one of our 10-favorites for yoga poses for flexibility). It’s easier to smoothly come into the pose with your muscles warm.
Side Plank / Plank
A plank seems so simple… right until you actually do it. Two-breaths in we are likely questioning our decision. In plank you are decently grounded, with feet and hands touching on the mat, so you won’t normally find it in the lists on exercises for balance. Then why plank, you ask? The core muscles help maintain balance in the body. When we are doing any type of physical activity, even biking, we use our abdominals to stay balanced. Plank pose creates muscle endurance, and can help you go deeper and hold for longer in your other exercises for balance as well.
How to do this balance pose:
- Start in table-top position, with heels raised to the sky, toes on the mat. Hands are directly under the shoulders, and knees are directly under the hips.
- Ground into the mat with your palms and fingertips.
- Slide your right leg back on your toes, activating the muscles along the leg.
- Slide your left leg back to meet the right, activating all the muscles along both legs.
- Tuck your belly button to your spine, tightening your core.
Side plank variation, add
- Begin to twist so that your left arm comes into the air, and the side of the right foot turns toward the mat.
- Slightly raise the left foot to rest on top of the right.
- Lift your hips towards the sky, keeping left arm activated towards the ceiling.
- To alternate, gently curl back to straight arm plank pose.
- Begin to roll on the opposite side.
- Come back to straight arm plank.
Hold count: (the longer, the better) 10-breaths (make them full!)
To release, gently lower the knees to the ground, untuck the toes and push back to childs pose.
Beginner modification: You can modify this exercise for balance depending on your comfort level. You can keep the arms straight, and do plank with knees on the mat. You can lower down to your forearms, keeping knees off the mat for forearm plank. Both are milder versions of the traditional straight arm plank. Similarly you can turn your forearm inward, for forearm side plank.
Advanced modification: In plank, lift one of your legs into the air for one-leg plank. In side-plank, raise the top leg, bringing the foot to the inside of the thigh. Gently move into this advanced variation, continuing to lift your hip towards the sky.
Tips for alignment: Plank is a physically challenging pose, activating muscles across the front and back body. Most people in this exercise for balance sink into their shoulders. Instead, imagine rounding the upper back into a C and push the shoulders up and away from the chest. Turn the eyes of the elbows forward to face the fingers (vs inward facing each other).
Utthita Marjaryasana (Extended Cat Cow Pose)
Extended cat-cow pose is another core strengthener, testing our balance and resilience. This will also develop your ability to navigate other challenging exercises for balance.
How to do this balance pose:
- Start in table-top position, with heels raised to the sky, toes tucked on the mat. Hands are directly under the shoulders, and knees are directly under the hips.
- Raise the left leg to hips-height, pushing the heel to the back wall.
- Raise the right arm to shoulders-height, reaching forward.
- Tuck your bellybutton to your spine and breath deeply.
Hold count: 10-breaths. (Repeat on other side)
To release, gently place your hand and your knee to the mat back to table-top position. Push back into a restful child's pose if you would like to incorporate it into your practice.
Beginner modification: Start by raising just your left arm off the mat and reaching as far forward as you can. Release back down to the mat, and try lifting the right leg all the way back, pushing heel towards the wall, and again lowering the knee back down to the mat. Repeat on both sides. As you gain comfort in this exercise for balance, you can play with lifting both opposite arm and opposite leg at the same time.
Advanced modification: Bring the raised leg out to the side, and your arm out to the opposite side, creating a horizontal line across your body. Send the leg and arm back in line with the vertical body, and bring out to the side again. Repeat 4 times on each side.
Tips for alignment: Whenever we incorporate our shoulders, we have a tendency to sink into them. Remember to keep a bubbled C-shape with the upper back and point the eyes of the elbows forward.
The Bottom Line
Exercises for balance offer both mental and physical benefits, and as you noticed, there are plenty. There are so many balancing poses in yoga, some a seated variation, others on two feet, and others on one. Today we went through double leg standing postures, one-leg standing postures, twists, and core strengtheners. Although seemingly different, these poses actually have a tremendous amount in common. They involve elongation of the spine, strengthening of the core, and specific vantage points. The required mental focus, and by result improved concentration, is consistent across exercises for balance. Greater ability to concentrate on what we want to most, also reduces overall stress.
Physically, balance keeps us agile and prevents future injuries. In the beginning, we will often wobble or even roll from our desired posture. Over time, you will find tranquility in the physical body and a shift into stable and strong. Combined with the best yoga poses for flexibility, we are building a foundation for a deep and meaningful practice.
As always, trust your journey through your path to balance.
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By Brittany Regnar