Balance is a learned skill, and we must practice our balance in order to improve it. For many adults, our daily activities do not challenge our balance systems enough and it worsens over time. This is why yoga is so great—many of the poses engage the body in balance and stability giving you the practice you need. With better balance we gain confidence to participate in more challenging activities and it helps us prevent falls. To set you up for success, here are five foundational principles to help you get more out of your standing balance poses:
1. Connect to Your Foundation
When we have a mindful connection to our base, we feel more stable and grounded, and in our standing balance poses, our base is our feet. Because yoga is done in bare feet it is especially great for giving us tactile feedback and we can learn more about how we weight bear and align through our feet. With this feedback, there is potential for noticing where we have asymmetrical grounding or deviated alignment (affecting our balance from the base up).
When aiming for good alignment in the feet you should feel connection through all four corners of the foot, which are: the mound of big toe, the mound of pinky toe, the inside edge of the heel, and the outside edge of the heel. You should also be aiming to weight bear evenly from the inside edge to the outside edge of the foot. Also, a lot of our foot stability comes from the toes. For improved balance, work on spreading the toes and when you need extra stability through your foot, and try pressing the big toe mound and little toe mound lightly into the ground and notice how that activates the muscles of the arches of the foot and generates a more stable feel. For more details on this, please watch this helpful video by Doug Keller on the corners of the foot and how to strengthen the arches.
2. Find Your Center of Gravity
A good rule in our standing single leg balance poses is to make sure you have shifted your center of gravity over-top the standing foot, and for most of us, our center of gravity is our pelvis. Most of us do this subtle shift unconsciously; however, sometimes this skill gets lost or disinhibited, such as when we have pain or dysfunction on one leg and we avoid complete commitment of our weight on it. This can be a learned response that can persist even after the leg problem has gone away; therefore, it is important to ensure your are shifting your pelvis-center over the standing foot for optimal balance alignment. A common mistake is to lean the torso to the balancing leg while leaving the pelvis behind.
3. Activate the Stabilizers
Our stabilizing muscles are responsible for creating the micro-adjustments required for better balance. These smaller muscles create subtle engagement closer to the bone, supporting our joints and enabling us to coordinate different parts of the body to stand or move together. There are stabilizers acting around every joint in the body during balance; however a couple key areas that weaken on people are the stabilizers around the core and hips. The stabilizing core muscles support the connection of the spine to the pelvis and they are the transverse abdominis, multifidi, the iliopsoas, and the quadratus lumborum. For the hip, the gluteus medius muscle (at the lateral hip) is a vital support when standing single-legged as it adjusts the position of the pelvis in relation to the standing leg. All these muscles should be reflexively engaging as we correct and steady in our balance poses, but if you notice weakness (maybe from an old injury or surgery) you may need to consult with a professional to learn focused training of these muscles for their optimal recruitment.
Most importantly, when training the stabilizers of the body, we need to be able to stay in our balance poses long enough to benefit. In yoga, this means choosing options that meet, and gently stretch, our current capability. It’s when we stay somewhere slightly unstable that our muscles and our nervous system learn to compensate, creating inner equilibrium that enables us to handle more challenge next time. If you choose balance poses too difficult to stay in the pose you will not be training the stabilizers.
4. Find Your Drishti
Drishti means “focal point.” It refers specifically to where we orient our eyes and, in a broader sense, to where we focus our energy. Our eyes play a large role in balance. Many of the nerve fibers from the eye neural tracts (the neural fibers within the brain that connect to the eye) interact with the vestibular system, the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements. You can easily get an understanding of importance of vision in balance when trying to stand on one foot with your eyes closed.
In our standing balance poses we have better equilibrium when we take advantage of this eye-vestibular connection by fixing our gaze on an unmoving object, but we also use drishti to take advantage of the way it organizes our energy. By steadying our gaze we are consciously limiting visual distraction giving us more capacity for redirecting this energy towards internal awareness .
5. Regulate Your Breath
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” This advice is particularly relevant to stability work, which depends on a delicate balance between effort and ease. It’s not uncommon to hold our breath when struggling to maintain stability; loss of easy breathing is a sign that we are trying too hard, holding too tightly, creating rigidity rather than stability. If we can let go of our attachment to a pose sufficiently to find ease in our breathing, we may begin to find physical and mental equilibrium too.