Many people believe they are not good at balancing. Why should you be good at standing on one leg anyway when daily tasks don’t really require this for any length of time? Isn’t it just something people need to do in gym classes and quirky yoga lessons? Rather on the contrary, so many skills are developed or fine-tuned when we balance, that steadiness on one leg is actually very important to keep practising. The different skills that are required, such as strength, agility, awareness of the body in space, stability and concentration, tend to deteriorate with age, and if we never practise balancing on one leg, we may feel increasingly unstable on two! If you believe you can’t balance easily, take this opportunity to challenge yourself and improve, because you can and you may even come to love it…
Why balancing is important:
1 Balancing strengthens the muscles that have to work in order to hold your body in a certain position. One foot has to hold all the weight and strengthening our feet in this way means we reduce the chance of straining an ankle or becoming unsteady on our feet. When we balance for longer than half a minute, the weight-bearing bones even start to strengthen, which is good to prevent osteoporosis. (see my previous blog about osteoporosis here)
2 Balancing promotes greater agility as you learn to respond quickly to losing your balance, or keeping it in a dynamic balancing sequence.
3 Practising balances regularly may make you feel less worried about falling as you grow older. Agility and strength help to prevent falls.
4 Balancing on bare feet makes the soles of the feet more sensitive and responsive, which in term helps improve balance, walking and everything else we do on our feet.
5 Trying to balance may improve the health of our nervous system: our proprioception, i.e. our awareness of where the body is in space, improves as we are challenged to align our body in different yoga balances.
6 Balancing compels us to focus and concentrate, good for our brain!
7 Finally, standing on one leg makes us feel joyous, steady and centred!
The skills that help us balance:
2 Flexibility and agility.
3 Good communication between the brain and the body. Two systems are important here: proprioception tells us where the body is in space. Exteroception is the ability to gauge the surface on which you have to balance on. Both deteriorate with age but can be improved by doing yoga.
4 Vision: it is easier to balance when we focus on one point.
5 Inner ear functions: can affect the ability to balance.
How to start practising:
If you are afraid of falling, and/or if you have osteoporosis, practise with your back to a wall or with a wall/chair next to you so you can hold on if you need to.
Don’t allow your mind to criticise or judge yourself negatively. Every attempt is better than not trying. Every attempt is about learning.
Start on a hard floor and if your practice improves you can try a squidgy surface: a yoga mat is harder to balance on than the hard wood floor.
Gradually try to balance for longer periods at a time.
Let’s start from the very beginning. When you master one exercise you can move to the next.
1 Mountain pose
Stand on two feet, hip-width apart and with the toes facing forward. Balance your weight equally behind all the toes and on the centre of your heels. Be aware of the touch of the soles of the feet on the floor.
Bring the hips over the ankles and the shoulders over the hips.
Breathe out and feel the stability, and the pull of gravity under both feet. Once you feel stable with both feet on the ground, also pay attention to feeling long and light: breathe in and feel the crown of the head pulled upward.
Keep breathing like this for a few minutes: feeling grounded when you breathe out, and tall as you breathe in. Keep this sense of length along the back in your balancing poses.
2 Foot strengthening exercise
Inhale and come up onto the toes, keeping the weight behind all the toes. Exhale and lower the heels on the floor. Repeat and coordinate the breath with the movement. Repeat at least 6 times.
2 Toe tree
Shift your weight over the left foot and lift the right heel off the floor. Keep the left side long; avoid bending into the left hip. Stay in this position until you feel stable enough to place the right heel against the left leg, with the toes on the floor. Turn the right knee out to the side. Breathe and stay in the position for up to a minute before trying this with the other leg.
3 Tree pose
Take time to feel both feet on the floor, the weight equally distributed behind all the toes and on the centre of the heels.
Shift your weight over the right foot. Keep the right side of the body long; avoid bending into the right hip.
Once you feel stable on the right leg, lift the left foot and place it below or above your knee (avoid the knee cap).
Visualise the breath flowing down the standing leg, as if it is energy flowing into your roots every time you exhale. When you inhale, visualise the breath flowing up towards the head. This helps both the feeling of stability and the lightness in this pose
4 Dynamic warrior balance
Inhale and lift both arms while bending the left knee to the level of the hip.
Exhale and swing the left leg behind you while you spread your arms and bring the body in line with the left leg. Keep your lower abdomen engaged as you do this, to keep your lower back long and protected.
The body and left leg move to be in one line: they can be horizontal or just sloping down with the shoulders higher and left foot closer to the ground. Start practising this movement smaller, with the left foot not far off the floor. It is less important to move this leg to the horizontal position than to keep a feeling of length along the spine. It may help to imagine the foot and head being pulled in opposite directions.
Alternate the two movements several times, breathing in to bring the knee up, and out as you straighten the leg behind you.
Finish by lying on a mat for at least 5 minutes, with the legs straight or bent.
An English poem by Jenny Joseph starts with the sentence “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple”. For me, and perhaps many of my students too, it would sound more like: “when I am old I shall stand on one leg, wherever and whenever I want to!” Namaste