“One gift of yoga is learning to be centred. This isn't just an interesting philosophical idea; it's a real mental and physical discipline you practice every time you do a pose. And the best poses to develop that sense of centre are, of course, balancing poses.”
Spread those toes!
When practicing standing balances in class, we usually start by thinking about our feet. When building a tower, the foundations are the most important part. So lift up and spread out those toes, imagine spreading out the ball of the foot and then plant your foot and toes back down, wide and with awareness. Notice that if you rock forwards, the toes grip the floor so they can push you back to centre. If you rock backwards, they lift up to shorten the tendons on top of the foot and up the ankle to bring you forward again. It may sound small, but spreading the toes and ball of the foot will make a big difference to the stability of any pose you do.
So, to the arms…
Once our feet are sorted, we find our balance and then and only then, begin to lift or open out our arms or legs. You probably know from experience that the higher you raise your hands (or feet), the harder it becomes to remain steady. This is because lifting our hands (or our legs) upwards or away from the body raises our centre of gravity. When your centre of gravity is high, just a few degrees of tilt can move it far enough off the plumb line (the vertical centreline of your body) to upset your balance. When it is low, there's more room for error, i.e., wobbling without falling over.
So, if you are a getting a bit wobbly, lower one or two arms or legs a little and see what a big difference a slightly lower centre of gravity can make to your stability. Alternately, try lowering your centre of gravity by bending your supporting leg. Only straighten the knee once you feel comfortable. This may be just a second, or it may be a few weeks while you build up strength in other parts of the body. Take your time and be patient.
Strong tums & bums
You could lift yourself into the most beautiful alignment, but without strong core muscles, your bones will not remain there for long. The muscles provide lift and counteract the extension of a leg out to the side, or the arms up overhead. Balancing requires strength and standing balances require that strength in the abdomen and buttocks.
When you stand on one foot, one leg (and the buttock and abdominal muscles above that leg) must work twice as hard to compensate. The instant you lift one foot off the floor, the hip on that side is no longer supported, so what is holding you up? Two muscles in the opposite side of your bottom; the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus. These two muscles need to be strong in order to balance and we will be doing some body preps to activate and strengthen these over the next few weeks to help with our Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose).
You can feel your gluteus medius by taking your fingers to the side of your body just a bit below the waist. Press them inwards firmly and then lift the opposite leg. You will feel the gluteus medius harden, and the higher you lift, the more it contracts. The gluteus minimus lies underneath the medius, so it's harder to feel but I promise it is working hard too.
Practice Makes Perfect (and Strong Core & Legs)
The best way to strengthen these crucial muscles is—you guessed it—to practice lots and lots of one-legged standing poses! Try practicing Tree, Eagle or Half Moon poses while standing next to a wall or table. With just the tiniest bit of support, you can hold the balance significantly longer without wobbling, so you feel safer and can use and strengthen the correct muscles to perfect your alignment.
Set Your Mind to It
So far, all I’ve talked about is bones & muscles, arms & legs, manomayakosha; the physical body. Remember that Dru Yoga is all about the integration of all the koshas: body, thoughts, emotions and breath; none being more important than the other. Your attitude towards balances will effect how you feel about them and how well you can perform them. Smile, relax and take a moment to stand still. Let your mind calm down. Visualise yourself doing the perfect balance and which muscles you will need to contract or stretch to do so. If you wobble, smile, come down and slowly try again.
Standing balances will teach your body and mind to be centred and as you practice, you will begin to notice that benefit spilling over into the rest of your life; helping you to focus at work, be more present when dealing with friends and family, and able to be aware of, and consciously enjoy, what is actually happening at any given moment.