Balance is one of my favorite categories of yoga poses to teach because there is so much about balance that is connected to our daily lives. Not only is there the physical aspect of getting into and holding each pose, there is also the mental connection to each pose and how powerful our minds are at convincing our bodies of what we can and cannot do.
On top of that, there is the fact that every person I have met, no matter how young or old is working on finding balance in their lives. Finding and maintaining balance between the responsibilities and stresses of daily life as well as the activities that fulfill us is a constant practice.
As we embark on the quest for balance, it is important to note that our lives and interactions are continually changing. Noticing the fluctuations of the energy we are exerting and drawing in compassionate awareness and curiosity by pausing to ask, "Is this adding to my life or taking away valuable energy that could be better spent elsewhere?" is a key step in finding balance off the mat.
As our minds are constantly changing their focus, I utilize this theory in cueing my balance poses in class, asking students to start by noticing the pattern of their thoughts and if they are bringing positive energy and compassionate awareness to the moment.
In this regard, finding and maintaining balance on and off the mat is a dance between clearing our minds, drawing in awareness of our objectives, and staying focused on the outcome.
So, let’s start with the physical benefits of balance
Doing balance poses helps to have greater awareness of our bodies in everyday activities such as walking and going up and down stairs. Better balance also helps prevent injuries due to falling and facilitates better posture, which in turn provides a better distribution of weight throughout the body.
As a yoga teacher, in a regular hour-long class, there is a lot to put together in a short amount of time to help your students find and maintain balance.
The first part of the process is determining the most authentic manner of cueing getting in and out of each pose.
Find your Voice
Over time we all find our personal way of encouraging our students how to stretch their limits. In balance, my preference is slow and mindful. I like to remind them to set their foundation by saying such things as “Root down through your feet”, “Draw in grounding energy”, and “Set your gaze on a non-moving focal point.”
This initial time is one of the most important for success in balance poses as it helps to bring in more centered energy and awareness.
Depending on the class and how long you want them to hold the poses, you can take your cueing deeper by focusing on one of these areas.
For example, when setting the gaze, you can ask “Is it a hard and forced gaze or a soft, steady focus?”
“Is it on an immobile space or another person?” There is a saying, “Where your gaze goes, your mind and energy flows.” If the space you set your gaze is moving, chances are you will move too.
Allow for Adjustments
To be honest, I stopped offering physical adjustments years ago due to my personal preference as well as feedback from my regular students and that has actually deepened my ability to offer verbal adjustments.
So, what adjustments can help to come into balance? My favorites are “tighten your abdominal muscles, draw your shoulders away from your ears, breathe deeply, and softly gaze at a non-moving focal point.”
Don’t Forget to be Inspiring
Richard Freeman has stated, “Life's sequences — just like our yoga poses — can be smooth, graceful, integrated — intelligent — if we learn to join together oppositions.”
That is one of the best statements I can think of to state what balance is both on and off our mats. Joining together oppositions.
The chattering monkey mind sitting in the rooted tree.
The Eagle looking over its’ terrain with clarity and confidence.
Tune into your Creative Side to Create Balance
There are times when I’m honestly bored with the traditional balance poses yoga has to offer, so those are the opportunities to create balance from a new foundation.
For example, adding a foot lift or leg extension to Chair pose adds a whole new dynamic to the pose.
Turning Star pose into a balance pose by extending one leg out to the side and if desired, slowly moving that leg across the frontal plane of the body opens a new way to move the body, find playfulness or mindfulness in the pose, and create new neural pathways through the brain.
Putting it all Together
In an average class, I have at least one balance pose so I thought it would be nice to give a few examples of how I put all the above information into practice.
Standing with your feet hip distance apart, slowly settle in. Draw your shoulders back and down, bring your hands to heart center, set your gaze on a non-moving focus point, and slowly engage your core.
Taking your time, bring weight to your left foot and draw your right foot to your left ankle or upper thigh. Let the distribution of balance settle and keeping a steady gaze, slowly extend your hands to the sky and open wide becoming the branches of your tree.
While the students are holding the pose, remind them to breathe and that it is okay if their branches sway. What matters is finding that stable center to return to no matter how hard the wind around may blow.
As with all balance poses, we move to the next side with the same determination.
Standing with your feet hip distance apart, take a moment to rock to the front and back of your feet, noticing how the distribution of balance feels. Slowly, come to a still space.
Extend your left hand to the sky, bring your weight to your left foot and bend your right leg behind you, reaching with your right hand for your ankle, foot, or toes. Engaging your core, hinge forward from your waist, reaching in opposite directions.
Hold here, and steadily extend your right leg behind you, continuing to hold your foot steady. Finding the balance between effort and ease, grace, and flexibility.
Slowly release and make your way to the other side.
Some say we only appreciate balance when we've lost it, others claim balance takes constant attention.
I personally agree with the latter – balance takes constant attention. It is about checking in to where we are at in our mind and body, determining the reason we are there, and moving forward with strength, curiosity, and dignity.
The adjustments made on the mat can also help off the mat – Draw strength from your core, breathe, and soften your gaze – on yourself and the world.