How to Improve Your Physical (and therefore mental) Balance
For many adults, balance is hard. I’m talking about actual, physical balance, on one leg, for example. While it might be true that mental/emotional/conceptual life balance is hard too, I want to talk firstly about the body.
If you already have a yoga practice, or know a bit about how yoga works, then you’ll know that working the body has a knock-on affect on the mind. The two are interlinked, and quite frankly, working the body is sometimes easier than working the mind, so we’ll start there.
In yoga everything is about balance. The word Hatha literally means the balance between the sun ‘Ha’ and the moon ‘Tha’ and ‘Yoga’ means union. The bringing together of the yang and the yin, the body and the mind…it’s all about balance.
So, can you practice yoga if you can’t stand on one leg? Of course! In fact, all the more reason to do so, because with physical balance comes balance in the mind, and I’m going to tell you how.
Physical balance requires concentration, or more accurately, focus. I say that because the word concentration sometimes conjures up the idea of immense effort, when actually pushing yourself too hard is counterproductive when it comes to balance…which I’ll go into a bit later on.
When the mind is focussed/concentrated on the act of physical balance, it is unable to think about anything else. Making balancing a form of mindful meditation…you can only think about the present moment, the act of balancing, the softness of the breath and nothing else, leaving your mind feeling clear of unwanted thoughts, feelings and emotions.
If you struggle with physical balance, it could be because the mind is wandering away from the act of holding you upright, and becoming distracted…hence, you fall.
By practising physical balancing postures (which by the way doesn’t just mean standing on one leg…see below for a list) you are training your mind to find focus and clarity. Just as you are training your muscles to be stronger, you’re also teaching your mind how to clear itself of unhelpful/negative/distracting thoughts, feelings and emotions for when you really need to.
The practice of yoga is built upon 8 ‘limbs’ or practices/ways of living. The first being the ‘yamas’ which are social codes to live by. There are 5 yamas, and the fifth is ‘Aparigraha’ meaning non-attachment. In Buddhism, the second noble truth is ‘the root of all suffering is in attachment’. What this means is that the more you strive for something or anchor your happiness to a certain goal (the common ‘once I’m rich I’ll be happy’, or similar, ideas) then you are destined for suffering; because every moment you spend without that thing, you are telling yourself you’re unhappy.
On a smaller scale we can apply this to physical postures in yoga. If you’re so hell-bent on standing in Tree Pose for 30 minutes you’re going to push too hard. Your body and mind will be tense with exertion and you’ll likely get distracted and fall. If, however, you let go of any ‘outcome’ and just enjoy the process of practice, and maybe the few short seconds or moments of balance when it comes, you’re far more likely to succeed.
There’s also a lot to be said for the words ‘I can’t’. Attachment to an outcome usually means we’re assessing in our heads whether we can actually achieve that outcome or not. If we try, and fail (which we usually will!) then we start telling ourselves we can’t do something, which repeats again and again every time we fail, and starts distracting the mind from the task in hand. Let go of ‘I can’t’ and just keep trying.
Dristi (your gaze)
Linked with focussing the mind, is focussing the gaze. Whenever I’m teaching balancing postures in my classes I always remind my students to hold their gaze on something still in front of them. Anchoring your gaze (dristi) on one point will help you to relax into the posture, but there’s more to it than that.
Once you’ve got your point to look at, you want to soften your gaze; almost to gaze through it. This helps to relax the mind, and allow you to let go of the tension of ‘concentrating’ on the spot.
Dristi is also really important when it comes to moving the head in balancing postures. Let’s take for example, Parivrtta Baddha Anjaneyasana, or Bound Revolved Crescent Lunge to you and I. This is a balancing posture as much as anything, and a great example of the importance of the gaze. Once you’re in your twist, looking to the sky is the final step, but if you swing your head around to the sky quickly, the chances are you’re going to fall. Instead, taking the gaze slow, slow, slowly up to the ceiling is going to keep you focussed, your gaze soft, and your balance in tact.
When working on balancing postures in my classes we always work from the mat upwards. Firstly, because nothing can balance on an unstable base, and secondly, because by drawing your focus and energy from the floor upwards, you’re subconsciously lifting and rising up, allowing you to feel lighter in your final posture.
The feet are hugely important for balance. They keep you balanced every time you stand up, so they’re pretty used to it. However, they can often be overlooked when practising yoga. Start by rolling the foot you’re going to stand on inwards, then spread the toes wide and keeping them spread, place the foot back down on the ground. You’ve widened your base and a wide base = stable. Now make sure you’re pressing the floor away from you with all 4 corners of the foot, ensuring your weight is evenly distributed.
Don’t forget the toes! When you rock back and forth on your feet, it’s your toes which keep you from falling over, so let’s work them! Press all of your toes down into the mat and let them work for you!
Glutes & Bhandas
If you’ve been to yoga classes where the teacher has talked about your Mulabhanda and have absolutely no idea what that means, you’re not alone! In Sanskirt ‘bhanda’ means ‘lock’ and your Mulabhanda means you ‘root lock’. Essentially engaging your mulabhanda means engaging the muscles in the pelvic floor area, right up to the lower abdomen. To engage the mulabhanda, practise contracting the muscles you’d use to stop yourself from peeing mid-flow. You can practise this any time, while going about your normal day, and you’ll be on your way to a more stable pelvic region!
Your mulabhanda, combined with your glutes helps to keep the pelvis aligned and an internal ‘lifting up’ of our energy. Basically, it stops us dumping all our body weight into the leg we’re balancing on. If you struggle to find stability in the glutes during balancing postures, try to bend the standing leg slightly at the knee, and then focus on engaging the glueteus medius…the muscle on the side of the buttocks, close to the hip.
You can also practise building strength in this muscle by laying on your side with your legs straight and lifting your top leg up and down.
Next time you’re struggling with balance, ask yourself if your glutes and pelvic floor/lower abdomen are working for you?
Lift and breathe!
Once you’ve got your stable base, your legs are active and your pelvis is stable, your mind and gaze are and focussed and you’ve let go of the end-goal, now’s the time to lift! Imagine someone has a string coming out of your sternum (breastbone) and is lifting your torso up to the sky. You’ll instantly feel lighter and more aligned.
From here it’s all about the breath. All your breath to fill your lifted chest, and keep the exhale soft and controlled through the nose. This doesn’t just work in yoga either, you can practise this anywhere! Feeling pressured, down or just under the weather? Have you noticed yourself hunching over? Lift through the chest and take some deep breaths and notice how much lighter everything seems. Continue to practise this movement and you’ll also help with your posture, and your general confidence!
So there are my tips for improving your physical balance. But real improvement comes through practice, so here are some of my favourite balancing postures for you to get working on! The more you practice, the more you’re going to find that sweet spot where the mind is clear, the breath is soft and the only thing that matters is the present moment. It’s a beautiful feeling and can lead the way to finding balance off the mat too!
- Crescent Lunge
- High lunge
- Revolved standing hand-to-knee
- Warrior 3
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