Yoga Basics: Balance Poses for Focused Stability
Sometimes in life, it seems like our goals are out of reach, with lots of obstacles along the way. Financial troubles, relationship tensions, and health complications seem like strong gusts of wind that can blow us right over. With merely trying to cope in those situations, forget about moving forward toward some higher ideal of what our lives can be, what we could reach for ourselves and those we love (in yogic philosophy, dharma, or purpose).
In a prior post, I described how twisting asanas can allow us to find grounding, yet adaptability, so that we can stay strong in our convictions, yet be open to shifting somewhat in order to reach realistic solutions. In a similar way, balancing asanas can inform us as to how to remain steady and balanced, even when doing so is immensely difficult. We can do so through maintaining clear and intentional focus.
Balancing asanas come in a variety of forms—from variations of Warrior Postures to those balancing right on our own two hands (arm balances). Taking a step back to one of the most elementary ones, however, can advise us on important fundamentals. Grasping those basics first is imperative for coming to benefit fully from the many gifts that this class of asanas has to offer. Tree Posture (Vrksasana) is a relatively elementary balancing posture (though one can make it more challenging through such variations as adding a Half-Lotus with the raised leg).
Begin from Mountain Posture (Tadasana), simultaneously lengthening up through your spine and grounding through relaxed feet. Feel your weight here, ensuring that you are carrying it through your strong core (rather than tilting it front, back, or to either side). Find a spot on the wall to focus on, and set an intention to keep a steady, sure drishti (gaze) there.
Now, prepare for the full posture by spinning one leg to the side (though keep your hips stable at the same time). Raise that leg and place its foot on the ankle, calf, or thigh. Important note: I didn’t include the knee in that list; that joint doesn’t have the structural stability to support the foot in this posture, at least not without risk of injury, and knee injuries can be very serious. If I haven’t been clear enough, don’t put your foot there!
If it is too challenging to remain balanced with the foot on the supporting leg (the standing leg), there’s no shame in keeping the toes of the balancing leg also on the ground. Yoga is a practice, not a competition, so work on remaining as steady as possible there, and perhaps in your next practice you can raise that foot to the calf. Imagine yourself to be an old, strong tree—nothing has knocked you down in hundreds of years, and nothing will anytime soon!
Wherever you are in this posture, now is when those principles from Tadasana—an unwavering dhrishti, a firm yet relaxed supporting foot, and length all the way through your spine—truly matter. The more you can achieve those qualities, the more steady, calm, and confident you will likely feel in this posture. Maintaining deep and relatively even breathing is key, too, because it will help you to release as much tension as possible. Released and relaxed muscles can much more efficiently and effectively make subtle adjustments than tense and tight ones. Your body needs to make such adjustments in order to remain balanced.
Indeed, you might feel your body making those slight adjustments through “micro”-movements. That is an indication of your body exercising its innate knowledge about how to stay balanced, so simply keep breathing and let your body exercise that wisdom. Above all, maintain that focus: literal, in keeping your firm gaze and physical shape, yet figurative, too, in keeping your mind honed on your goal of finding balance here. Achieving that in a balancing posture such as this one can help us to understand how with such focus, we can stay steady no matter what life challenges try to knock us down.
As your skills with this posture advance, you can carry the principles it taught you into perhaps more difficult balancing postures, such as Extended Hand-to-Big Toe Balance (Utthita Hasta Padangustasana). Begin from Tadasana again, continuing to practice those physical and mental guidelines for balancing as much as possible. Once you’re steady there, bring one knee into your chest. Gently yet firmly hold the sole (top-bottom part) of your foot, or take Yogi’s Peace Fingers (thumb and forefinger grasping the big toe).
Find balance here, again by rooting down through a relaxed foot, carrying your weight through your body’s midline, maintaining your drishti, and keeping a full rhythmic cycle of breath. If that is not achievable for you today, it’s no big deal. Step it back to finding grounding and stability in Tadasana. From Tadasana, perhaps you’ll be able to balance more sturdily with a raised knee on your next attempt. Again, it’s a practice, not a competition.
Alternatively, if you feel confidently balanced with a knee raised to your chest, extend that leg up and out. The knee will straighten, but avoid extending that leg so far that its knee locks. That can cause injury to the joint, for the reasons described, and can also add unnecessary tension in the entire balancing leg. Additionally avoid “slumping” your back over the extended leg (leaning over it to the extent that your back is significantly arched). Allow a slight curvature, however, one that’s only natural for your back’s structure. If you can’t straighten your leg without curving your spine, you can use a strap to hold onto your foot. This will allow you to maintain spinal integrity.
The important thing is finding a balance that allows you to maintain that slight natural curve, yet stay upright enough to maintain Tadasana’s sturdy vertical, yet grounded feeling. With that, you’ll be able to continue breathing steadily and stay grounded, though with your body’s energy reaching upward.
When you find the balance between grounding and reaching upward, you’ll find a sense of calm and ease in the midst of the challenge. That is possible through maintaining a steady cycle of breathing, remaining tuned into your body’s messages, and above all, keeping your focus on the task at hand.
Balancing postures can help us to see how those attributes are transferable tools, those that can also help us to stay composed and working towards our goals when it feels like everything is getting in the way of us reaching them. Remember, through hundreds of storms and dry spells, those majestic, ancient trees have stayed standing strong—and so can we.
Learn more about balance poses, including Tree Pose variations in Yoga Pose Basics & Balance by Stephanie Pappas.
Kathryn Boland is a third-year Master’s degree student in Dance/Movement Therapy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA), and an E-RYT 500. She is originally from Rhode Island and attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in dance (where she first encountered yoga). She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans, all demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!