Steps to Stability: Refining One-Legged Standing Poses

Practicing yoga benefits our activities of daily living. We breathe easier, sit more comfortably and feel stable and strong when standing and walking. For this post, we’ll focus on the muscles that are active during the “mid-stance” phase of walking—which is essentially a one-legged standing pose. Then we’ll develop some cues for engaging these muscles to improve stability in balance poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) and Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). Improved stability in these asanas, in turn, enhances the beneficial effects of the practice.

Figure 1: Illustrating the phases of gait with the mid-stance phase highlighted.


The walk cycle is traditionally divided into several phases, as illustrated in figure 1. Researchers have used surface EMGs to detect which muscles are most active during each of the various phases of walking. For example, during the mid-stance phase, the hip muscles that show a higher level of contraction include the gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata (figure 2). The gluteus minimus helps stabilize the head of the femur (ball) in the acetabulum (socket). The tensor fascia lata acts to stabilize the pelvis and knee. These muscles engage automatically when we stand on one leg (unless there is an underlying pathological condition). We can improve their function in one-legged standing poses by consciously engaging them in a variety of other asanas, including Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose), Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend Pose) and Upavista Konasana (Seated Angle Pose).

Figure 2: The gluteus minimus stabilizing the head of the femur in the acetabulum and the tensor fascia lata (and gluteus medius) stabilizing the pelvis. Note that the tensor fascia lata also stabilizes the knee.

Another muscle that is active during the mid-stance phase of gait is the rectus abdominis, which runs from the pubis to the front of the ribcage and xiphoid process of the sternum. This muscle aids to stabilize the lumbar spine and pelvis during this part of the walk cycle (figure 3). Consciously engaging the rectus abdominis during one-legged standing poses thus helps to maintain balance. The transversus abdominis also contributes to stability through its myofascial connection to the thoracolumbar fascia.

tree pose

 Figure 3: Illustrating activation of the rectus abdominis in Tree Pose.


Stabilizing the Core

Begin by working with a support, such as a chair or a wall so that you can focus on integrating the muscular engagement without having to also focus on balancing (figure 4). Take Tree Pose and, on your exhalation, gradually tense the abdomen; a visual cue is to draw the navel inward. Activating the abdominal muscles increases intra-abdominal pressure and tightens the thoracolumbar fascia, thus lifting the torso and stabilizing the lumbar spine. Working with the abdominals also amplifies the mind-body connection to this region, creating a “functional focal point.” 

tree pose

Figure 4: Engaging the abdominals in supported Tree Pose.


Cues for stabilizing the core are best practiced over a period of several sessions (using a support for balance). The targeted muscular engagement becomes increasingly refined and efficient with each successive session and is easier to use with the final pose.


Figure 5: Engaging the abdominals in Navasana.


Other poses that improve core strength, especially that of the abdominal muscles, include Navasana ( Boat Pose, figure 5) and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose, figure 6).

Figure 6: Co-activating the gluts and rectus abdominis in Chaturanga Dandasana.


More great information on yoga and balancing – Olga Kabel’s article How to Train Balance: 4 Awesome Ways to Build Strength & Balance from Regular Practice.

Study Yoga and Balance- with Baxter Bell, MD, and YogaUOnline – Yoga for Core Integrity and Balance.

Reprinted with permission from Daily Bandha.

Author, Ray Long MD, FRCSC is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga. Ray graduated from The University of Michigan Medical School with postgraduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, The University of Montreal and Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over twenty years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters.                 

3d Graphic Designer / Illustrator Chris Macivor has been involved in the field of digital content creation for well over ten years. He is a graduate of Etobicoke School of the Arts, Sheridan College and Seneca College. Chris considers himself to be equally artistic and technical in nature. As such his work has spanned many genres from film and television to video games and underwater imagery.         


1) Crommert ME, Ekblom MM, Thorstensson A. “Activation of transversus abdominis varies with postural demand in standing.” Gait Posture. 2011 Mar;33(3):473-7.

2) Winter DA: The biomechanics and motor control of human gait: normal, elderly and pathological, ed 2, Waterloo, Canada, 1991, University of Waterloo Press.

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