Where Should You Gaze When Practicing Balance Poses in Yoga?
I recently received this question about yoga’s balancing poses from a yoga teacher who has done our Yoga for Healthy Aging course in the past:
“When teaching my seniors, I notice that they tend to look down a lot when trying to balance. I have subscribed to the adage that if you look down, you go down! I try to get them to focus their drishti (gaze) on a fixed point at eye level. A neuroscientist friend pointed out that looking down is like having another limb on the ground and that it makes sense to look down as it feels more stabilizing. Since I consider you an expert on yoga for an aging population, I was curious to hear your thoughts.”
Where Should We Fix Our Gaze in Balancing Poses?
Well, this was an interesting question: where should older adults, or really any person, place their visual attention to help support balance and postural stability, and is it different in static poses like Tree Pose (Vrksasana) versus when actively walking around in an environment?
I had not heard the idea presented by the neuroscientist before, so I immediately did an online literature search to see what I could uncover. And uncover some intriguing truths I did!
What the Research Says about How to Fix Your Gaze
One study I found looked at gaze placement in healthy adults in different environments when walking and found, likely not to anyone’s surprise, that when walking on flat surfaces with no obstacles, the gaze tends to be on the horizon with only occasional glances at terrain ahead for obstacles and balance and posture are easily maintained.
However, with more uneven surfaces, the study included a moderately rocky trail and a very rocky dry creek bed; the gaze is more frequently downward. I have noticed this tendency on hikes in places such as the Oakland Hills or Yosemite Valley for quite some time. I’d love to look out at the lovely vistas all the time but find I have to frequently be gazing down at the path to avoid roots and rocks that might lead to a trip and a fall.
Another study looked specifically at older adults and stroke survivors compared to younger adults to determine if downward gaze improved postural steadiness. They found that postural sway decreased when the gaze was focused 1 meter or 3 meters (2-1/2 to 6 feet) in front of where they stood. But when they looked down at their feet, it increased. Interestingly, their study subjects were asked to stand in what seems to be a Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with feet close together!
How Does This Apply to Yoga Balancing Poses?
This reminds me of a suggestion from some of my early yoga teachers back in the day. When doing poses like the Tree pose, some instructors suggest picking a spot six to eight feet out in front of one standing on the floor to direct the gaze. Not all of them suggested this, and some, as our questioner suggests, often ask us to focus our gaze on the horizon. As we age, there may be factors at play that could make this horizon gaze more challenging, such as changes to the processing of information by the brain related to spatial awareness.
The studies I reviewed made it unclear whether downward gaze was accompanied by forward neck flexion. It is certainly possible to gaze downward two to six feet out in front without dropping the head forward and down. And given the propensity for older adults to develop spinal kyphosis (rounding of the upper spine) and head-forward syndromes, I am more likely to encourage the eyes to look down while maintaining a neutral head and neck position.
The Role of Gaze Stabilization Exercises on Balance and Stability
Another interesting aside from another study was the impact of Gaze Stabilization exercises on balance and postural stability. These are fairly accessible exercises involving placing your gaze on a fixed object at varying lengths in front of you while moving your head in different directions. Often used for those suffering from vertigo or dizziness, they generally benefit from improving balance. A few simpler ones could be added to a seated or Mountain Pose practice!
What’s the Bottom Line with Gaze and Balance Poses?
So, what is the bottom line on where to place the gaze when doing your yoga balance and agility practices? Like almost everything in yoga and life, it depends! There is certainly growing evidence that a downward gaze can help stabilize posture and balance in older adults (and even younger adults, too), but let’s consider instructing that with attention to good overall posture and head placement!
Remember that balance and agility also contribute to healthy functioning, such as feedback from the skin receptors (exteroception), feedback from the joints that tell you where you are in space (proprioception), and overall strength and flexibility. So, although our vision is integral to overall balance and posture, it is part of a greater whole. Let’s ensure we tune up all parts of the balance system as we practice yoga balancing poses.