Saturday, January 25, 2014

Balancing Poses, or, If Little Kids do This All the Time, Why is it so Hard?

Let's talk balancing poses. Do you like balancing poses? I enjoy the challenge they represent, and the fierce focus they require. I've also come to enjoy the exercise they are for my ego: some days I'm a great balancer, but other days I'm falling out of Vrksasana, tree pose, all over the place!
I have a lot of students tell me  they aren't good at balancing poses, but they're also a popular request. I suspect some people say they aren't good at balancing poses to cushion their ego just in case it's one of those bad-balancing days! As with all poses, I remind my students to be prepared to surprise themselves: a pose that they may think of as easy may suddenly seem insurmountably difficult, while a pose they've never gotten close to could suddenly happen with ease and grace. Bodies, and brains, are just funny that way!

Of course, some of us are better at balancing than others, just as some of us are naturally stretchier or have an easier time building upper body strength than others: we have different genes, and hence different biologies. We're all striving for balance though, both in terms of those tricky one-legged postures, and in terms of our practice, and our whole lives: balancing strength and flexibility, balancing effort and ease, that infamously tricky work/life balance...

And balancing poses can help by putting us into a balancing frame of mind, by reminding us that balancing takes effort, and by requiring the very balance of forces we're seeking to bring to our practice. It takes effort, sure, stay up on one foot, or to balance on our hands, but it's just as easy to effort our way right back down to the floor! If you tense up everything, you're too stiff to make the necessary micro-adjustments to stay put.

The benefits of balancing postures go further than that, though: losing our ability to balance is a part of the aging process, and it can lead to falls and potentially serious injury. Why do we lose our ability to balance as we age? Because we lose muscle mass, we lose vision, and we lose our hearing. Which may not seem like it has a whole lot to do with balance, but I'll elucidate.

We use three main systems to help us balance: our vestibular system is the liquid in our inner ear. As it sloshes around, nerve endings tell your brain where the liquid is in that little enclosure, and your brain responds by sending signals to muscles to pull you back to a place where the liquid is where it should be. It works very much like a leveler, actually. We also use our vision to help us balance, and if you don't believe me, just try closing your eyes in a balancing pose you feel very comfortable in! Our brains are always looking at the horizon lines in front of us, and using those to figure out how far off vertical we are. Then the brain sends signals to the appropriate muscles to correct our stance. Thirdly, as our weight shifts, the muscles themselves, particularly those close to our base of support, can feel the shift, and will respond by contracting or releasing appropriately to shift our weight back the other way.

Are you getting the picture? As our ear slowly breaks down with age, our vestibular system breaks down also. As our vision gets fuzzy, we have a harder time perceiving horizon lines. And as our muscles slowly atrophy, it's more difficult to respond quickly and affectively to our own shifting weight.

The good news? There's a way to fight our loss of balance that addresses all three of these issues to some degree! And that is...balancing! I know, it's one of those chicken and egg things (or maybe it's a catch-22?). If you feel like your ability to balance is getting worse, you need to balance more! Balancing also fights aging in another way: every time we challenge our balance, our brain lights up lke a Christmas tree! It's just a great, big challenge for a lot of different systems. It forces different areas of our brain to work together, forging new connections, and strengthening old ones. You know what they say: use it or lose it! That's very true of the human brain. Perhaps your balancing issues have nothing to do with advanced age, but trust me, the cure is the same! Get brave, and get on one foot.

Don't be afraid to use blocks, blankets, or the wall when appropriate. There's nothing wrong with standing near enough to a wall to use it to push you back toward center so you spend more time on one foot: doing so will work your ankle and leg muscles, so as to improve future balancing attempts, much more than constantly falling out and trying to come back in. Blocks are great for shapes like Standing split, or Warrior III, where the hands are near the floor, but need a little extra help to reach that support. Blankets are perfect for dealing with the fear associated with arm balances: put one in front of your hands in crow pose, so you don't worry so much about hitting your head on the floor.


Also, don't be afraid to fall! It's ok! Falling means you're working at the limit of your ability, which is what we want to be doing in yoga: working mindfully with our edge! If you can't seem to stay up for even a second at a time, it's probably useful to consider a slightly less challenging variation: foot closer to the ankle in Tree, toes resting on a block in crow, hand on a higher level of the block, or back against the wall in Half Moon.
Post balancing pose or sequence, take a quick time out to role your ankle or wrists around, and stretch them out. They just got a workout! Press the tops of your toes into the floor, and gently apply pressure forward and down, stretching the front of your ankle. This is a balance in and of itself, so make sure you've got a wall handy so you don't hurt your foot or ankle in the process! Stretching the wrists is easier: just draw the hand back toward the top of the forearm, and then down, toward the bottom of the forearm, gently. You can do this against the floor (very gently!), if you're on all fours: Try turning the fingers back toward your knees, pressing the heels of the hands into the floor, and then slowly bringing your hips back toward your heels, keeping the heels of the hands planted the whole time. Hello, forearm muscles!

Are you a fan of balancing postures? Which ones do you like best? Do you enjoy sequences that put together a few in a row and challenge you to move between them smoothly? Let me know in the comments!

Live Omily,
~em

1 comment:

  1. That is really inspiring.People should pay attention to follow family balancing introduction which will pay in the long run for them. Other wise they might have to face certain problems.

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