Balancing For Beginners

I love yoga balancing poses. Not the arm balancing stuff like handstands or arm balances – I’ll leave those to people whose elbows actually straighten, and who can support the weight of their body with the help of their bones (it’s true, I can’t straighten my elbows but somehow still manage to be a functioning human).
I’m talking about standing balancing poses.
Vriksasana (tree pose), Ardha Chandrasana (half moon), Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (hand-to-big-toe pose) – these are some of my favorites.

We don’t use our balancing skills much in everyday life, save for reaching up to the top shelf for the chips and coming off one leg in the process. Or maybe if you’re really feeling sassy, you put on your socks while standing up. But other than that, we sit, stand, walk or run…
When was the last time you took 5 breaths standing on one foot?

Many of the people I teach are new to the practice of yoga. Their feet and legs hurt when doing standing poses, as they begin to engage muscles they didn’t know they had. Their shoulders are tight and scrunched up around their ears. And when we start balancing poses… invariably I hear sighs of frustration and wobbly feet hitting the floor.
Because when we don’t practice balancing – it’s hard.

As a yoga teacher, I facilitate classes for students, creating a space for them to experience their own practice. It’s my job to watch, and to adapt the poses and cuing to fit what I’m seeing. I rarely practice yoga with them, because I am watching and helping. But when it comes to balancing poses, all that often flies right out the window, and I get on my mat, and play along with everyone else, because I love them so much. Please don’t tell the yoga police.

Sometimes, I’ll put as many as four to six balancing poses together in a row, moving from one to the other without a break in between. I could stay in balancing poses all day. Sometimes when I’m in tree pose, I completely zone out, coming into a state of bliss, and I actually forget how long we’ve been standing there.

I’ve known for a while that I’m in love with balancing poses, but until recently I couldn’t articulate why, except for the idea that they keep me in the present moment. But in the last few weeks, I’ve finally found the understanding and the words as to why this type of practice floats my boat so much.
You guessed it: they’re a perfect metaphor for how I live my life.

In my view, the process of learning to balance can be done by following a simple process. In class, we go over the following steps and use them as guidance. Some parts are written in “yoga teacher-ese” but hey, phrases like “root to rise” aren’t just trite sayings, they’re TRUTH.
I’ll let you fill in the metaphorical bits, because I know you are good at that.

Step 1: Listen to the feels
Stand tall. Can you stand straight, bringing the earth’s energy up through your body, while still feeling relaxed? Notice what you are feeling, and where. Close your eyes. Feel your feet on the ground. As an experiment, slowly begin to take yourself off balance – moving from side to side, front to back. Can you identify what muscles engage and compensate for your movement?
I get lots of different answers when I ask what muscles people feel as they move. Your muscles are accustomed to keeping you upright. But if you take yourself off center, they don’t have as much practice at this. They aren’t as strong. You will feel them more.

Step 2: Find your center
Stand on the ground, feet a little narrower than your hips. Your knees are soft – not bent, just soft. Your hips are aligned, your spine is long, shoulders are back and down, the palms of your hands face forward. Notice your feet on the mat, notice how the mat feels under all 10 toes. Balance your weight so it’s distributed evenly between both legs. Feel the strength of your core.
How often do you simply stand up tall, in stillness? How long can you do it before you get fidgety or your mind wanders from the present moment? This in itself is a great exercise. Hint: you may want to master it before moving on to balancing poses…

Step 3: Take off
From your place of strength and centeredness, take off. Fix your gaze, try tree pose. Stand tall, add some branches to your tree. How long can you balance? Can you move from tree pose into another balancing pose?
Yoga is the ultimate multi-tasking discipline. Whoever said “multitasking doesn’t exist,” never tried yoga. Can you remember to stand tall, keep your gaze soft, keep your hip open, breathe – and still stand tall – and stay in tree pose? And where are your thoughts? As soon as your mind wanders, guess what happens…

Step 4: Fall out
Your tree pose looks beautiful! Let’s try a twist. Or a backbend. How about hand to big toe? Warrior 3? And balancing pigeon? How about all of them in succession, one after another, without a break?
Keep playing. You will fall out. It’s OK. It’s fun! And look how strong you are becoming! The muscles in your feet are getting better at keeping you balanced. Your hips are stronger, keeping your balancing leg steady. Your core is rock solid.

Step 5: Do it again
If you fall out of a balancing pose, take the time to find your center, before beginning again. Bring both feet to the ground, find your center, then take off. Play. Fall. Repeat.
So many people try to hop right back into a balancing pose when they fall out. They don’t take the time to stop, recenter, and restrengthen, before they begin again.

If you don’t have a strong foundation before beginning again, if you aren’t truly centered, how will you ever have the strength to take off and fly?

And no, I’m not really talking about yoga anymore.