There are many one-legged balance poses in the yoga practice, and numerous variations of those poses. But why? Yoga is a practice that gives us functional strength and mobility, but also improves our balancing ability in different positions. Actively working on balance can increase our strength and stability as we move through our life. What we practice on the mat, we take with us off the mat.
But why does balance matter? As we age, our body becomes less resilient to falls and injury. It takes us longer to heal, and over time we lose bone and muscle mass as well. By practicing balance poses, especially one legged balance poses, we strengthen our bones and muscles, and create more stability so that as we move through our day, we are less thrown by shifting weight from one foot to the other. We typically shift weight like this many times during the day, when we walk, go up and down stairs, move in and out of a car, etc. We are constantly moving from one foot to the other, and the ground is not always perfectly smooth and flat. By improving our ability to stand on one leg, we cultivate the support that our body needs to hold us up as we move through our life.
One important part of balance, regardless of how you do it, is your Drishti, or Gaze. Keeping your eyes open will support your balance, especially when your eyes are fixed on something specific. While it is possible to balance with your eyes closed or by staring at a blank wall, it is much more challenging. To start, I recommend keeping your eyes open and looking at something specific, like a wall outlet, the corner of a window, a yoga block, etc. Keep your Gaze fixed, but soft, so it’s not a hard stare, but relaxed. If your eyes are relaxed, chances are you’ll be able to relax other parts of your body and mind too.
Here are some poses to play with to challenge your balance:
This is one of the more basic balance poses and is one that I often start with when I teach people new to yoga. Tree pose is a vertical, one-legged balance pose that builds the foundation for other balance poses. The key to balancing in Tree pose is to fix your Drishti (Gaze), activate your glutes, and connect to your midline. And above all, let go of your internal critic.
Connect your right foot to the floor and spread your toes. The wider your foundation, the more surface area you have to support your balance. Place your left foot somewhere on the inner right leg and squeeze the foot and leg together. How high you place your left foot is up to you and what is available to your body. Be sure that both hips are facing forward and that you are not turning the pelvis as the left knee rotates to the left. Stack your right hip over your knee, over your ankle. Your hands can be down by your sides, on your hips, in Anjali Mudra (like in the photo), or reaching upward with the palms facing each other. Hold the pose and breathe for as long as you like. Repeat on the left side.
Benefits of Tree Pose: cultivates balance with a straight leg and a vertical alignment. Strengthens the legs and core. Improves hip flexor strength and hip mobility.
Standing Pigeon/#4 Pose
This balance pose increases the challenge, as not only is the standing leg bent, but your torso is tipped forward so you need to shift your Drishti/Gaze as you move into the pose. I recommend you move your Gaze first, then move your body, as focusing the eyes supports your balance.
Bring your feet parallel and bend your knees. Shift your weight onto your right foot and cross the left ankle over the right knee so that your legs look like the number 4. Bring your hands together in front of your heart (Anjali Mudra) and hinge at the hips to tip your torso forward, keeping a flat back. You will feel a stretch in the left hip/glutes. Have your weight slightly back toward your right heel as you lengthen the spine forward. Hold and breathe for as long as you can. Repeat on the left.
Benefits of Standing Pigeon/#4 Pose: cultivates balance with a bent knee and a more horizontal torso. Strengthens the glutes, core, and legs. Increases mobility in the hip of the lifted leg.
Half Moon Pose
Another balance challenge! In this pose, your torso is sideways in a more lateral alignment. This pose builds on the alignment of Extended Side Angle Pose and Triangle Pose, with most of the movement happening in the hip of the standing leg.
Start in Extended Side Angle with your right foot forward and shift your weight onto right leg. Place your right hand on the floor or a block about a foot forward of your right 5th toe. Be sure your knee and toes are pointing directly forward and aren’t turning to the left. You will feel your right glutes turn on as you rotate your thigh to the right. This outward rotation will cause the left hip to move to the left, since the right foot is in a fixed position on the floor. Press outward through both heels, activating the glutes and quads on both legs. Your Gaze can be at your right thumb (most supportive), it can be outward (slightly more challenging) or upward toward the left thumb which is above your left shoulder (most challenging). Hold for as long as it’s useful. Repeat on the left.
Benefits of Half Moon Pose: cultivating balance in a lateral position, and improving proprioception (especially if you are looking upward). Strengthens the glutes, legs, and core. Improves hip and hamstring mobility.
This pose can be practiced in a few ways, one with more vertical alignment, and one with more horizontal alignment. Whichever variation you practice, you are creating a backward bend in the Thoracic spine. Next week I will be discussing backward bending and how to do so safely, so keep an eye out for that. For now, focus your backward bend in the thoracic spine.
Place your right foot facing forward toward the front of your mat. Bend your left knee, lifting your foot toward your buttock. Bring your left elbow toward your left waist with the palm facing upward. Carry the arm backward in that position so that you can grab the top of your left foot and keep the left elbow crease aiming to the left. Press the foot into the hand and start to lift it toward the ceiling. Here you have 2 choices: you can keep your pelvis more vertical, or you can tip the pelvis forward, moving the torso into a more horizontal alignment. Gaze toward your right hand as it extends upward or forward, depending on the variation you choose. Stay for as long as it’s comfortable, then repeat on the left side.
Benefits of Dancer’s Pose: Balancing with spinal extension and different degrees of hip flexion. Strengthening the glutes, erector spinae group, and legs. Improving mobility in the hip flexors and front body/abdominals.
I will explore some of these poses in my 4 week course, Back to Yoga Basics! Learn how to do 25 yoga poses with safe alignment. Learn which muscles are active and which are stretching to strengthen and improve your balance! You will also learn breathing techniques and meditation to feel less frazzled and have a calmer mind. Beginners welcome, this is for you! Course starts March 13th, sign up today!
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