How to Improve Your Balance through Yoga – And Why You Should Care
Are you struggling with balance in your yoga practice? Or in life in general? You are not alone. Maintaining balance is not easy – both on and off the yoga mat. And even though it may not be your #1 fitness goal to improve your balance, you should definitely care about it.
Balance affects every area of your life. Even the simplest things like walking, bending down, or going up the stairs suddenly become difficult when you lose your sense of balance. Not to mention physical exercise like running, lifting weights, and yoga.
Continue reading to learn all about what balance is and why it’s important. You will discover how to determine your balance baseline, explore the foundational principles of balancing, and finally find a variety of yoga postures to improve your balance.
The anatomy of balance – Part strength and part skill
Strength forms the foundation of all balance techniques and exercises. Without strong core muscles, hips, legs, and ankles, you won’t be able to effectively learn how to balance for extended periods of time without falling over. But balance doesn’t just require brute strength, you also need mobility. It’s extremely difficult to balance if you lack functional flexibility and mobility to sway and bend as your body corrects itself. Luckily, both strength and mobility can be built up and increased through consistent training over time.
It’s extremely difficult to balance if you lack functional flexibility and mobility to sway and bend as your body corrects itself.
In regards to the skill aspect, it means your sense of balance must be challenged in order to improve. All the muscles needed may already be there but you need to build the neurological connection and muscle memory to actually improve your balance.
And while this may sound like a lot of effort, it’s actually good news. Better balance is accessible to everyone. While some have naturally open hips and others can move into deep backbends easily, you too can learn to improve your balance. In the beginning, your body will overcompensate, undercompensate, and just do crazy wiggles, but eventually, you’ll build the muscle awareness and confidence to gracefully negotiate the uneven terrain of life.
Improve your sense of balance to improve your life overall
Balance is essential for more things than just yoga and exercise. Whether you’re getting out of bed, putting on your shoes, going for a hike, or even just walking – balance is a skill that is often overlooked.
Balance prevents injury
A strong balance practice can prevent injuries for a wide range of people, from children to senior citizens, from professional athletes to couch potatoes. Not only will it support you to keep upright, but it also trains you to fall in a way that causes the least amount of harm possible. This becomes even more important as you grow older and your sense of balance and mobility naturally decreases.
Balance reduces pain
When you work on your balance, you’re using a multitude of muscles from your head to your toes. You’re actually tapping into the deep muscles that coordinate the separate parts of your body into an integrated whole. In other words, you train your body to act as one unit. Challenging your muscle groups to work together in ways that they haven’t had to before can lead to improved control of muscle groups that may have been dormant from years of sitting and leaning. Learning (or re-learning) how to use your muscles synergistically can improve your posture and strength, which has several health benefits including a reduced risk of arthritis, back pain, or other health issues.
Balance enhances performance
As an athlete, you can benefit immensely from balancing exercises, no matter if you’re a pro or just working out for fun. Improved balance and muscle group coordination will naturally increase your body’s ability to control itself during challenging tasks. This means improved agility, quicker reaction times, and improved overall performance. Whether you’re hiking uneven terrain, trying a new workout, or learning to surf, you’ll feel stronger, more confident, and have more fun with better balance.
Balance improves posture and alignment
Balance and postural alignment go hand in hand. Improve one and you’ll likely improve the other. Poor posture is often a result of inactive and tight muscles. Years of sitting and leaning and an overall sedentary lifestyle wreak havoc on your body. Balance training can improve postural alignment by recruiting the weaker muscles in the body which will help you to realign.
Balance increases lifespan
Falls are the main cause of harm and death for older citizens. 90% of hip fractures, one of the most devastating and life-shortening injuries, is caused by a fall. By improving their balance, senior citizens can lessen their risk of falls, which could in turn help them live a healthier, more active, and longer life.
Balance may make you smarter
The practice of balancing has been proven to have cognitive benefits. One study showed that incorporating balance training into the program of elderly women with complaints of memory problems and confusion improved their cognitive function significantly. Therefore, challenging the areas of your brain responsible for balance can actually have benefits for the brain as a whole.
Balance keeps you steady through the uncertainty of life
Mentally and emotionally, working on your balance helps you develop a keener focus as well as the ability to keep an even keel despite the inevitable wobbles that arise in life. By challenging your ability to deal with uncertainty, you create the resilience to move through life gracefully. Better balance gives you the confidence to be successful in all areas of your life – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Finding your personal balance baseline
Before you can work on improving something, it’s important to determine the status quo. So let’s start with a simple exercise to find your personal balance baseline:
Come standing up straight on an even and steady surface. Lift one foot slightly off the ground and observe your body’s reaction: How well do you fare balancing on one leg? Could you hold this position forever, or do you feel like you’ll topple over immediately? Does that change if you’re standing on carpet or a hard floor? How do your left and right legs compare?
Be observant without judging yourself. Wherever you’re at on your personal balancing journey, it’s okay. Once you have a sense of your balance baseline, you can work on increasing your strength and challenging your skill to improve your stability.
Improving your balance – The basics
Everyone regardless of age or level of yoga practice can learn better balance. The key is to start by connecting to your base and deep stabilizing muscles, choosing balance practices that allow you to stay in them long enough to benefit, and being mindful of how you direct your energy through your gaze and your breath.
Once you’ve mastered these central principles, you can be more creative – challenging your balance by moving your gaze or closing your eyes, varying your base, and testing both static and dynamic stability. In fact, because we benefit most from varying the ways we test our stability, you will grow even more by incorporating unfamiliar poses and movements that bring your practice closer to the obstacles you face in real life.
Let’s focus on a few foundational principles relevant to all stability poses and practices first:
Like the foundation of a building, the sturdiness of a balancing pose depends on the quality of its base. With a mindful connection to your base, you feel more stable and grounded, and better equipped to deal with the fluctuations of life in general.
When it comes to balancing on your feet, the first step will always be to get barefoot. Many of us are so used to wearing shoes that connecting to sensations in our feet can be challenging. Not surprisingly, we then find it difficult to stand on one leg, rise to tiptoes, or transition from one stance to another. Improving sensory awareness in your feet, learning how to spread your toes, lift your arches, or distribute your weight between the balls of your feet and your heels can go a long way toward helping you stand stronger.
Similarly, learning how to use your hands for efficient weight-bearing is not only helpful in yoga arm balances, but in any action that requires thoughtful awareness of your shoulders, arms, and hands.
Most of us are used to connecting to our larger and more superficial muscles. While these familiar muscles are great at driving large movements, they are inefficient for creating the micro-adjustments required for better balance. That’s where our deep stabilizers become vital instead: These smaller muscles create subtle engagement closer to the bone, supporting your joints and enabling you to coordinate different parts of the body to stand or move together. These muscles work skillfully together to generate stability without rigidity. When you are in touch with your deep stabilizers, you feel centered and integrated.
Learning better balance is like learning anything – you have to be in the process long enough to benefit. For balancing exercises, this means choosing options that meet and gently stretch your current capability. So if lifting your foot completely off the ground has you immediately losing your balance, it might be more helpful to keep the toes of the lifted foot on the floor or the fingertips of one hand on a wall for a little extra support. It’s when you stay somewhere slightly unstable that your muscles and nervous system learn to compensate, creating the inner equilibrium that enables you to handle more challenge next time.
Your eyes play a large role in balance. While you do use other sensory input (including your sense of touch and feedback from sensors in your inner ear), for most of us vision is our primary means of maintaining stability in relation to our surroundings. Perhaps the simplest way to increase or decrease stability is to use your drishti.
Drishti means “focal point.” It refers specifically to where you orient your eyes and, in a broader sense, to where you focus your energy. You can influence the challenge level of any pose significantly by altering your drishti.
To make a challenging pose feel more stable, you simply anchor your gaze to the floor or the wall in front of you. Conversely, moving your gaze or closing your eyes improves your sensory awareness, forcing you to rely less on external focal points and trust your inner drishti instead.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” This advice is particularly relevant to stability work, which depends on a delicate balance between effort and ease.
It’s not uncommon to hold your breath when struggling to maintain stability. Loss of easy breathing is a sign that you are trying too hard or holding too tightly, which creates rigidity rather than stability. If you can let go of your attachment to a pose sufficiently to find ease in your breathing, you may begin to find easier physical and mental equilibrium too.
Yoga postures to improve balance
Yoga might be one of the first things you think about when you’re looking to improve your balance, and with good reason. Every standing yoga pose helps you build a solid strength foundation from the ground up. Yoga increases your flexibility, stability, and focus, which in turn benefits your balance. Another aspect is that a fluid practice like yoga strengthens your self-perception and awareness of your own body. This can help the body better position your muscles and allows you to sense where your body needs to be without looking.
One of the many great things about practicing yoga is that it’s low-impact and modifiable for any fitness level. New to yoga? Start with grounding poses like Mountain Pose or Chair Pose so you have both feet on the floor. If you’re a bit more advanced and looking for a challenge, take flight with single-leg poses like Tree Pose or Warrior III.
For even more standing yoga poses read through the following list:
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Yes, Tadasana is a balancing pose. At first glance, it may look like you’re just standing around but it actually uses every muscle in the body and requires you to maintain your balance when correctly executed. It can not only improve general posture and body awareness, but also strengthens the thighs, knees, and ankles.
When practicing Mountain pose, always start with the alignment of the feet. Place them hip-width apart and parallel to each other. Press the four corners of the feet into the ground to create a strong base. Relax the toes and lift the arches of the feet to activate the muscles in your lower legs.
Then squeeze the feet and shins in toward the center of the body and push the thighs and sitting bones back and apart. Contract your lower abdominal muscle to level your pelvis and your upper abdominal muscle to draw your ribs in. Stretch down into the feet and up into the crown of the head. The arms can rest right by the sides with fingers engaged and slightly spread and the shoulders should be relaxed.
Tadasana really is the perfect pose to start your balancing practice since all of the alignment principles and muscle activation cues in Mountain Pose can be integrated into the following balancing poses.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Five syllables that make every yoga student sigh and every yoga teacher feel like a drill instructor: ut-ka-ta-sa-na – Chair pose. But the burning sensation in your quads may not be the only thing you’re struggling with. Staying balanced in this yoga pose is also challenging. This asana has plenty of benefits: It strengthens the entire legs, helps you build stamina, and tones your entire body – a great workout for body and mind.
From Mountain Pose, bend the knees and lower your hips as if you wanted to sit on a chair. Ideally, bend your knees all the way to 90 degrees over your ankles and keep your weight equally distributed on your feet.
Lift the chest and engage your lower abdominal muscles, as you reach your arms up overhead with the palms facing. Outwardly rotate your upper arms to avoid shoulder impingement.
Alanasana (High Lunge)
As soon as your feet are no longer next to each other, your sense of balance gets challenged. This is why High Lunge is a yoga balance pose. This yoga pose helps you find stability in the front and back of the torso. It stretches the chest, shoulders, arms, and neck as well as the abdominals and the back muscles. It also strengthens and stretches the thighs, calves, and ankles.
Start in Mountain pose and step one leg back. The front foot is firmly rooted into the ground with the knee directly above the ankle. Aim for a 90-degree bend in the front leg.
The back leg is straight with the weight distributed backward. Push the back heel back and down toward the ground. Pull the inner thighs toward each other and tuck the pelvis.
The spine is long and extended. Straighten the arms overhead alongside the ears and lift the chest. The palms of the hands are facing each other and can be together or separated.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Tree Pose is one of the first one-legged standing balancing poses practitioners of yoga learn and it’s one of my favorite asanas. And with good reason! Vrksasana is a great asana to strengthen your entire leg. It also helps you gain strength and length in your core and spine and, thus, helps you to improve your posture and balance. Furthermore, since it’s hard to stand still when your mind is all over the place, unsteadiness and lack of focus can turn this yoga balance pose into a mirror of your inner state.
Start in Mountain pose. Shift your body weight into one leg, keeping the inner foot firmly on the floor. This will be your standing leg. If you feel unstable standing on one leg, you can also practice against a wall.
Raise the other leg up and bend the knee. Then, reach down with your hand and clasp your ankle. Place the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg with the toes pointing down. If you can’t bring your leg up this high, you can also place it lower down. Please be careful here to not place it directly against the knee. Bring it above or below the knee joint instead.
From inside your ribs, stretch your spine down toward your legs and up through the top of the head. Gaze softly at a fixed point on the floor in front of you – your Drishti. Once you feel stable, you can take your arms up overhead.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana A & B (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
Not sure what is more challenging, the name or the actual poses! These asanas are not so much advanced because they require a high level of balance, but rather because you need to be quite flexible, especially in the hamstrings.
Again starting in Mountain Pose, shift your body weight onto one foot, rooting firmly down into the ground. Bend the knee of the other leg and pull it up toward the chest using the arm of the same side to hug it in. Keep the knee of your standing leg soft.
Hook the index and middle finger around the big toe of the lifted leg and straighten the leg out in front of you. Keep your hip and shoulders squared by placing the free hand onto the hip. If you can’t straighten the leg completely, it’s fine to leave it bent or use a strap around the lifted foot.
To come into Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana B open your lifted leg out to the side, still holding either the big toe or knee. Continue to keep your pelvis level. Focus your gaze on a point in front of you and maintain a steady breath. This will help you to balance in this yoga pose.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose)
All Warrior positions, including Warrior I and Warrior II, require a certain amount of balance. But having one leg lifted in Warrior III certainly makes it a more challenging balancing pose. Warrior III is a great one to strengthen the ankles and legs as well as the shoulders, abdominals, and back muscles. It will certainly improve your balance and posture.
Start in Mountain pose. Keep one leg rooted and perpendicular to the ground while raising the other leg and extending it backward. Press the top of the standing leg back toward the heel and push it firmly into the ground. At the same time, bring your arms up overhead and lower your head, arms and torso until the upper part of your body and the extended raised leg are positioned relatively parallel to the floor.
Keep the hips squared and press the tailbone firmly into the pelvis. Stretch your arms and the extended leg away from each other. Keep your gaze forward or down.
Guradasana (Eagle Pose)
Finally, let’s add some knots to your yoga balance poses. Eagle pose does not only challenge your sense of balance and coordination but also provides a great stretch for the thighs and hips, shoulders, and upper back.
Start in Mountain Pose and cross one thigh over the other. If available to you, also hook the toes and/or the ankle behind the calf of the standing leg. Balance your body weight on the standing leg.
Now also cross the arms in front of the torso so that one arm is crossed above the other one. Tuck the top arm into the elbow crook of the bottom arm. If possible, also hook the hands around each other. Reach the arms up by lifting the elbows up and away from you. Sink down lower in the hips.
Although this pose requires a lot of concentration, try to keep the gaze forward and soft.
Taking your newfound sense of balance off the yoga mat
Whichever yoga poses you choose to challenge your sense of balance, remember that every new practice is difficult at first. But over time, your sense of coordination and balance will improve. And even though these poses may not eliminate all of your klutzy moments, with patience, dedication, and regular practice they will help improve your balance and stability.
The best thing about yoga balance poses is that they not only help you stay grounded, stable, and centered on the mat but in all areas of your life. The steadiness you gain means you’ll move with more grace and ease overall and as an added bonus, have a stronger mind-body connection as well.
Tell me about your favorite yoga balance pose in the comments below!
Written by Julia
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