Students often tell me they notice their balance has improved after coming to my classes regularly. I am not surprised! We are working on our balance in more ways than you might think in yoga. It’s not just the balancing poses.
Balance is the ability to ‘right yourself’, to come back to or hold a midline or centre of stability in your body. It can be something you take for granted, until you notice you are less sure of yourself after an injury, after spending more hours sedentary, when your eyesight changes, and of course as you age. Once this happens, you can really appreciate how your sense of steadiness affects your overall movement ability and confidence. It also affects how relaxed you feel in your body, because poor balance creates physical tension.
I suspect the standing balance poses are often a dreaded part of a yoga class. In fact, people tell me they don’t like them! Jaw tensed, a fixed stare forward, it can be so frustrating if you’re falling in and out of the pose…there is no hiding in a standing balance!
Folks, if this is you, it doesn’t need to be like this…It becomes interesting and fun when you understand that you NEED to create opportunities to wobble around in your yoga. You need to feel yourself moving towards and away from a centred position, in order to challenge and strengthen your balance systems. So in my kind of yoga, we create off-balance situations deliberately. Wobble around regularly, and the static yoga balance poses get miraculously easier too.
How does balance work in humans?
Our ability to balance comes largely from three integrating systems: the visual system, the vestibular system (the inner ear) and proprioception. The visual and vestibular systems work together to orient us in the space around us, to sense distance, find upright level to the horizon as we move in different directions – turning to the side, moving upwards or down and any combination.
Proprioception is your unconscious awareness of where your body is in space, gained from feedback from neuroreceptors in all your joints and tissues, which send constant quickfire messages up to your brain for your motor control system to respond to. These receptors are stimulated to send information via movement.
So what are some of the most effective yoga ways to actively challenge all three of these systems?
1) Mobilise and Strengthen your Feet and Ankles for Better Balance
As our feet and ankles are home to about a THIRD of all our proprioception mechanoreceptors, how well your feet and ankles move is a foundation of good balance. As your feet are the only part of your whole body in contact with the ground when you are upright and moving, they are a crucial feedback system! The muscles of the feet are also the base of our stability via the muscular connections right up to the pelvic floor and the trunk muscles.
Yet because of shoes, many of us have drastically limited ability to feel and control the movement of our feet. If you come my classes, you already know ALL about this, but regularly exercising your toes, feet and ankles is a crucial part of improving and maintaining good balance.
My blog on the feet has all the exercises you need to develop stronger and more pliable feet.
2) Strong Hips Help You Balance
To stay steady and stable as we move around, we need strong hips muscles to support the the chain of joint movements from the foot all the way up to the pelvis. We need strength in all the ways the hips move, when the leg moves forward (hip flexion), leg behind the body (hip extension), and supportive lateral hip strength or muscles at the outside /side of our hips.
One of the best ways to strengthen hips and improve balance together is to do single leg movements, challenging one side, i.e. one foot-ankle-knee-hip chain of connection, to increase its usual work and weight bearing load. (Also known as wobbling around practice!)
Here are some things to try.
- Stand on one leg, bend forward, touch your hands to a chair or the floor and return back up to standing upright, (re-righting yourself), try with a bend knee and then with your leg as straight as possible.
- Transition from a lunge to standing on one leg, hug your knee standing tall and then smoothly make your way back to lunge again. These two exercises integrate a level change (moving your head up and down) which works your vestibular system and visual system.
- Standing on a yoga block with one foot, one foot on the floor, slowly lift up the foot on the floor util its even with the foot on the block. slowly lower it back down to hover just off the floor. Repeat 5x. You create this movement by contracting the lateral hip muscles of the standing leg, pulling the standing leg hip to the midline, so the other leg floats up. You can hold onto a wall to do this, working on the hip strength, or make it a balance as well.
- Try a slow motion curtsey and then bring the moving leg forward and tap on the floor in front of you. Keep going for a minute, noticing the work in your standing leg, the connection from foot right up to hip, and getting used to the feeling of your body moving away from and back towards your standing upright centre.
Here is a short single leg practice:
3) Balance With Your Eyes Closed
Take away your vision, and your proprioception has to work much harder to keep you balanced. Proprioceptive training ! Do this regularly and watch your balance confidence improve.
Try this simple test:
1.Walk slowly with small steps along the edge of your yoga mat or a rug. Once you reach the end, turn around and walk the other way (with the other foot half on /off), one foot is half on and half off the edge of the rug/mat. Leave some space between each slow deliberate foot placement. Notice how your balance feels. You will be using your visual system and proprioceptive info from your feet and ankles in particular. You might feel them wobbling around, even though you are on solid ground just walking!
2. If you were looking down, repeat the walk, this time looking straight ahead, and if you were looking ahead go again while turning your head side to side once or twice as you step slowly. Now you are challenging your visual and vestibular systems to work a bit harder. Increased wobbling.
3. Repeat a third time with your eyes closed. Notice how that feels. Unsettling? Much more wobbly? Stop and open your eyes if you need to, otherwise notice how really focussing and sensing into your feet as your base of contact can start to steady you more with your eyes closed. Increased proprioception! Our visual system is pretty powerful ,so we can improve balance by taking vision away and making our proprioception work harder.
Here is a video to give this a try.
4) Add Some Wobble to Your Yoga Poses
Notice how it’s much easier to maintain balance when you look at one fixed point, allowing your visual and vestibular system to create a steady orientation. Even in a non balance pose like a high lunge, notice the difference in body sway by first looking forward and then slowly looking up and holding your gaze there. In tree pose (foot on thigh OR toes resting on the top of the base foot) try reaching your arms up parallel and looking up between your hands. If you are standing holding one knee or big toe, try slowly turning your head to the side. Moving your head and gaze point around in poses is an easy ways to add challenge to the three balance systems.
In standing balance poses, as well as holding them, you can also practice moving in and out of the poses dynamically and combining poses. This can be harder in some ways than holding still in a single leg balance pose and in some ways easier and a good warm up for holding poses statically. Variety offers challenge to the balance systems and builds capacity. At the same time we are also strengthening our trunk (core) stability and whole body coordination.
5) Bring Balance into Your Daily Life
One of the best things about balance practice is that it’s easy to blend into everyday life and increase your confidence, without it feeling like much extra effort. What can you use in your daily environment?
Some single leg heel raises when you go up the stairs or on a step? I know there will be some single leg teeth brushers out there! The kitchen top is ideal to hover your hand over while practising some single leg with eyes closed balancing.
I add a bit of playfulness on my daily walk, looking for opportunities to balance, just as kids naturally do.
This kind of stuff isn’t trivial, it all adds up and can bring more movement variety into your life, supporting you to move and feel well. It moves us away from exercise being another ‘to do’ or chore and makes it more part of our day. I love that!
Balance work is a fun and important part of improving strength, coordination, and confidence in movement, with pretty quick changes possible. – not to mention protecting your long term future health by decreasing your risk of falls.
If you come to my classes you will have done a huge range of balancing joy. Do you feel your balance confidence and ability has changed from doing these kinds of practices? And I’m interested to learn about how you find ways of adding balance in your daily life. Let me know in the comments!