One of the most frequent requests in both my private yoga teaching and public classes is a yoga sequence to help improve balance. I often say to my students that working on balance requires a healthy dose of patience and a good sense of humour. Balance can be a notoriously tricky thing to pin down – some days we can feel very steady, other days like we’ve just stepped off a boat! That said, there are definitely proactive measures we can take to improve our balance. Below are just three of my favourite tips, followed by a short standing sequence designed to get you feeling centered and steady.
3 Tips for Better Balance
One of the best pieces of advice I was given about balance was ‘to be more like the bamboo’. The bamboo plant represents the perfect blend of strong and supple – it’s branches are firm and hard, with strong roots and yet it flows and bends easily with the wind, never fighting against it. We can keep this image in mind when balancing, trying to find that perfect combination of stability and fluidity, allowing for the inevitable micro-movements and readjustments that the body makes in order to find center. Many of us instinctively tense up when we try to balance – we become rigid, our joints lose their supple elasticity and we might find ourselves holding our breath. Paradoxically it is this tension and rigidity that often throws us off kilter. So next time the teacher cues tree pose in class, be more like the bamboo, allow yourself to flow with the movements a little bend don’t break.
- Keep your eyes steady!
Our bodies (and minds) tend to move wherever our eyes go. The yogis understood the distracting power of sight and created the concept of dristi, a Sanskrit word that describes keeping the eyes steady and focused on a single point. I often encourage my students to find something at eye level, or if preferred, a few meters out in front that they can gaze at (in a relaxed way, no hard staring!) whilst balancing.
- Work on your feet
As described in earlier posts, our feet have the potential for an enormous amount of pliability and movement, and they are key to our sense of foundation, connection with the ground and therefore our balance. However our footwear, predictable terrain (think tarmac, carpets, flat surfaces) and general lack of movement have created rigid, tense feet that lack shock absorption and the ability to really ‘feel’ the floor. We need to improve the mobility, strength and flexibility of the feet to ensure proper articulation of the joints, to maintain arch support and to ensure better balance. For ideas on how to work the feet check out this earlier yoga sequence – many of the exercises will be helpful for improving balance.
THE YOGA SEQUENCE
Please note for a printable version of the sequence please click on this link.
BALL ROLLING FOR THE FEET:
Focus: To release tight connective tissue on the sole of the foot, improving tissue glide and gently re-mobilise the joints of the feet.
Place a firm ball under the sole of your foot. Put pressure through the foot as you roll the ball around the whole surface area of the sole of the foot. Roll front to back, side-to-side, explore circles. If you find a particularly tender spot, pause, apply gentle pressure and take a few deep breath before rolling to another spot. Continue for about 1 minute on each foot and then repeat on the second side.
Focus: Strengthen the muscles of the outer hip and thigh which help to stabilise the hips and knees in standing postures.
Stand on a yoga block with one foot and hover the other foot off the ground until both hips are level. Gently engage the lower abdominals towards the spine and create a sense of length through the tailbone.Visualise extending up through the crown of the head.
Without moving the spine or rest of the body, inhale and as you exhale lift your right leg out to the side, as high as it will go without leaning to the sides, lifting the hip or turning the foot out. Inhale to bring the legs back together. You should feel a sense of muscular engagement on the outer hip and thigh. Repeat this action 10 times on each leg.
HIP FLEXION/ EXTENSION:
Focus: Strengthen the muscles on the front and back of the hip and thighs.
Start as per the previous pose. Stand on a yoga block with one foot and hover the other foot off the ground until both hips are level. Gently engage the lower abdominals towards the spine and create a sense of length through the tailbone. Visualise extending up through the crown of the head.
Now again, without moving the rest of the body bring the right leg forwards as high as it will go and then extend the leg back behind you as far as it will go (note: it won’t be very high). Keep the knees straight throughout. Be mindful not to lean forwards or backwards in your spine as you move the leg. Repeat this action 10 times on each leg.
MOUNTAIN POSE WITH BLOCK BETWEEN THIGHS:
Target: To strengthen the muscles of the inner thighs, pelvic floor and deep core that help to stabilise the pelvis and lower back.
Stand with your feet about hipwidth apart. Place a yoga block or rolled up firm blanket between your inner thighs. Visualise lengthening up through the crown of the head. If you tend to hyper-extend your knees, try unlocking them slightly and engaging all of the muscles around the knee joint.
Inhale, as you exhale, squeeze the block with your inner thighs and at the same time feel the muscles of your pelvic floor lift up and the muscles of your lower belly hug in towards the spine. Notice the lower back and hips stay neutral throughout – be mindful not to tuck under. Try to hold the contraction for 10 seconds, breathing normally and then release. Repeat 2 more times.
MOUNTAIN POSE WITH HEEL RAISES:
Target: To strengthen and mobilise the feet and the muscles of the front and back of the legs.
Stand in mountain pose, feet a comfortable width apart. Lengthen your tailbone and draw the lower abdominal muscles gently in and up.
Inhale lift the heels off the floor coming onto your tip-toes, reaching the arms overhead. Exhale lower the heels and arms down and then try to lift the toes off the ground, rocking the weight slightly back into the heels. Make sure your spine stays neutral throughout – don’t let your lower back arch when the arms come overhead. Try to lift up and lower down through the center of the foot – avoid letting the ankles sickle in or out. Feel free to rest your hands lightly on a chair or table surface for balance if needed. Repeat this action 10-15 times.
CHAIR POSE ON TIPTOES:
Target: To strengthen and mobilise the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps.
Start in mountain pose and on an inhale lift up onto your tiptoes. As you exhale slowly bend your knees and lower your hips down, keeping your heels lifted. Inhale to lift your hips, straighten your legs and lower your heels. Only lower as far as feels right for you – eventually you can make this movement stronger by lowering your hips all the way down towards your heels. You can use a chair to support and stabilise your balance if you like. Repeat this 5 times.
STANDING CROSS CRAWL:
Target: To improve proprioception (an understanding of where your body is in space), co-ordination and balance through fluid movement.
Start in mountain pose. Gently engage the lower abdominal muscles, feel them cinching in around the waist. Lengthen up through the crown of the head. Inhale lift your right leg and your left arm up overhead. Exhale lower down. Then switch sides, lifting the left leg and right arm up. Continue for 30-60 seconds. Move as slowly and as controlled as possible and don’t forget to breathe!
Target: To improve balance in a static one-legged position. This pose strengthens and builds endurance and stamina in the muscles and joints of the legs and hips.
Standing tall place your left foot onto the inner ankle, calf or thigh of your right leg. Make sure the foot is placed above or below the knee rather than directly on the side of the knee. Keep the hips and toes of your standing foot pointing forwards, as you widen the right thigh to the right by squeezing the buttock muscles gently. Find one point of focus to gaze at for greater balance and stability. Firm the muscles of your legs and outer hips in, lift tall through the sides of the waist and extend the crown of the head to the sky. Hands can rest on your hips, in prayer at the chest or reach them skywards.
To make this pose more challenging for the muscles of the feet, ankles and hips, you can stand on a soft surface such as a rolled blanket or spongy yoga block. To test your balance and proprioception still further you could explore closing the eyes! Hold for 5 slow, relaxed breaths and then switch sides.