A Yoga Sequence to Improve Balance + 3 Essential Tips!

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

  • Relax

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.

Be more like the bamboo
  • 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.

Steady your gaze (dristi)
  • 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.

Love your feet

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.

HIP ABDUCTION/ADDUCTION:

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!

TREE POSE:

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.

Thanks to Tummee for the images! Please use the following link to access a printable copy: https://www.tummee.com/yoga-sequence/Tz5z5

7 Unusual Tips For How To Begin a (Dare I Say It DAILY) Home Yoga Practice!

 

It sounds obvious, but the main factor that determines whether you will receive the benefits you’re seeking from your yoga practice, is whether you actually DO the practice! And this is where the importance of a home yoga practice comes into play.

 

Yoga is not a passive therapy – we have to become active participants in our own healing, we have to take responsibility and make it a top priority – nobody else can do it for us.

 

Yoga practice requires discipline and a commitment to action. It’s not enough to commit just the once either. We have to continuosly renew our desire to practice by reminding ourselves why it is so important to us. Regular, consistent practice is key.

The power of yoga and its benefits are cumulative. Each practice builds on the one before.

 

I liken it to saving money in a bank – each time you make a deposit in your savings account the pot of money that you have to spend and enjoy later grows. Yoga works in the same way. Every time you practice, you’re investing in your future health and well-being. The more deposits you make now, the greater the benefits you’ll reap going forwards.

 

All that said I know as well as anyone how life can get in the way, and how easy it is for the things that are important to us to end up slipping to the bottom of the pile, in favour of the things that are more urgent. Like anyone, I have gone through periods of minimal practice and become frustrated at myself for not making my health more of a priority.

 

Invariably at some point in my work with a private client we end up having a heart-to-heart about home practice or the lack of it!

 

Here are the 3 most common obstacles to practice that I hear from clients:

  • Not enough time
  • Not enough space to practice or living in a disruptive house – guests staying over, kids running amok, dogs slobbering over the mat etc.
  • Not sure what to practice

 

Having spent the best part of 18 years developing a home practice I can sympathise with each and every one of these (albeit contending with two cats that use the mat as a scratching post rather than a slobbering dog!).

 

I have developed, however, a few strategies that have been super useful in both addressing the obstacles to action and in cultivating a consistent home practice that I not only enjoy but that helps keep me inspired and motivated.

Read on for my top 7 tips for helping you to begin (and stick to) a home yoga routine.

1. Have a plan of action

One of the biggest roadblocks to getting started, particularly for beginning yoga students, is having no idea what to do. Have you ever unrolled the yoga mat, stared at its blankness and realised you have no idea what you should be practicing?

 

This is why it’s so important to have a plan of action for what you’re going to practice BEFORE you get out the mat. By narrowing down the field of possibility and making some decisions about what you’re going to actually practice, you free your mind up to just get on with the enjoyment of doing it. No more trying to think about what to do next or how long the practice should be.

 

All of my private clients get bespoke home yoga sequences emailed to them after each session. I write instructions with each pose to give an idea of main cues to watch for, as well as how long to hold the pose and how many repetitions to do.

 

Now obviously if you’re not one of my clients what can you do? Fortunately in the internet age we are absolutely inundated with information and there are lots of wonderfully generous people out there creating sequences for you! Here are just a few I have created in the past that you might like to check out:

 

A Yoga Sequence to Reduce Stress ­

A Yoga Sequence for Desk Workers

A Yoga Sequence to Build Core and Lower Back Strength

 

2. Follow the Power of 5

This is another one of my favourite technique for clients who:

  1. Don’t know what to practice
  2. Feel overwhelmed by choice
  3. Don’t have much time

 

I call it my Power of Five principle and it’s dead simple. Say you only have 5 minutes to practice yoga – which by the way is a perfectly respectable amount of time and can still be enormously beneficial – then this is what you do!

 

 

To fill 5 minutes you need to choose:

  • 1 breathing practice – this could be anything ujjayi, belly breathing, alternate nostril. Practice for 1 minute
  • Pick 3 of your favourite yoga poses – practice for 1 minute (or 30 seconds per side if you’re doing a pose with 2 sides). Choose the poses that make you feel good and that you enjoy. Some of my favourites would be a supine twist, cat-cow, downdog, low lunge, 1 minute of sun salutations, handstand at the wall
  • Finish with 1 minute of mindful stillness either in seated meditation or supine in savasana

 

And there you have it, a short beautifully balanced yoga practice! The great thing about this technique is that it is also very scalable and could be easily extended to 7, 10, 15 minutes etc. Just choose a few more poses and lengthen the breathing and savasana to 2-3 minutes each.

 

3. Tack your yoga practice on to a pre-existing habit

This is a technique I learnt from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit book.

 

The idea is that you tack the new habit you want to build (a.k.a creating a home yoga practice) on to the end of a habit that you already have well established.

 

This is actually the way I developed my meditation practice – I simply added it on to the end of my well established yoga practice. Examples of habits that yoga could precede or follow on from include:

  • After you’ve brushed your teeth (morning or evening)
  • Once you return home from work
  • Before breakfast
  • After your morning cup of coffee

4. Put it top of the to-do list

Time for a bit of tough love. This is actually something I’ve been working on a fair bit myself this year with some other habits I’ve been wanting to develop. It slowly dawned from this potent realisation:

 

The to-do list NEVER, EVER ends.

 

Combined with these words of wisdom from Parkinson’s law:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

 

Meaning there will always be something else you could be doing other than yoga. It’s very tempting to put off doing things for your health until all the other things on the to-do list are done. Inevitably what happens is that the to-do list expands to fill all available time and space, and important health habits such as going for a walk, meditating, cooking a healthy meal etc. get pushed to the side.

 

To counter this I’ve been exploring doing the health habits first and the to-do list second. Initially I was really worried that I’d start getting behind with work and things would start falling apart but in fact I found the opposite to be true.

 

Since I now have less time to get stuff done, I’m more efficient, procrastinate less and actually get more things accomplished in the same amount of time (Parkinson’s Law beautifully demonstrated – bit of a game changer in all areas of life to be honest).

 

So give it a go – for the next week why not put the yoga practice top of the list and see what happens?

5. Use an app to track progress

Having previously worked in the videogames industry and being a bit of a geek, I get how powerful reward systems can be for reinforcing certain behaviours.

The reason gambling is so addictive is that it creates a very powerful connection between an action and a positive stimulus, and we can use this knowledge to help us build and continue with more positive habits such as developing a regular yoga practice.

 

There are lots of apps out there that help one to stay on track with their habits for anything from exercise to meditation. I currently am using Sattva, an online meditation app that helps me to track my daily meditation practice. It cleverly reinforces my desire to continue by showing on average how many minutes I do each day, rewards me with trophies for reaching certain milestones (e.g. 100 minutes of meditation) and shows my best streaks – numbers of days meditated in a row.

 

I don’t want to stop meditating because I’ll lose my best streak status and I can see how close I am to getting my next trophy. I don’t see why an app like Sattva couldn’t be used to track a home yoga practice either. It may sound trivial or even superficial but hey if it keeps you on track, then what’s not to like!

 

6. Do it at the time of day that suits your body and your schedule

For a long time I used to feel guilty that I did not enjoy practicing yoga first thing in the morning. Yogis are famed for their love of pre-dawn starts and of course the whole idea of Sun Salutations is that they’re practiced as a way to greet the sun and prepare the body-mind for the day ahead. This all sounds lovely…unless you’re a night owl.

 

I am one of those people who find it difficult to string sentences together in the morning, let alone contemplate putting my body through the rigours of any kind of physical practice.

 

There have been times when I have had to practice first thing because that was the only time it would happen, but I’ll be honest it’s not my preference. I personally love, and have a schedule that’s flexible enough to allow me, to practice in the late morning or afternoon.

 

I try to encourage my clients to let go of all the preconceived ideas about when they should be practicing and instead experiment with different times to see what suits their bodies and their schedule best. If that means practicing before you go to bed then go for it!

 

The key is to find a time and then roughly stick to it.

7. Use online classes

This has been a game changer for my own personal practice. It’s usually tricky for me to get to public classes and I’ll be honest I prefer practicing on my own anyway. However I do still love instruction and learning new things from teachers.

 

This is where the plethora of online yoga platforms has been such a godsend. There are loads to choose from – some are free, others charge a small monthly fee but give you the chance to trial them out for a couple of weeks before committing. The key is to try a few and see which you prefer.

 

Below are some of my favourite options for online classes:

www.yogaglo.com – $18 per month, free 2 week trial

www.yogainternational.com – £12 per month, free 30 day trial

www.doyogawithme.com – free