A couple weeks ago I sat down to brainstorm post ideas. I tend to focus this blog mostly on nutrition but as a yoga teacher I am asked, very often, to write yoga and meditation posts. How can I say no to requests? So back to the brainstorming… “How do you stand so gracefully in tree”? is the question that lead to this topic. Today as I sit down to write I had thought the post would focus on the physical aspects that lead to a solid balance posture. Then I realised standing in vrksasana is not just about physical strength. Balance is emotional; it’s mental and physical. Today I am going to focus on the physical qualities of a balance pose but will return to this topic in a future post to discuss the mental side of balance.
Head to Toes
Balance is a combination of large and small muscles working together to create stability. It’s about counter weights, keeping particular areas soft while others are strong. Let’s consider Tree Pose or Vrksasana.
Just like a tree the root must be firm, strongly grounded but the top is airy, free to flow with the breeze. Imagine if you held your abdomen and chest firm in tree pose. The breath would not be free to move so the pose would be impossible to hold. Yet if we weight foot into thigh (or calf) and press thigh into foot we are able to create a stronghold with the legs. Holding the torso erect by stabilizing the shoulders down and back; the chest and stomach are free to breathe deeply. Thus the torso acts like leaf covered branches swaying gently in the breeze.
This pose is like any other standing balance posture; the legs must be stable and strong. Here are 5 easy ways to get those roots ready to balance.
I always begin with the feet. Not discussed often enough the feet are our main point of contact into the ground; so it stands to reason that they are of extreme importance.
1. Swaying Ankles
Standing with feet hip distance apart (2 fists) look at your toes. Are they pointing forward? Or do they turn in or out? Align the feet so that the second toe is in a straight line with your kneecaps. Depending on the width or shape of your feet it may make it look like your toes are pointing in. That’s ok!
Lift your toes! This will cause the inner arches to rise. With toes lifted spread your weight evenly across the feet. Feel the weight of your body centered from the baby toe mound to the big toe mound and across the heals. Now very gently release the toes but not the arches. If you feel the arches soften lift the toes once more. Play with this feeling.
Now gently rock you ankles in, by moving body weight to the inner side of the feet. Press firmly into the ground with your big toe mound. Then open the ankles by pulling the weight outwards. Press the outer edges of the feet firmly into the ground.
Move back and forth inner to outer edges of the feet. As the ankles sway feel the weight shift to the outer edge, through center, then to the inner edge. All the time trying to keep the arches lifted. Spend 2 minutes (less time if you are a beginner) working across the ankles in this way.
2. Heal Lifts
Stand close to a wall or other surface that you can use to hold onto. Keeping feet hip distance apart; center weight evenly across all four corners of the feet. Lift the toes, then set them back down gently so that they are not gripping into the floor.
Holding onto the wall, chair or other surface, slowly lift heals straight up, keeping body weight centered over the balls of your feet. Slowly release down to the ground. I like to use an entire inhale to rise and an exhale to lower. Complete 10-20 repetitions.
3. Hip Drops
Position yourself close to a wall and stand on a step or block. Release all of the weight from your right foot but do not let the hip fall. Stand here for a couple breaths with hips even and all of your weight into the left foot. On an inhale lift the right hip up then slowly lower down below hip level with the exhale. Complete 10 lifts on the right then switch to the left.
4. Standing Pelvic Tilts
With feet hip distance apart stand with a very slight bend in the knees. On an exhale tilt the pelvis forward causing the abdomen to become concave (cat tilt in yoga). The curvature of the lower back flattens. On the inhale tilt the pelvis backwards so that the curvature of the lower back is exaggerated. Tail bone points behind. Continue to move the pelvis with your breath for 10 counts.
Repeat this exercise but this time bring the toes of the right foot to the heal of the left. All of your weight transfers into the left leg, spread evenly across the foot. Do not let the toes grip the floor as you breathe out to tilt the pelvis forward and breathe in to tilt the pelvis backwards. Complete 5 rounds then switch feet.
5. Tippy Toe Walk
You’re a little kid once more that can’t reach the shelves; get up on those toes! Walk around the room for 1 to 2 minutes without letting heals come down.
You’re Ready to Balance
The next time you try a standing balance posture remember the feelings from these 5 exercises.
Centering weight over arches of the feet
Calf strength as the body rises into position
Free flowing breath in the abdomen
Levels hips with a neutral pelvis
Let me know if these exercises helped improve your balance, or if you have any you feel belong here!