Flexibility, strength and balance—from a strictly physical perspective, these are the three attributes that a yoga practice develops.
And while yoga ultimately isn’t about developing any of these (I like to think of it as meditation in motion), people in a well-rounded yoga practice will often ask me about whichever of the three they’re least versed in.
What I’ve learned through trial and error about balance is that there are assorted neurological connections that help to facilitate it.
In other words, what you do before hand, affects your ability to balance as much as your innate sense of proprioception (the ability to feel where your body is in space) does. In the “what you do before” business, I’m not talking about polishing off those two bottles of beer before coming to class—I’m talking about if you do a deep stretch before you do a balance pose, whatever changes happen with the stretched muscle or your brain’s response to it, it makes you a lot more wobbly.
So how do we travel down some pro-balancing neurological pathways? One way is by emphasizing the opposite side of your body pre-balancing.
To illustrate this, if I ask you to do this pose outright,
your ability to be in it for more than a few moments may be limited, even when the pose isn’t complex at all.
Just try it: lean over on your left foot, raise your right leg and without leaning forward nor backward reach to the left and toward the floor without touching it. For most, it’s a doable, if wobbly position.
However, if I ask you to emphasize the opposite side of the body first, you may find that balance comes relatively easily.
Try this, in 4 steps:
1. Stand tall, with your arms extended out to the sides and your feet at hip-width apart.
2. Grab your left wrist and fold to the right. More than folding, it’s hinging at your hip so your chest (or your left shoulder) doesn’t collapse forward. Note the weight that goes to your right foot. Stay here for five slow breaths, letting your body acclimate to the stretch. Do not force the position or overemphasize it—just a gentle, gradual stretch.
3. Now shift your body in the opposite direction, to your left and raise your right leg off the floor. Cast your gaze downward to the floor somewhere in front of your yoga mat and stay, breathing five slow breaths.
4. Now go significantly farther to the left, both raising your right leg higher and tilting your body further to the left. Stay for up to five slow breaths and then repeat on the other side.
Benefits: As with any balance position, the primary benefit is the centeredness it brings to the mind: it’s too busy working on balance to have time for thoughts. This specific balance position, while not particularly complex, primarily helps to demonstrate the neurological pathways between stretching (plus the emphasis on one foot) and balancing better on the opposite foot. The primary benefit of balance is working all the small auxiliary muscles that stabilize us, in addition to firing up a sizable percentage of neural pathways—a recipe for keeping the brain young—and us from falling over and breaking anything when we’re older.
Avoid if: If your balance is so wobbly that you’re going to fall over and break something without waiting to be older, please either skip this pose, do it close to a wall that can catch you or have someone spot you on your balance. Or, steal the cushions from all your couches and lay enough of them down all around you that all the kids in the neighborhood want to come over and play.
Final thoughts: This is the pose that cops in India test yogis with when pulling them over for suspected drunkenness. No, just kidding.