Why yoga balances are more than pretty poses
One of the themes of April’s yoga classes was balance and if you have been coming to practices, you have probably noticed. Balancing postures are great, they offer a lot of health and wellbeing benefits. To balance well requires us to be physically strong and achieve an equilibrium between effort and ease, strength and stability.
This means they also provide a brilliant metaphor for life in general. Off the yoga mat we all balance different things all the time - stuff we enjoy doing and stuff we don’t. Work and leisure time. Healthy eating and naughty treats. Friendships and relationships with our caring and parenting commitments. Nothing and no-one is perfect, some days work out better than others. Yoga balances are the same. One day you can do a perfect tree pose and even shut your eyes, the next you end up wobbling everywhere.
Exploring the 5 layered benefits of balancing
There are lots of other reasons why practicing balance postures in yoga is helpful and some are more obvious than others. The yoga kosha model is an interesting way to observe the benefits of balances on the whole body. According to yoga philosophy, we are made of 5 layers (koshas) and each needs to be in balance for total health and wellbeing. Here's how they work.
At the most basic layer is the outer kosha, the physical body (Anamaya kosha); the breath or energetic body (Pranamaya kosha); the third layer is the mental and emotional body (Manomaya kosha). Our inner layers are the self awareness and inner wisdom body (Vjinyanamaya kosha) - when we develop this we start to appreciate what’s good for us and what’s unhelpful. Right at the centre is our bliss body (Anandamaya kosha). This layer governs how we experience joy and happiness, things that make us feel ‘whole’. When all the kosha layers are working well together we feel really balanced and fulfilled.
Here's how the 5 koshas work together for balances.
Anamaya Kosha (Physical body)
Physically, balancing postures are very strengthening and toning. They help to improve lower body strength, tone core muscles and improve posture. They also strengthen the feet and thigh areas, which is very important considering how many people have difficulties with fallen arches and pronation. Balance poses are fun to master and remember, balances in yoga don’t have to stop at the feet. There’s always your hands, forearms and even sit bones to work with too! But physical benefits are just part of the story.
Pranamaya Kosha (Breath/energetic body)
To cultivate good balance, we have to be able to breathe slowly and steadily, which is also linked to the focus needed. Yoga balances require steady breathing, either with equal inhale and exhale, or with a very slow exhale. Both are calming, the steady breathing influences our nervous system and the way we respond and to challenges or difficult situations.
Manomaya Kosha (Mental body)
Standing balances are grounding postures – exactly what you might need if you are experiencing anxiety and stress and the steady breathing required also contributes to reducing those feelings. Mentally, balance trains the brain, improving concentration and mental clarity. We have to really focus, using our gaze (or dristhi) on an object to avoid wobbling and falling out of the pose. It’s very difficult to balance if you are distracted, which is why they are fantastic for distracted teenagers and restless children. Once you lose that concentration you usually lose the posture. The deep focus and concentration involved is why medics are recommending over 50s all practice some balancing every day.
Research studies suggest links with yoga balancing and reducing the risks of getting dementia. It can also help to manage the symptoms. Here are some studies highlighting these benefits:
Vjinyanamaya Kosha (Wisdom and self awareness body)
Emotionally, balance teaches us to become less reactive to things, to be able to bounce back and recover. It improves acceptance and our ability to let things go - because once we can accept that we’re not perfect and our ability to balance always changes, we can take that perspective with us. It doesn’t matter if things aren’t 100% one day, there’s always tomorrow (and there’s always the wall). As the saying goes, “yoga practice, not yoga perfect”. And on the days when our balances are steady, we feel good about ourselves and a little sense of achievement.
Anandamaya Kosha (Bliss body)
Most importantly, balancing postures are good fun and anyone can try them - an excellent reason to practice them. We might not all have super open hips and a bendy spine, but we can all improve our balance and feel good about it.
How to practice yoga balance postures every day
Maybe you don’t have time to practice much yoga at home, balances are very convenient.
• Do them when showering – 10 counts on each side and do a different one each day – space permitting;
• Try standing balances when getting dressed/undressed – tights and socks can be tricky;
• Got a sit/stand desk? Try balances in online meetings when no one can see you - stretching and strengthening at the same time.
Improving your yoga standing balance postures
Everyone has a strong and weak side, my suggestion is for people to work on improving their weaker side and start here each time - so you can gradually become more symmetrical. A good balance on the weaker side is more motivating than getting disappointed because you didn’t match your stronger side.
Start with holding for 3 slow breaths and increase it to 10.
For standing balances, try keep the supporting leg very slightly bent (avoid locking knee joints anyway) and then slowly straighten.
Use your big toe to help with standing balances and notice what happens if you engage your lower abdominals and pelvic floor
Play around with gaze – try staring in the opposite direction or having eyes shut and try altering your base e.g tiptoes tree or removing hands in a half splits.
Progress to moving balances, shifting into different postures with smooth transitions and use softer surfaces for more challenge.
Whatever your current balancing abilities, this will definitely improve with practice. Enjoy!