But it’s also important that we maintain confidence in balance as we age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a third of all senior adults fall every year. Regardless of your age, good balance for life starts now.
In addition to helping us achieve long-term health and stability, balancing poses are important because they offer challenge in a space of stillness. When we balance, we must be still and steady, letting the rhythm of the breath be the focus. Balancing creates a necessary meditative headspace, and it gives us a chance to practice staying in discomfort for just a little bit longer than we really want to—a helpful lesson that we take with us off the mat.
In yoga, there are plenty of balance poses to explore. Tree Pose is most offered in a beginning yoga class, but it can be deceptively challenging. As balance becomes easier, practitioners might advance to Eagle Pose, Warrior III, Dancer Pose, and Half Moon Pose. A strong balance practice is a necessary requirement for inversions and arm balances, too.
So if balance is so important—for health, for focus, and for advancing your practice—how do you get better at it?
This is the obvious answer, right? Yes, to get better at balance you must practice balancing. But you don’t have to limit your practice to a yoga mat. Try this: Every morning as you brush your teeth, do a mini-Tree Pose, with your lifted foot resting on your standing-leg calf. Try to maintain the pose for your bottom teeth, and then switch to your other foot for your top teeth.
Practice wherever you are: at work, in dress shoes, in sneakers, or watching TV. To build better balance, you need to train your muscles to bear your weight on one leg at a time. The focus can come along as you get stronger and work on your yoga mat.
Practice doesn’t have to be perfect: Balancing while using a wall or a chair helps also build leg strength and proprioception. And as you practice, it’s OK to step in and out of a pose.
Fluid and graceful movements rely on stability in the pelvis and hips. Staying still relies on this same stability, so having good hip strength is an important key to finding your equilibrium while balancing. When you move—whether it’s big movements, like running, or small, micro-movements, like balancing—you’re relying on your adductors (inner hip muscles) and abductors (outer hip muscles) to keep your movements precise and within the necessary range of motion for the activity at hand. The adductors draw the leg towards the midline of the body. The abductors are involved in moving your legs out to the side. Both work together to stabilize the pelvis, and it’s important that both groups of muscles are strong.
To build adductor strength, Bridge Pose and Chair Pose work great, especially if you focus on engaging your thighs toward each other. To build abductor strength, stand in Mountain Pose, facing a wall. Use the wall as support for balance. Shift your weight to your right foot and inhale to lift your left leg out to the side, as high as feels comfortable. Repeat, sweeping your left leg out 10–15 times, and then switch legs. (This works the abductors in both the standing leg and the moving leg!)
Yoga teachers often repeat these three keys, and for good reason: They work. As you practice balancing, be sure to connect to your breath, inhaling and exhaling deeply and slowly. Find some engagement of your core—hug into the midline of your body and lift your pelvic floor. Finally, find a single-point of focus—maybe a little spot on the floor or wall—and train your gaze to that one point.
Want an effortless Tree Pose? When you practice it, lift your arms into the air and gently wave them around, like they’re branches blowing in a breeze. Adding movement creates instability, and your muscles have to make micro-movements to adjust to the changes. This will be more challenging than a traditional, stable Tree, so it’s OK if you fall out of the pose.
When you’re ready for more spiciness, try moving between two poses—going directly from Tree to Warrior III and then back, perhaps. Transitioning in and out of balance poses builds strength in your glutes and hips, and helps you prepare for a fun flow yoga class, where you may move quickly.
Explore playing with your gaze as well. Instead of looking at the ground or straight ahead to a wall, lift your chin and look skyward. And when that starts feeling easy, try balancing with your eyes closed! All of these ways to make balancing more challenging will help strengthen your hips and your sense of your body in space. The result is better stability.