One of the benefits of practicing yoga is improved balance, both within the practice and for daily life. Many yoga poses, by nature of the position will challenge your balance, and help to strengthen the muscles that contribute to stability. We can think about how yoga can improve balance in 2 ways: in static poses, or in movement. And because I am thinking about balance as something we need for everyday activities, I am specifically speaking about balancing on your legs. That said, similar experiences can happen in arm, hand or head balances.
Very simply, balance is maintaining your centre of gravity over your base of support. As your base of support narrows, or becomes less stable, balance presents more challenge, because you have less of a surface area over which to get your centre of gravity. This image can be very helpful in getting started with the concept and feel of balancing.
Balance in static poses
First of all: stand on 2 feet, touch your legs and notice the overall tone of your muscles. Then shift weight onto one foot and do the same. You might feel straight away that your tone changes, the muscles firm up, and the entire sleeve of muscles around the leg activates when with the transfer of weight (usually just before you actually do it). So simply standing on one leg will activate the tonic aspects of the muscles of the leg. These muscles support the joints as they bear more weight. You do not have to do anything (like lift up your kneecaps as many dancers are instructed) to turn these muscles on. They do it themselves as a reflex action.
When you stand on one leg, and you look down at your foot, you will see that it is not static. There are loads of tiny shifts happening. You might be able to see muscles or tendons popping out under the skin, as this happens, or see the foot moving ever so slightly. This is good. Balance is not a static activity, it is a dance, and the muscles turn off and on in response to the tiny shifts of weight. If you try to stop it from happening, it is actually very uncomfortable.
When we practice yoga to improve balance, often we practice tree pose, warrior 3, and other one leg poses. There is a lot of improvement to be gained from these poses. Training balance in static poses strengthens (internally, I feel it gives confidence) to these reflex mechanisms and therefore helps to improve muscular coordination and balance.
Balancing with movement
There are a few reasons why adding movement within balancing poses is a good idea. Firstly, it adds challenge. So once you are able to balance for a little while, adding movement in the balance poses can add a layer of complexity and challenge. As we said above, the tonic aspects of the muscles turn on when we shift weight to a narrower base. But when you add movement, and complexity, the tonic aspects of the muscles engages more. Internally, you have to work harder to maintain the body upright, so the muscles that help with that job (including muscles we think of as core muscles) are increasing their activation and tone.
Secondly, in some static balances, like tree pose, it is possible to wedge yourself into a balanced position where your centre of gravity is over your support. But, it is more like being propped up, rather than truly balanced on your support. These positions (often with the hip of the standing leg jutting out to the side, or with the standing knee locked) are not actually that good for the body. If you tried to move the upper body, you would have a pretty limited range of movement. Or if you were balancing like that on a moving surface (like a train) you would not be able to maintain balance.
To actually be responsive in the balance (either to your own micro movements or to movement in the environment), you will have to find a better, more efficient posture, which is neither overly tense or flaccid. So the process of moving within a pose can help improve your organisation, posture and strength in a dynamic way.
It is really important that you allow the muscles to respond to the challenge presented by the stimulus, without pre-setting them. Pre-setting them, or activating them outside of movement happens when we do something like "tighten the core" or "suck in the belly". In fact most of our postural cues do a disservice to our ability to balance. (I have another article about this). Allowing the body to problem solve the balance on a moment to moment basis, without excessive tension in the system, and ideally with breathing, is the best way to improve your ability to balance over time.
Real life is movement. Practicing static yoga to improve balance is good, but we are more likely to lose our balance on public transport, walking up and down stairs, around obstacles. So when we practice balance in movement, we are practicing at a range more like normal life, which will help more with normal life.
Tips to Improve Balance in Yoga
Start by standing on your hip joints (there is a video to help below!)
Develop sensitivity in your whole foot, and distribute your weight over the whole foot. Stimulate the feet before practice by rolling them on a ball or with a bit of massage.
Explore the image of your centre of gravity over your base of support.
Allow any wobbles to happen. Fighting your wobbles can make you MORE wobbly!
In fact, let go of postural cues like engage your core, lift up your knee caps, tighten or grip anything. The body's natural intelligence will engage everything exactly to the degree that it is needed.
Cultivate supportive energy through your legs. A great way to do this is to use imagery to imagine rooting down and widen the foot on the floor.
Add complexity to movement in stages. Simple movements first, and don't be afraid to use support. As strength develops, move away from support.
Practice static balances, and moving balances, both on 1 and 2 legs, with different variables, like arm position, breath pattern, and speed of movement.
There are lots of ideas about how to create interesting movements on the Intuitive Movement Chart.
Finding Your Hip Joints
This is a technique to find your Hip joints, as taught in Franklin Method. Finding your hip joints for the first time might change your embodiment for life. But you still have to do it often: there is a training effect on the mind and body to repeating the process, and consistently improving your proprioception, or your internal sense of your own body in space. Have a play, do it again and again...