Three Keys to Balancing Well
This article discusses three key ways to improve our postural balance. This is our ability to keep our body stable and to regain balance whenever there is a shift in your posture. Our capacity for balance diminishes as we age, which can result in an inability to maintain proper posture, balance, or stability during standing, walking and other activities. Aging is also associated with decreased balance responses from the inner ear, our sight, and proprioception (the body’s ability to know where it is in space) that results in increased instability and unsteadiness. With this natural decrease in ability to maintain balance and increase in weakness in the legs, core and feet older adults are more susceptible to losing balance and falling.
Standing and walking with bare feet, as is usually the case when practicing yoga, is the best way to keep your feet healthy, strong, supple and agile. This improves our ability to balance. Consider if you wore thick mittens all the time. Wouldn’t it be hard to use your hands effectively? Now think about how many hours a day you spend in shoes. Many of us have witness in person or through media people who have been born with no arms doing amazing things with their feet like eating and taking care of babies. Our feet are capable of so much if we just let them out of their little prisons and move them around.
Maintaining and increasing the muscle tone in our lower body is an obvious way to bring more stability to our balance. All of the standing poses in yoga can help us to maintain our strength and the more strenuous ones can even improve our strength. One doesn't even have to stand to improve leg strength. Reclined leg lifts and bridging the body off the ground are effective as well.
The center of our body, or core, is another important area to build strength and flexibility. Our center of gravity is in the center of the body. Movements that awaken the core increase our ability to balance. Usually people associate the core with the abdominal muscles, but it also includes the back and pelvis floor muscles. Doing a well rounded yoga practices that address all these areas is key.
The abdominals are actually three layers of muscles, with the rectus abdominus being the most superficial bands that runs vertically, the obliques underneath that run diagonally and the transverse abdominus that corsets around the entire lower torso. The pelvic floor is a complex figure eight like system of muscles between the public bone in the front, the sitting bones on either side and the tailbone in the back. The back has many muscles, with the erector spinae that run along the spine, the iliopsoas that connects the spine to the pelvis and the quadratus laborum being of few of the main one.
Here is a yoga practice to address these three key areas: legs, core and feet.
Mindfulness of the pelvic floor
Foot and toe stretch
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
Mountain pose (Tadasana) with feet together and eyes closed
Standing Locust pose (Shalabasana) to abdominal curls
Tree pose (Vrksasana)
Alternate leg lifts
Boat pose (Navasana)
Mindfulness of the Pelvic Floor
While seated bring your awareness to the pelvic floor. Find the tissues between the two sitting bones on the sides, the pubic bone towards the front and the tailbone in the back. Between them are the anal and urethral sphincters. When you take a deep breath in and you may notice some pressure on the pelvic floor from the lungs expanding and the abdomen descending. Exhale completely and you may notice the pressure release and the tissues move up, into the body. If you don't feel that right now don't worry about it. Just continue to practice bringing your awareness there.
Place a blanket under your knees and stand on your knees with them hips width distance apart. Place your hands on the floor in front of you. Turn your toes under so your feet are flexed, with you toes turned back towards your knees. To the extend that it is available walk your hands onto your legs, letting the weight of your body dropping back into your feet. If there isn't pain try sitting more upright. Otherwise stay in a sustainable position on and take a few slow breaths, letting the toes, feet and ankles relax.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
In a standing posture either have your feet hips width distance apart or bring the feet together for more practice balancing. Exhale and bring the arms forward as the hips go back and down, bending the knees. Inhale legs straight and arms down. Continue this again with your breath, bending the knees straight forward and letting the chest stay open. Inhale back to standing. Exhale and continue moving in and out of this at your own pace. The head stays in line with the spine. The next time you come into the squat stay here. Anytime you want you can release the arms down and back. For more strengthening, lift the arms alongside the ears. Slow and deep breath to remind the nervous system it can be calm. Listen to the body to know when to inhale to standing.
Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with feet together
The feet come together so the in-seams are touching. If you are feeling wobbly you can have one hand on a chair. Press down through the legs. Lift the toes and spread them, placing your toes back down. Weight the four corners of the feet evenly. Hug the legs together, creating a strong foundation to lift out of. If it feels safe, close your eyes. Notice what's happening in your body to help you stay upright. The body is intuitively finding the center point, the place between movements. After some time open the eyes.
Standing Locust pose (Shalabasana) with abdominal curls
Have the right side of your body to the chair with one hand on the chair. Weight the left foot. Now, lift the right leg back. Remember not to turn the hip open. Extend the left arm up. As you exhale curl the leg and arm in. Extend the leg and arm, keep the back leg straight. Exhale and engage the abdominal muscles. As you extend again, feel out how much back bending you want here. We will do one more dynamically. Then try holding the pose open. Expand the chest, collarbones rolling back. If this is feeling good you can try placing less weight on the chair, possibly coming up to finger tips or hovering the hand off the chair. If the hand is off the chair you can place it on the hip or slowly extend it overhead. After a few breaths come down.
Move to the other side of the chair. Stand in mountain pose with your feet under your hips. Pour the weight into the right foot. Bring the left foot back and up. Its a lifting up and back, not a forward bend in any way. Exhale and curl in. Inhale and extend. Exhale and feel the core. Continue a few more times at your own pace. The breaths are full and long. When you come into the extension again, remain here. Lift as much weight as you can off the hand and maybe put the hand on the hip or up. After a few breaths release.
Tree Pose (Vrksasana)
Let's move around to the other side of the chair again. The right side of your body is next to the chair. Bring your weight into your right foot. The left knee lift out to the left. The foot goes to the inner foot, inner calf or inner thigh. Extend open the left thigh so the knee moves back. You can leave the hand on the chair or move it up along side the ear. The extension of the arm comes from the freedom that comes from the strength in the legs and the lengthening of the side body. The shoulder stays relaxed down. Look at a point in front of you that is not moving and focus your gaze there. That helps to have the body feel more balanced. When you are ready go ahead and relax.
Move to the other side. Ground down through all the surfaces of the left foot. As you lift the foot, take your time to find the right position for it to be in. Press the leg and the foot together, hugging towards the mid-line. Grounding through the bottom leg, possibly lift the arm. Looking straight ahead. Soft in the eyes. If you fall out just try again. Relax and release the pose when you need to.
Leg Lifts (Uttanapadasan)
Come to laying on your back. If your chin is lifting up, place some support behind your head. Bring the knees into the chest, hugging them in with the arms. From here release the arms and bring them close in to the sides of the body. We will start really simply by just tapping the floor with our toes as we inhale and bringing the knees back up as we exhale. Continue with this, feeling the low belly working. Bring your attention to your core. Where the mind goes the energy flows, so if we bring our attention there it will help us to make better use of the muscles. This is a good option for people with significant back pain. If this is really easy for you then you can lift your legs up towards the sky. Then take one leg at a time towards the floor, either with a bent knee or straight leg depending on how strong you are feeling. Inhale down slowly and exhale back up. Long inhale down and nice, slow exhale up. You can go down any amount that works for you; 30, 60 , 90 degrees. Contract the low belly towards the floor. Anytime you need to you can go back to a more gentle version, or if you are feeling strong you can go to both legs coming down together. Be careful not to go down as far, initially. If you are doing one leg at a time the other leg could also be extended out on the floor, foot flexed. The legs are active. When our muscles are engaged it tends to be safer for the joints and we are able to have a more controlled movement. If you notice the shoulders or head wanting to pop up it might mean you are going too far. You want to keep the upper body grounded. That is your foundation in the pose.
Come to hands and knees with a blanket under your knees as needed. Bring the left leg back so its parallel to the floor. You can turn and look at how high the leg is. Now bring your right arm straight out, along side your ear. The heel and ball of the foot extend back. Exhale and release. Inhale and right leg up. Left arm lifts. Exhale and everything comes to the ground. Go at your own pace with the breath. Inhale left leg and right arm up. Exhale to the ground. Inhale right leg and left arm lift. Keep the whole body active. The neck and head are aligned with the spine, so the eyes are looking at the ground. This is building the strength in your back-body. You can take a break or hold this for a few breaths with the right arm and left leg extended. Employ the core, corseting it in towards the center. Keep the breath flowing. Exhale and release after 5 or 10 breaths.
Come back up to hands and knees for holding the pose on the second side. Left arm and right leg lift parallel to the floor. Encourage the breath to be steady and fluid. As the leg lifts the hips stay level. Do about the same number on this side as your did on the first is possible the relax.
Boat pose (Navasana)
Sit with you legs in front of you, feet on the floor... Bring your feet off the floor to any height. If you notice your back rounding a lot then place your hands behind you to help you lift the spine. Otherwise the hands go behind the knees. Hug your thighs together. Exhale and lower the legs. Inhale and lift the legs. Chest open. Exhale and lower. Inhale and lift. Back of the neck is long. Exhale down. Full breath in as you lift a little higher if you can. Exhale down. On the next breath in find a sustainable place to stay with either the knees bend or the legs straight. Keep the knees close in. Experiment with a little less weight on the arms... That's it. Now breath out and rest. That's good work for the quads too. You are welcome to massage the legs or shake them out.