The Yoga of BalanceAll our lives we hear of the importance of having a "balanced diet." Yet, when viewed through yogic eyes, this popular conception (like most) proves to be, even on its best days, merely a half truth. What we require is not a balanced diet but a balancing diet. We require a diet that balances us, not itself.
In the same way, our personal asana practice should not be balanced but should balance us, and our asana classes should balance our students. Since most of our students are in varying states of imbalance, our classes, if rightly conceived, will often appear to be imbalanced to the untrained observer.
Health and yoga are all about finding balance. Effort and rest. Elimination and assimilation. Yang and yin. Day and night. Extreme action leads to death and so does extreme inaction. Finding balance leads to health.
I know many teachers who believe that they have failed as teachers if, at the end of class, their students are not drenched with sweat and exhausted. Yet, our goal should not be to further exhaust our students but to make them whole.
It's a struggle to work against the notions that already exist in our society. We are taught to work hard and ignore the body's pleas for rest, substituting coffee and stimulation for the nap or extra hour of sleep which would otherwise restore us. Because of this, our students usually come to class in varying states of exhaustion. Doing an entire practice of intense movement causes an exhausted nervous system to become thoroughly depleted. Of course, moving a student vigorously is important since most people don't move enough in their daily lives of sitting in chairs all day, achy, and chronically stiff. Yet, we must find a balance in our teaching and make sure the student feels as whole as possible—rather than as exhausted as possible—when he leaves class. In stressful times such as these, perhaps it's time for classes that emphasize restorative poses more.
Teachers are always asking me whether both sides of a pose should be held for an equal length of time. Not only must the practice as a whole be balancing, but each pose must also be balancing. Usually a student is stiffer on one side than another, and staying for an equal length of time on both sides does not balance the student. Instruct the student to say a coupled of extra breaths on the side on which they are stiffer and their body will slowly move back into balance.
Some students can do magnificent backbends but can hardly begin a forward bend. As yoga teachers, we easily recognize that this imbalance is unhealthy. Yet, other, less recognizable imbalances can be unhealthy too--imbalances in the student's constitution. Because a student's condition is inherently one-sided, we must help him use asana to balance his condition.
A student whose physical nature is kapha (lethargic, sluggish, overweight, loyal, stable, loving) in the Aryuvedic system must generally practice more vigorously to balance his or her dosha (condition). The kapha nature is like an elephant that doesn't move quickly but can work all day. People with a predominantly kapha condition tend to have low blood pressure. For kapha, the practice should generally involve more jumping and more movement, and moving through poses without holding them too long. The practice should include backbends, inversions, and arm balances, and de-emphasize long holds in poses except restoratives and Savasana.