Feeling a little scattered, clumsy, or stuck in your head? Yoga balance poses are an exceptional way to use your body, breath, and focus to ground yourself in the moment. And since physical balance is something we need throughout our lives, we can start the practice of improving it at any time, regardless of age or yoga experience.
Dr. Loren Fishman, Medical Director of Manhattan Physical Medicine and senior yoga therapy faculty at Prema Yoga Institute, has been prescribing yoga to his patients of all ages for decades–even patients with osteoporosis. As Dr. Fishman explains, “There’s ‘balance,’ the noun, which you lose when you fall. I suggest thinking of balance as a verb, which you put into practice with yoga.”
Your skin, muscles, and tissues contain sensory receptors called proprioceptors. These specialized neurons tell you where you are in space and help you sense how you’re moving. Stimulating these neurons under strengthens them and builds new neural connections, which, over time, can lead to better balance.
This sequence, created by yoga teacher Dana Slamp, was shot after a balance-challenging blizzard in New York City. It targets proprioceptors in your feet and ankles and offers creative opportunities up-level your stability game. Remember to start slowly. Have a chair or blocks handy, and practice near a wall or counter if you are newer to yoga.
Bird Dog Flow
First, take a moment in Balasana (Child’s Pose) to settle your body and breath. Then shift into Tabletop with your wrists under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Move through a few Cat-Cows to warm up your spine. Link your movement to your ujjayi breath. Option: Turn one or both hands to the side of the mat to give your wrists an extra stretch and prepare them to bear your body weight later in the sequence.
Return to Tabletop. Inhale and extend your right leg behind you, toes lifted. Avoid arching your back. On an exhale, draw your right knee toward your nose as you round your spine like you did in Cat Pose. Continue to flow through these two shapes 3-5 times. If you want a challenge, extend your left arm at the same time (pictured), and draw your fist in on the exhale.
On the last repetition, hold the extension, with right leg and left arm lifted, but flow the breath. This is a yoga balance pose, so know that any wobbling and self-correcting is stimulating your proprioceptors, and is a sign of you getting stronger. Consciously draw in your low belly while you breathe and hold for 3 slow breaths, building up to 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.
Come to stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) near a supportive surface such as wall, countertop, or a sturdy tree, with your feet parallel and about hip’s width apart. Place your hands on your hips or one hand on your supportive surface. Lift one foot while drawing in your low abs, and without sitting your hips to the opposite side. Begin to slowly roll your lifted ankle as you breathe: 5 times to one side and 5 to the other. Place that foot mindfully on the earth to return to Tadasana, and observe if there is any chance in feeling between one foot and the other. Repeat on the other side.
Place a block or book between the arches of your feet. Take a look at your feet and observe, without judgement: are one or both of you big toes angling far away from the block? On your inhale, lift and spread all your toes. On your exhale, keep them spread wide as you place them down on the mat again. As you do this, take special care to move your big toes as close to the prop at the center of the feet as you can. This can be a tough exercise, so have patience!
We’re training and strengthening a small muscle called the abductor hallucis, and theoretically this may prevent the growth or worsening of bunions. Regardless, this proprioception–knowledge of where your toes are–is a mindful practice that can improve your balance. Dr. Fishman suggests practicing for 20-30 seconds a day, plus pushing your big toe into the earth when walking for a month to see results (please see his book, Healing Yoga for more information).
Facing a counter, wall, or other sturdy surface, stand with your feet about hip’s width apart and parallel, and place your hands on your support. If you have a block, you can hug it between the thighs on its thinnest side. On your inhale, lift your heels directly up, and on the exhale slowly lower the heels. It’s common for the ankles to wobble at first. Imagine that there’s a magnetic attraction between your ankles, and practice lifting directly up and directly down at least 5 times.
Utkatasana, variation (Chair Pose)
Remove your prop, bend your knees, and sit your seat back into Chair Pose while slowly swinging your arms above your head. (Your arms will frame some part of your face, which can vary depending on your shoulder mobility). Set a drishti (focal point) on the earth about 8 feet in front of you.
Draw your low belly in and up. On your next exhale, slowly flow your arms down and back until your hands are past your seat–perhaps even feeling your triceps engage. Continue this slow flow on your breath. For an extra challenge, float your heels up every time your arms flow down, and place your heels down every time your arms float up to Chair Pose, keeping your gaze on the horizon. Repeat 5-8 times.
Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch)
From Chair pose, hinge at your hips to move into Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend). Fold your torso forward half way and place blocks under both of your palms. Step your left foot back about three feet, and spin your left heel down towards the center of your mat. Inhale, lengthen your spine, and look forward. Practitioners with sensitive low backs may stay here, or you may forward fold over the straight front leg, keeping your weight balanced through both feet. Hold for 5 breaths.
Virabhadrasana III, variation (Warrior Pose III)
On an inhale, lengthen your spine again, bend your front knee, and begin to bring your weight into your front foot. Lift your back foot off the floor and lengthen both legs until your body is in the shape of a “T.” Keep looking a little past your hands and draw in your low belly as you breathe. For a balance challenge, extend the opposite arm straight forward (pictured) or reach both arms forward. Slowly return to stand after 3-5 breaths and repeat Parsvottanasana and Virabhadrasana III on the second side.
Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
This “an favorite can be practiced with your lower hand on a chair or counter, or with a block as pictured. To begin, line up your support just outside your inner right ankle. Step your left foot back about the length of one leg and turn your back toes in. Inhale and reach your right hand forward to guide your spine long as your hips tilt forward, too. Place your right hand on your support. Play with lifting your front toes, then spreading them down wide into the earth. When you feel stable, transfer your gaze slowly to the sky past your top thumb. Enjoy for at least 5 breaths, then soften your front knee to slowly rise to stand. Move your support if needed. Repeat on the other side.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Stand by your support in Tadasana, bringing your big toes together and balancing your weight equally between the fronts and the backs of your feet. Place your hand on your support or press your palms together at the center of your chest in prayer (anjali mudra). Lift one of your knees, and swing it out to where your hip feels opened without force. Place your foot on the inside of the standing ankle, calf, or use your hand to place the foot on the thigh. Enjoy for 5 breaths with your gaze at the horizon. Retrace your steps to exit the pose. Shake off any tension, and practice on the second side.
Vrksasana, variation (Tree Pose)
This pose is deceptively challenging, so have your support handy and go slow, or opt to initially work with it as a visualization if you are newer to this practice. Bring your big toes together and gaze at the horizon. Inhale and lift one or both arms overhead, potentially lacing the fingers as shown. With your low belly in, hug your inner legs toward one another and lift your heels. Start with 3 slow breaths, and be sure to come down with ease as well.
Get Grounded, Relax, and Rest
Once you’ve completed the yoga balance poses, treat yourself to a seated series–such as a spinal twist on both sides, such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) and a forward fold with both legs elongated such as Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), and a long Savasana (Corpse Pose). If you have your chair handy, swing your calves onto the chair in Savasana for a relaxing release for your low back and psoas muscle.