We've had a question about how to practice when you want to work on balance. We're going to take our time addressing this issue because there are several factors involved in balance. When you plan a daily balance practice, it is important to include all six basic balance components:
- Strength: Strengthening your legs is critical. Leg muscles that need to be strong for good balance include the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, gluteal, and ankle muscles. (Please see Baxter’s recent posts on feet and ankles). In addition, the back muscles specifically the back extensors, are also important.
- Proprioception: The ability to sense where we are in space is critical for balance. Practicing with an emphasis on proprioception can help maintain or even increase this ability.
- Central Nervous System Reactivity: The ability to coordinate movements of your eyes is essential to seeing objects in your environment clearly while you are in motion, and other central nervous system reactions help you maintain balance.
- Postural Control: Standing well is the critical component for maintaining balance.
- Gait: Varying how fast and slow you walk, as well as the sizes and directions of step, can help you stay more nimble and avoid falling.
- Vestibular System: The vestibular system is the sensory system that contributes to movement and sense of balance. Together with the cochlea, a part of the auditory system, it constitutes the labyrinth of the inner ear in most mammals, situated in the vestibulum in the inner ear.
We need dynamic as well as static strength to prevent falling. Simple ways to strengthen your legs can be standing up and down from a standard height chair without using your arms to assist you. How slowly or quickly you do this can add to the variability for the muscles. Holding the position at various points in going down and coming up is also good. Working until your legs feel fatigue is the key to strengthening these muscles. But please remember these types of quadriceps exercises load the knees significantly and they could potentially aggravate an arthritic knee. So be careful.
Another way to build leg strength is a stair-stepping routine of stepping up and down one step with one leg and then changing and doing it on the other leg. You can also side step up and down with one leg as well as back stepping up and down with one leg. Try not to use the handrails unless you absolutely need to. Varying the speed of the step is good, too.
So now to translate this to yoga poses: think Warrior 2, Warrior 1, Extended Side Angle pose (Parvakonasana) and Powerful pose (Utkatasana). Move into and out of these poses first as a flow, pivoting your feet to keep changing directions. Then move into and out of these poses more quickly. Having a friend call out the poses so you can’t anticipate them can be fun—putting together your own sequence to delight your practice buddies! Then working to hold the poses with a timer to build strength. Start with a doable time, for example, ten seconds, and then increase it slowly. Thirty seconds is actually an eternity to hold a pose that is difficult for you. Varying how low you go into a pose is also valuable. Stepping into poses but not taking the actual pose also will challenge your reactions especially if someone else is also calling it out to you.
For back strength (this also includes gluteal muscles), try Locust pose (Salabasana) with arms and legs, as well as an all-fours position with opposite arm and leg lefts (Baxter calls this Hunting Dog pose—see Hunting Dog Pose for complete information on how to do this pose).
Closing your eyes while you practice can help with proprioception. For example, do toe rises and heel rocks but now close your eyes.
You can also work on an unstable surface, such as a foam mat (thick), an inflated air bed, your own bed or a couch (be creative and safe when choosing the unstable surface). Try standing in Tadasana (Mountain pose) with your feet hips-width apart and then with feet together on an unstable surface (first with your eyes open and then closed). After Tadasana, try heel-toe rocks on your unstable surface, first with your eyes open and then closed if possible. If you feel really adventuresome, try some standing poses on this surface, such as Warrior 2, Triangle pose, and Downward-Facing Dog or Hunting Dog pose as shown above. If this is doable, try closing your eyes and doing these poses on an unstable surface. Please make sure that you don’t fall off of whatever you are on because that would really be counterproductive.
Central Nervous System
Now let’s add the central nervous system challenge. Standing on an unstable surface, use your eyes to track a moving object. If you are doing this with a friend, he or she can hold a bright object in their hands while you use your eyes to follow their movement in front of you. Do not move your head or body, just use your eyes to track the object’s movement.
Now you can do a dynamic resistive exercise together. Stand facing each other palm to palm with your hands at shoulder height. One person is the leader and the other is the follower. The leader slowly starts to push into the follower’s hands and the follower matches their push into them with an equal push toward them. The leader keeps slowly increasing the force and the follower continues to match it. Then, without warning, the leader with quickly releases the force and move away from the follower. The follower is trying not to fall when the force has been removed. The leader is close enough to steady the follower so they don’t really fall. Change roles and repeat.
Another partner idea is to stand front to front again, but this time one person is holding a light object just out of their partner’s reach. The reacher is trying to lean to grab the object but the partner continues to slowly move the object just out of reach. The reacher cannot move his or her feet but can shift weight or turn without moving his or her feet. High reaching as well as below waist level reaching is good. There will be a point of reach when the reacher will lose his or her balance—that is the whole idea and the person holding the object should be able to assist their partner so no actual fall occurs. Change roles and repeat.
When working on postural control the key is to learn axial (skeletal) elongation as well as peripheral (arm and leg) elongation. The practice of Tadasana (Mountain pose) is difficult because of its simplicity. But learning your own postural habits is something that does affect balance and the ability to right yourself when a fall occurs.
You can address this component with a friend. Get a stick, such as a dowel, that is approximately six feet long and have your friend stand in Tadasana. Place the stick along his or her back body and see how many points of contact there are. Does the back of the head touch the stick? The upper back? The lower back? The buttocks? Do the backs of the knees touch the stick? Then look in an anatomy book to see what ideal posture is. Once you understand what your own issues are, then if you work with a yoga teacher, he or she can help you start to work on those areas that may need some attention.
Another component to address is the ability to safely lift an object off of the floor without falling forward onto your face when doing so. You can try this first with a friend and a light object like a newspaper. Each of you can do the task, which may be easier for some to do than others. Talk with each other to see if you can identify what makes it easy for some of you and more challenging for the others. With this information then you can decide if your personal issues are strength deficits, mobility or flexibility challenges, or other balance issues.
Now back to yoga poses that combine strength proprioception, and posture. Think Tree pose (Vrksasana), Mountain pose (Tadasana), Half Moon pose (Ardha Chandrasana), and Powerful pose (Utkatasana) with eyes open and closed, and with a stable and unstable surface. I am also particularly fond of the all-fours routine (Hunting Dog pose) on an unstable surface with eyes open and closed. Really you could pick one standing pose a week and work it through these variables of changing the surface you practice on, and whether you have your eyes open or closed. Moving into and out of the posture slowly or with variability in the degree of depth of the posture. The choices are endless actually.
Gait and Vestibular System
Try varying the speed of your walking—very fast or slow, big steps or small steps, quick changes in directions. You can also try stepping over items and around items, with quick changes again in direction after stepping over objects. Vary the objects you step over; some can be high and some can be low. You could do this with a group of friend, and have one person calling out what to do and the others following the directions. You could add music (like musical chairs) but when the music stops a pose might be called out for you to do.
And then there is what I call the “Queen Elizabeth walk” Walk at a stately pace while waving with alternating hands and turning your head to look at your adoring subject. The idea here is to make your practice fun!