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Balance - On and off the mat

By Elana Love

MON OCT 11, 2021

Dancer's pose at Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Dancer's pose at Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Balance is such a vast concept in my opinion. When we think of balance, what comes to mind is usually something along the lines of finding a centerpoint between two seemingly opposite ends of a spectrum. But I also see it as finding our steadiness between many different things going on at once. It's being able to interact with our external world while staying connected to our inner most internal world. Just like in a balancing posture such as Half Moon or Dancer, our limbs are extended away from our core, doing their own thing and making their own shapes. The only way we're able to hold this pose is by staying engaged and connected through the centerline of our body and down into the points of connection with the earth.

Off the mat, I think of it like this: Life is like standing with your feet on two separate lilypads, floating around a pond, and playing a constant game of staying upright as the lilypads drift around, not to our needs, but simply to the rhythm of the water which they rest upon. In order to remain standing, it is imperative to keep your legs engaged, but at the same time readily available, with a tinge of softness behind the knees. Emotionally and mentally, It helps to keep your cool and stay in your center, because if you freak out as the breeze pushes the lilypads in opposite directions, you're just going to flail more and fall faster. If you can maintain this sense of steadiness, yet adaptability, you might just be able to find yourself in more of a dance, in harmony with the rhythm of the lilypads and the pond, feeling a sense of easeful control, without trying so hard.

Where is your center? What centers you?

It is these moments of staying somewhere a little challenging or unstable for a little longer than usual, that helps us expand the capacity of our muscles and our nervous system. Practicing balance also helps us develop an inner equilibrium and sense of stability that is not dependent on our external environment. And it's not about getting into the perfect balance (physically or mentally), because we know life will always throw us off track sometimes. Rather, it is about getting better at finding that inner equilibrium, time and time again.

Another way to look at balance is by asking what parts of yourself are at play that you might be shunning, forgetting, or ignoring. If we only pay attention to one extended limb or lilypad, or only live in one realm of emotion most of the time (whether you deem it positive or "negative"), it is not balance. In this way, living a balanced life about embracing it all, hold space for everything - including the two furthest opposite ends of the spectrum - within you. This is my favorite way to look at balance. As another word for fullness.

What is your definition of balance? Where does balance show up in your life?

I see balance all around me, as one of the wonders of the natural world. It shows up in light and dark, yin and yang, expansion and contraction, the list goes on. I see it in the upregulation and downregulation of our nervous systems and the space in between. And for most people, it appears in the juggling of job, relationships, hobbies, personal care, and rest, as well as in the balance of preparing for the future and living in the present. Balance shows up in my desire to live as consciously and thoughtfully as possible, while also feeling free and having fun. And according to my definition above, rather than being happy or sad, balance is to fully explore every aspect of human emotion. Living life is literally an inescapable practice in balance. So how do you find balance on and off the mat? And what are some things that can help you?

Tree pose in Death Valley, CA
Tree pose in Death Valley, CA

Components of Balance:

YOUR BASE

As with anything, you must start at the foundations and work your way up. Developing a strong sense of awareness and proprioception of your stabilizing limbs like feet and legs is important here. Largely clustered in the feet, our proprioceptors, or sense receptors, send signals to the brain about where and how we are moving through space. Don't hesitate to get any supports you need (like props, a wall, or furniture), as these will help you build the stability you need to come into more challenging balancing asanas. Also important is building a sense of grounding or rooting down (check out this blog article for a good place to start). The same thing applies to staying balanced in your day to day life - you need to be grounded, connected with your roots, and have a strong and stable support system.

DRISHTI

Probably the most known aspect of a balance pose is Drishti, which is a point of focus to rest your gaze and steer your energy. Our vision plays a large role in stability, alongside our vestibular system (inner ears), and therefore closing the eyes or trying a new Drishti in a different direction can really challenge our balance. Just like you need one point of focus to watch in an asana, it can also help to have a specific goal or vision for the future to help you stay on track and guided by your purpose and your values (in otherwords, your center) as life happens to you.

DEEP STABILIZERS

We must engage with our deep core muscles (connecting spine to other parts of our body, such as Transverse Abdominis, Psoas, etc) to stay balanced. This is usually what I feel when I think of staying in my center, on a physical level. Moving into balance postures mindfully, slowly, and with as much control as possible helps activate and strengthen these muscles (slow-twitch fibers). And just like life - it is usually in transition where instability arises more easily, therefore where balance needs to be practiced with the most intention and care.

BREATH

From the start, it is essential to keep bringing awareness back to your breath. It is in these challenging moments of holding (like in a balance) that we tend to tense up in the body and forget to breathe. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states, "When the breath wanders, the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still…therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” Loss of easeful breathing is a sign that we might be trying too hard, gripping too tightly somewhere, or creating rigidity rather than stability. Once in the final expression of the pose, use your breaths to help you find more expansion, as well as relax into the posture.

PLAYFULNESS

Possibly the most important aspect of finding balance is adopting a playful attitude and not taking yourself so seriously. Just like I encourage my students in class all the time, treat your asana practice as a fun, interesting exploration rather than a perfect pose you have to achieve. Perhaps even allow yourself to fall in and out of it, inviting a smile along the way. Enjoy the process. After all, that's what life is all about!

How do these aspects of balancing apply to your life off the mat specifically?

Conclusion

In yoga asana, practicing balance helps us develop our deep core muscles, tap into our center, become more coordinated, and move from a whole, integrated place. Mentally and emotionally, it helps us develop a keener sense of focus and the ability to stay even through life's inevitable wobbles. And luckily, practicing balance is accessible to most bodies, unlike deep backbends, arm balances, etc. So ask yourself how you can embrace the wobbles in your yoga practice, and in life. And don't forget to have fun while flailing and falling and flying through it all.

If you like this article, please share and tag me @elanaloveyoga on Facebook. If you'd like to practice your balancing with me, please check out my offerings here.