Many years ago, my mother fell and broke her hip. Or maybe her hip broke and she fell as a result. Sometimes it’s impossible to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. At any rate, the fall was almost the end of her.
Long story short, after a stint in the hospital, she was progressing well in rehab. A day before she was to go back home, she went into kidney failure. Apparently, the combination of multiple medications was too much. Her caregivers stopped her medication completely and she slowly recovered. But the incident made me understand why it’s often said that falls can be the beginning of the end for older people.
More than 800,000 people are hospitalized each year for injuries stemming from falls. One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or traumatic head injury. In fact, falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injury. Here are some more stats on falls and their sometimes-catastrophic effects.
What is Balance and Why is it Important?
Put simply, balance is our ability to recognize our position relative to the objects around us, including the surface on which we’re standing or walking. A good sense of balance allows us to perform our daily tasks with a sense of stability and ease. For example, something as common as walking down the street and turning your head to talk to a friend requires a healthy sense of balance. Without balance, simple activities become not only challenging, but can even be dangerous.
As we age, some of the factors that contribute to good balance can begin to decrease. Eyesight can dim. Inner ear problems can disrupt the vestibular system. Neuropathy can decrease proprioception.
External causes such as slippery or uneven surfaces, intoxication or illness can cause falls. But they can also happen because of a lack of attention or underdeveloped proprioception. The good news is, yoga can help. Many asanas are specifically designed to improve balance. And the centering of our minds on our bodies sharpens mindfulness, so that we’re more apt to recognize subtler signs of imbalance in our bodies before we fall.
There are many yoga poses that support balance. All the standing poses—think Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), Virabhadrasana I and II (Warrior I and II), etc.—can help strengthen our legs and cultivate balance. And of course, the one-legged standing poses such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose) are balancing poses.
It’s important to challenge our balance in different ways. While we often think of standing balance poses when we’re hoping to cultivate proprioception, balancing in different orientations is also important. That’s why I’ve several types of balancing poses in the examples below.
Most important is to remember that balancing, like all asana, is a practice, not a performance. Meet your body where it is. For example, if you need to stand close to a wall in a standing balance pose, please do so. Even with that little bit of extra support, you’re still developing the skill of balancing.
5 Balancing Poses
- Foot Massage: Giving attention to our feet, massaging them, exercising our toes, etc., keeps them healthy and responsive to whatever surface we’re negotiating. Start your practice with these simple exercises. But you needn’t limit it to your on-the-mat practice. You can also practice these while you’re sitting around watching TV or anytime you have a spare moment. One longtime student of mine who had never been able to balance on one leg practiced these daily for about nine months and was able to balance for the first time in her life! At the time she was in her 70s.
- Vrksasana (Tree Pose): There are, of course, lots of standing poses you can practice to hone your balance. Follow the instructions in this post. It’s helpful to remember that even when you’re feeling shaky in your balance poses, you’re still learning the skill of balancing. When you’re flailing around trying not to fall in Tree Pose, you’re actually developing proprioception. So don’t feel discouraged. Remember, this is a practice, not a performance!
- Parsva Balasana (Bird Dog Pose): As I explained above, it’s important to challenge our balance in different ways. Bird Dog Pose is a core strengthener and a balance pose. Because it strengthens the core—front, back and internal—it stabilizes us to increase balance. But the act of “standing” on one knee and one arm also develops proprioception. Read these instructions to help you refine your practice.
- Ubhaya Padangusthasana (Both Hands and Big Toes Pose): This pose offers an opportunity to balance in yet another way—on your rear. Practicing this asana in its most common form, with the arms and legs straight, can be challenging if your hamstrings and calves are on the tighter side. Feel free to bend your knees and hold onto the backs of your thighs instead of holding your feet. This post can give you some pointers on practicing safely.
- Savasana (Corpse Pose): Years ago I attended an early morning class that was only an hour long. The teachers reasoned that with such a short class, they didn’t need to include Savasana. While I enjoyed their teaching in the other asanas, the Savasana-free class always made me feel scattered and ungrounded. In retrospect, I can see that this is a recipe for moving through the rest of the day without a sense of balance. Savasana is, in fact one of yoga’s best balancing poses. It balances your body-mind at a deeper level than simply balancing on one leg. Give yourself 10 minutes if your practice is an hour or less, and 15 minutes or more if it’s longer.
Of course there are many more balancing poses than the five examples I’ve given. Inversions are great, and as I wrote above, all the standing poses are helpful. The most important factor is the attention you bring to your body as you practice. Keep your focus inside your body, on the sensations you feel. Remember that frantic, shallow breathing creates agitation—not a great recipe for balancing. Make sure your breathing is continuous, deep and calm.