Balance involves not only the body’s ability to find its ever-changing place in the world viz. gravity, but also equanimity of mind – and the physical and psychological components of balance can both support and detract from each other. We need core, focus, and breath – the link between the physical and psychological -to achieve balance/equanimity, the magical place between effort and ease, in asana practice and in life. So, let’s practice!
Balance requires three main ingredients: 1. a clear and focused mind, 2. tone in the core, and 3. breath.
During this week’s class, students brought up important aspects of balance, such as rooting through the tripod of the foot (the three arches – connections between the middle of the heel, and the spots on the bottom of the foot behind the big and little toes), and a gazing point or dristhi – indeed, these are vital for balancing, but they fall under the ingredients of “clear and focused mind.” Ultimately, all of these details fall away as one enters into that magical space where effort and ease balance each other (no pun intended!).
Onward with our practice – which really does make balancing easier.
Bound bird-dog pose: From hands and knees, stretch opposite leg and arm back and forward. Press ball of uplifted foot into imaginary back wall, lifting the leg from the inner thigh to straighten, and reach fingertips to imaginary front wall. Pad under your knees if they feel uncomfortable. If your balance allows, reach arm back, bend knee of uplifted leg, and hold foot with hand, creating a backbend. Tone in core and breath are vital.
Thursday only, two-legged downward facing dog pose: From downward facing dog pose, lift one leg, keeping hips even. Slowly slide opposite hand lightly back along floor, then lift next to body.
Vrksasana/Tree pose: Stand with feet hip width apart, find a dristhi (gazing point), and grow roots through the tripod of the foot. Shift weight onto one leg, turn out other leg at hip, and place foot on inside of standing leg – anywhere along leg except with heel on inside of knee joint. Press foot and leg into each other. Arms extended to the side help with balance; raising the arms shifts the center of gravity, as does raising the gaze, providing more challenge. Breath and core are key!
Standing thread-the-needle: Stand with feet hip width apart, bend knees over toes, shift weight into heels. Cross ankle of one leg over thigh just above knee of other leg. Press palms of hands together, and sit down deeper. If balance allows, lower torso so that triceps (just above elbows on back of upper arms) and shin of crossed leg press into each other; keep back extended (not rounded).
Ardha chandrasana/Half moon pose: Stand with one foot pointing forward, while other leg is behind, toes at 45 degree angle forward, heels lined up (preparation for triangle pose). Place block on pinky side of front foot, fingers holding it lightly. Come to ball of back foot, move block forward, slide back foot forward, then lift back leg, ensuring that it’s not swinging behind your back. Reach upper arm up to ceiling. If balance allows, turn head to look up at ceiling. If balance allows further, bend uplifted leg behind, and reach for foot with uplifted arm, binding into a beautiful backbend. When returning to standing, land back into starting position gracefully and lightly.
As always, finish with savasana to help integrate all of this balancing into your very being. Happy practicing 🙂
Continuing on with our summer yoga for riders course, we turn our attention to the core. To me, “core” means the entire cylinder of the trunk around the belly button area – both above and below it – not just the external layer of abdominals over the belly, as “core” is often used in popular parlance. Because of this, the psoas muscles, which we addressed last week, can also be thought of as part of the core, since they run right through it. Truthfully, we are almost always toning the core when we practice yoga asanas (postures), unless we are doing restorative work only.
As riders, we need a core that is both stable and supple. Too much stability leads to stiffness (usually in the form or a tight lower back and psoas), which leads to one bouncing all over the saddle and horse’s back. Too little core leads to “wiggliness” (usually due to weak deep abdominal muscles), which leads to giving confusing signals to the horse, lack of balance, and inability to use the seat independently (and the likelihood of simply falling off should the horse move a little too suddenly!). Both of these problems tend to be addressed by focusing our work on the deep abdominal muscles, the transversus abdominis, because having tone here allows effort to be distributed throughout the core area, and the back and psoas muscles to not work quite so hard.
Although we haven’t discussed the chakras, or energy centers of the body, much in our course yet, the bellybutton area also happens to be the location of the manipura* chakra, which is believed by many practitioners to be the seat of self-confidence, willpower, and assertiveness. In other words, having tone in the core allows one to stand (or sit!) in one’s own dignity – and who wouldn’t want that?
(*As an aside: autocorrect kept insisting that it really ought to be the manicure chakra… sometimes, one just appreciates a laugh – good for the core! ;-))
Read on for this week’s selections from our class practices.
Warmup: Tuesday’s practitioners may wish to practice cat/cow a few times to warm up the core, while Thursday’s practitioners may wish to move from downward facing dog to high plank a few times (or through sun salute A).
Bird-dog balance, then curl knee to nose: opposite leg and hand are up in the air.
Thursday only: Adho muka svananasana variation/three-legged downward facing dog -> three-legged plank -> curl knee to nose. Variation is to take knee first to one elbow, then to other elbow (twist).
Thursday only: Flip the dog -> upward facing tabletop
Vasistasana/side plank on forearm. Variation is to bring elbow of top arm to bottom wrist.
Supported setu bandha sarvangasana/supported bridge pose with block, dynamic, to ensure deep core engagement and relaxation of gluteal muscles.
Constructive rest, two legged twist.
Happy core practicing, everyone! Your ponies (not to mention your back, hips, and self-confidence) will thank you for it. 🙂
Wheeeeee!!!! We continue to go upside down this week with “upward facing tree” pose – that is the literal translation of adho muka vrksana, but we’ll just call it “handstand.”
Prepare for this pose with last week’s practice – working on headless headstand will help you open the hamstrings, extend the spine, activate the core, open and align the shoulder girdle, and figure out how to get your hips above your shoulders while finding balance upside down. All of these actions are important for handstand as well.
We begin with a block between the shoulder blades to release and open tense muscles in this area. Photos don’t really do this pose justice, and it is best practiced with a teacher the first few times. Nonetheless, here is the verbal description for those of you who have practiced with me in the past: place the block the long way on the mat, lie down on it with the bottom edge around the bra line, and the top edge just catching the bottom of your skull. Be sure that your neck is not pressing into the block – the block provides a slight traction on the neck to lengthen it. Give yourself a big hug with your arms, and then open into “cactus arms,” being sure to keep the elbows higher from the ground than the backs of the wrists. Check in with your lower back, which may try to arch in compensation for tight muscles around the mid-spine area. Remain here for several breaths, until you feel some release. To get off the block, press one elbow into the floor, then roll to the side, remove the block, lie back down and savor the relief! 🙂
Next is three-legged downward facing dog. From downward facing dog pose, step the feet together, then transfer the weight onto only one leg, while lifting the other leg straight up. Be mindful of keeping the hips aligned at first, and bending the knee of the uplifted leg only once you have found a solid and grounded three-legged dog pose. When you do bend the knee, lift it up high and twist one hip above the other, but be sure to keep your shoulders even and the weight even in both hands – that is the most challenging part. This is a twist of the spine, so be sure to practice it that way.
Move into forearm plank and then half-dog, with fingers interlaced and elbows no more than shoulder width apart (very important!).
Practice headless headstand next.
Next, face away from the wall, place your hands down as for down dog, then walk your legs up the wall behind you until they are above the hips, knees bent. Begin to walk the legs down to hip level and straighten the legs until you form an upside down L shape. Note that this is a very demanding pose, so be sure to work your way up to it in several sessions, if need be.
Finally, if you feel ready for the main event, face the wall, then place your hands about a foot away from the wall in downward facing dog position. Lift one leg up, keeping it straight with the toe pointing at the ground, while the standing leg may bend a little to allow you to spring up. Push with the bent standing leg, pull the inner thigh of the uplifted leg up and hold yourself upside down with a very strong core. The arms remain straight, with the intention of external rotation. Hips move over the shoulders, and it’s totally OK to hit the wall with your leg until you begin to find balance!
Finish with some gentle supine twists and viparita karani/legs up the wall pose.