Yoga for Strength & Balance
As I’ve been teaching a number of balancing postures during the Summer courses (love Flying Dragon!) I thought it would be nice this month to provide you with a short sequence of standing and balancing postures that will increase your leg strength and improve balance. The sequence will provide a 15-20 minute practice that you can hopefully fit into a busy day. Enjoy.
Tadasana (Mountain pose)
I know sometimes people look expectantly waiting for the next posture when standing in Tadasana, but it's actually an important posture to master as it forms the foundations for all standing and balancing postures. It's important to focus on pressing down firmly through all ten toes and the heel of the foot, really creating a feeling of pressing down, whilst standing tall. Imagine a helium balloon drawing you up from the crown of your head (or possibly you might imagine all of those colourful balloons from the film Up! trying to take the top of your head higher as you press down really firmly into the ground with both feet to stop yourself from taking off.....:), shoulder blades move down the back, moving ears away from shoulders, imagine little weights pulling your hands down towards your feet. Imagine a plumbline from your ear, down to shoulder, down to hip, knee and ankle - if you get someone to take a photo of you from the side then afterwards you can look to see if everything is aligned. Then focus on the breath, inhaling feeling the belly rising and falling on the exhalation. Stay here noticing the weight into the feet (are you balanced between heel and ball of the foot, pressing down with all toes) and continue to breath for two minutes.
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) variation
I teach a slight variation on the traditional set up for Warrior II. This version provides less torque or twist into the pelvis and therefore a safer alignment (in my view). It still builds strength into the legs and also provides a challenge for arms and shoulders when held for several minutes. Step the legs out wide along the long length of your mat with toes pointing forward (imagine if you dropped a little weight from your wrist it would hit your ankle to get the approximate measure!). Starting on the right side, lift the right toes and turn the toes out approximately 80 degrees and then place them back down. Then lift the right heel and move it in approximately 10 degrees and place it down. Then lift the left heel and move it out so the toes of that foot are now pointing inwards a bit (maybe around 20-30 degrees). Check right knee is tracking in line with the toes (not falling out to the side or in to the middle and then send right shin forwards as right thigh descends. The upper body remains in line with pelvis – facing in the same orientation as the pelvis and not twisting the upper body around to be aligned with the legs, i.e. keeping the pelvis neutrally aligned and not twisted. You can then inhale hands up to shoulders and exhale the hands out to the side, with arms out at shoulder height, palms facing up. .You can imagine balancing two large beach balls in each hand and keeping them from rolling off. Stay here for at least five full breaths, up to 20 breaths. You can then move straight from here into extended side angle posture (see below) on the right side.
Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle)
From the same leg position as in Warrior II, you’ll then look to take right forearm down onto the top of the right thigh, right palm facing up. Left hand can move to rest on left hip. You can feel a stretch along the whole left side of the body. If you feel stable you can look to extend your left hand up along past your ribs, shoulder and ear so that you reach all the way over to the right side, palm facing down. You’ll potentially feel the stretch all the way from the outside edge of the left foot, along whole side of left body and up to left fingertips. Stay here for five full breaths, up to 20 breaths. To come out, return left hand to left hip, inhale and on the exhalation push down firmly into both feet to then push the upper body back to a central position. You can then turn the right toes inwards and heel toe the feet back together again. Rest in Tadasana until you’re ready to repeat the Warrior II and Extended Side Angle pose on the opposite side.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
I prefer to teach Tree pose with the foot on the opposite calf as opposed to up on the thigh to prevent the pelvis from being pushed out to the side. You will still build strength into the standing leg and also improve your balance through practicing this version. You may find it easier to be close to a wall when you practice this posture if you’re worried about being able to balance. Start in Tadasana, press down firmly into the left leg and then pick up the heel of the right foot from the floor. Find a point of focus on the wall in front of you and keep looking at it. Ensure you’re stable and then place the sole of the right foot onto the inside of the left shin / calf area. Care: Do not place the foot on the knee joint! If you’re stable, you can bring the palms together in front of you and then when you’re ready extend the arms up above your head. I prefer to keep palms apart, facing in towards each other to and shoulder blades moving down the back. Continue to stay focused on your spot on the wall in front of you and then see if you can stay in the posture building strength into your left standing leg for 2-3 minutes. To come out, take the hands back down in front of you, palms together, then release arms alongside the body and then place right foot back on the floor. You can shake out the left leg and then when you’re ready come back to Tadasana and then repeat on the opposite side.
And here’s the final challenge – Flying Dragon. In ashtanga yoga there is a similar posture to this one called Warrior III, where the arms out extended out in front of you. I have always found this to put too much pressure into my lower back and so prefer this alternative where the arms are out to the side. Start in Tadasana and again press down firmly into left standing leg. I like to then pick up right foot from the floor and bring the right knee forwards in front of the body, take the arms out to the side in a t-shape and keeping a micro-bend into the knee of the left standing leg begin to fold forward from the crease of the hip as you extend the right leg slowly out behind you, keeping right foot flexed (toes towards shin). You bring upper body forward until you are at 90 degrees to the standing leg, finding a point of focus down on the floor in front of you. See if you can stay balanced here for five full breaths, up to 20 breaths. To come out, begin to bring the right knee forward again as upper body comes up to an upright position and then the right foot is slowly returned to the floor as arms come back alongside the body. Well done! You can rest in Tadasana until you’re ready to repeat on the opposite side. Don’t worry if you can’t get the hang of this one straight away – if you keep practicing Tree pose, with time and practice this one will follow.