Yoga is all about balance. Off the mat, it teaches one balance in life: in one's diet, relationships, behavior and emotions. On the mat, yoga’s most obvious lesson in balance is the challenge of finding physical equilibrium in unfamiliar asanas. The following tips will help you find and keep your balance on the mat. (Learn the Top 4 Yoga Poses.)
1. Find Your Drishti
You may have already been instructed to “find your drishti” in balancing poses. Drishti is a gazing technique where the yogi focuses their attention and vision on one point. It aids in concentration, so it is sometimes practiced as a meditation technique. Using drishti on the mat will help maintain your balance.
Before entering a balancing asana, focus the gaze on one fixed point. Use this focus to find your sense of inner equilibrium. In upright standing asanas, like tree pose, choose a point directly ahead of the mat. In horizontal balancing asanas, like half moon or warrior three, focus the gaze on the floor. In inverted poses, like headstand, choose a point on the floor one to two feet away.
Test the power of drishti by coming into tree pose. Notice the difference in balance when keeping the eyes focused on one point ahead versus darting the eyes around the room. Drishti works! (Read more in Tree Pose and its Many Benefits.)
2. Take Advantage of Yoga Props
Yoga props may make it easier to balance as you build your confidence. Yoga blocks are particularly helpful because they bring the floor closer when tight muscles prevent the deep stretches required for balance. The idea is to use props as tools to open the body and teach proper alignment rather than become dependent upon them.
A block placed under the lower hand in half moon pose or extended side angle pose, for example, can improve balance. Start with the block on its highest setting with the small end of the block on the floor. Work with this modification for a week or two. Then, set up the block so that it is slightly lower with the longest, thinnest side of the block on the floor; again, working with this modification for a couple of weeks. Finally, place the widest and longest side of the block on the floor. Eventually you will be able to remove the block altogether.
3. Use the Breath
The breath is a powerful tool for balance as it steadies the mind and sharpens focus. It’s tempting to hold one's breath in challenging balancing asanas like dancer's pose or headstand, but this is when the breath is needed most. Keep the breath rhythmic, slow and deep with every asana you do.
The breath can be strategically used to enter, hold and exit asanas. In general, inhale when lifting the body. For example, when entering dancer's pose from mountain pose, inhale as the leg is lifted from the floor. Conversely, exhale when lowering the body. For example, exhale when releasing the foot to the floor in tree pose. This kind of synchronization of the breath invites focus, steadiness and smoothness of movement.
4. Move Slowly
Always take your time when moving in and out of balancing asanas. Resist the urge to quickly shoot your legs upward when entering headstand. Beginners often make this mistake, but this kind of uncontrolled movement makes it impossible to find equilibrium in the final pose. Instead, move slowly and mindfully. Enter the asana with a sense of ease and you’re more likely to maintain that ease in each pose you do. (Learn about The Art of Mindfulness.)
5. Accept Fluctuations
If you practice yoga often enough, it becomes noticeable that flexibility fluctuates on a day-to-day basis. The same thing happens with balance. It may have been a piece of cake to hold tree pose for a minute yesterday, but today the pose is wobbly after only a few seconds.
This is totally natural. Equilibrium tends to fluctuate. If one's balance is off one day, try not to get frustrated. Instead maintain a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Resist the temptation to look around the room at what others are doing. Keep your drishti on your own mat. Don't allow judgment to arise against yourself or others! (Read about My Many Yoga Days.)
6. Keep at It
If you lose balance in an asana, the best thing to do is come right back into the pose. Yoga is a continual practice and improvement occurs through repetition. Fall out of the pose, take a breath in the starting asana, and try again.
Keep your gaze and breath steady, take advantage of props, move mindfully, and remember that your practice will change from one day to the next. Once you gain physical balance on the mat, your sense of equilibrium will permeate throughout your entire being--even extending to your mind and emotions for balance off the mat.