- Practicing the art of balancing
- Posted 16 Jan 2017
When we talk about balancing, both physically as well as metaphorically, we often use the words finding balance, as if balance were a magical state that we only need to discover, hiding somewhere under a giant lotus leaf. I don’t want to read too much into the simple phrase “finding balance”, but the words we use to describe concepts and things do subtly influence how we think about them. Finding balance makes you search for an idealized unchanging state that you think exists somewhere. Thinking about practicing the art of balancing on the other hand focuses your awareness on the active and ongoing part you play in balancing. And when you internalize this perspective, practicing the art of balancing will become much easier, because balance is something dynamic and ever-changing, and requires — and thus teaches you — continuous full awareness.
Practicing balancing poses emphasizes the dynamic nature of balancing. After all, once you have come into balance in a balancing pose, you will fall over almost immediately if you stop to adjust and readjust constantly, guided by your awareness of what is happening in each moment. As you try your best to keep yourself from falling out of a balancing pose, you may find that you have lost awareness of your breath. When that happens, or if you actually stop breathing, balancing will get that much more difficult. This is the case because a full conscious breath connects you with your body and creates suppleness, while a forced or suspended breath disconnects you from your body and creates a rigidity that is in conflict with the continuous movement necessary to keep balancing. As we move into a variety of balancing poses this week I want you to keep thinking about balancing as your own ongoing action, as something that flows out of your focused awareness of your body and your breath, not something to be discovered or obtained. In approaching the art of balancing in this way, it becomes a perfect example of what it means to move in stillness.
Try it now: The simplest balancing pose is probably tree pose (vrksasana). Stand with the inner edges of your big toes touching, lift your toes, spread them, and extend them forward to bring them back to the floor in order to maximize your foundation. Now lift one knee into the chest with your hands on your shin, noticing that almost inevitably you have rounded your back and collapsed your chest. Inhale and tilt your tailbone up slightly to return to a neutral spine and notice how a neutral spine supports your breath better. Slide your hand down to your ankle, rotate the knee out to the side and place the sole of your foot into the opposite inner thigh, as high as is comfortable (if lifting the foot high is difficult, you can also place the sole of the foot into the opposite calf; just don’t place the foot into the inner knee of the other leg). The point is to find the foot placement that optimally challenges your balance. Push the sole of your foot and the inner thigh into each other to increase your stability. Bring your hands to your hips, and notice how you have unconsciously lifted the hip of the raised leg, and rotated it back behind you to make the pose “easier”. Bring your hips back towards neutral, and again observe how that facilitates a smoother, more spacious breath. Notice also how the increased difficulty of more neutral hips is partly offset by the more freely flowing breath.
Bring your hands into anjali mudra in front of your chest, and observe your breath again. Notice how the fluidity of the breath has an effect on your balance. Try holding your breath and see what happens to your balance. Notice how active your standing foot is, how the numerous muscles in the foot and lower leg engage and relax constantly to bring your center of gravity back over your foundation, momentarily clawing the floor with your outer toes, for example, and then pressing down through your inner heel to correct for the previous correction. Notice how the point of greatest pressure in the foot constantly moves around, as you try to maintain your balance.
If balancing here is challenging for you, make sure you are focusing on a non-moving object at eye-level in front of you. The closer that object is, the easier, because it will be easier to detect very slight movements which allows you to start correcting earlier. If it is still really difficult, you could try balancing in tadasana instead, with the inner edges of your big toes touching, and your eyes closed. Or try a modified vrksasana with the lifted foot slid down all the way so that the heel connects to the calf just above the ankle, with the toes pressing into the floor.
If on the other hand balancing in vrksasana is easy for you, challenge your balance by lifting your arms overhead, or perhaps even looking up at the ceiling (or the wall behind you), and/or closing your eyes. Still too easy? Come onto your tip toes. The point is to find a position in which you can keep balancing without falling over constantly, but which requires your full awareness in order not to fall. Once you have found a place that perfectly challenges your balance, stay for a few breaths, and observe your breath, and smooth it out, making it more delicious. Contemplate the dynamic nature of practicing the art of balancing, and observe how practicing the art of balancing increases your mind’s presence in the moment. Return the foot to the floor, shake out the standing leg, and repeat on the other side.