TAKE A STAND
by Julie Gudmestad
Published in Yoga Journal, May/June 2002
One gift of yoga is learning to be centered.
THIS ISN’T JUST AN INTERESTING philosophical idea; it’s a real mental and physical discipline you practice every time you do a pose. And the best poses to develop that sense of center, of course, are balancing poses.
While there are a wonderful variety of balancing poses in yoga, students usually begin with standing balances. In all balance poses, the part of the body that touches the ground forms the foundation of the pose, and this foundation is vitally important. If the foundation of a house is misaligned, the walls won’t be straight and may crack. Similarly, if the feet are misaligned or the body weight is off center on the feet, it will be very difficult to have a tall, spacious, centered pose – and to maintain healthy alignment throughout the body.
The well-balanced foot
IDEALLY, THE WEIGHT of your body should be evenly distributed between the outer and inner foot and between the heel and ball of the foot. As you stand, become aware of the four corners of the foot: the base of the big toe, the base of the little toe, the inner heel, and the outer heel. If the inner points of the foot feel heavy, the arch of the foot is probably collapsing. This is called pronation. If the outer aspect of the foot is heavy, the arch of the foot may be nice and high – which is good – but the base of the big toe is probably lifting and the outer ankle may feel strained. This is called supination.
To make a strong, well-balanced foundation for your standing balance, your arch should feel lifted and light, while the inner heel and base of your big toe stay grounded. The muscle that grounds the big toe, the peroneus longus, lies along the outer calf. Its tendon crosses the outer ankle and then the sole of the foot before attaching to the bottom of the bones that form the innermost part of the arch; when it’s engaged, you should sense a balance between the tibialis anterior lifting the arch and the peroneus longus grounding the base of the big toe.
It’s easier to begin work on the feet in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) than in one-legged balances. Begin by noticing your toes, a very important part of your balancing mechanism. Make sure they are spread on the floor to give a wide base of support. Notice that if you shift your body weight forward, the toes tend to grip the floor, and if you shift your weight backward, the toes lift off the floor. The toes are a very clear indicator of your anterior-posterior centering. Keep them relaxed as you lift the arch; at the same time, press down the base of the big toe to counter the tendency to shift too much weight to the outer foot.
Now practice shifting more weight onto tone foot, without disturbing its balance. As you take all your weight onto one foot, any bad habits you have will become more obvious, such as collapsing the arch or gripping with your toes. (Did you shift your body weight too much forward to help balance?) Taking a moment to establish your foundation in your feet before coming up into a balance pose can help your balance considerably.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose) is a good beginning standing balance in which you can practice foot awareness. After establishing the balanced action of your right arch, ankle, and toes in Tadasana, lift your left leg up and place the sole of the foot as high as possible on the right inner thigh, toes pointing straight down. Imagine a root extending from each of the four corners of the right foot down into the earth, giving your pose great stability. From that root system, lift up from the arch of the foot through the inner aspect of the leg to the pelvis and from the pelvis through the spine to the crown of the head. Notice that the correct action of the foot literally gives you a strong foundation that helps you balance and sets the stage for your pose to grow upward.
The key to pelvic stability
ONCE YOU’VE ESTABLISHED the balanced action of the foot, it’s time to pay attention to another important foundation within the pose, the pelvis. The pelvis transmits the weight of your torso to your legs and forms the foundation for your spine. If the pelvis twists, tips forward or backward, or leans to one side, the lift and symmetry of the spine will be disturbed in poses like Vrksasana and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose). Weakness in the muscles that support the pelvis contributes to these pelvic misalignments and makes it difficult to balance on one leg.
Many muscles work to stabilize the weight of the body when you stand on one leg, but one of the most important is the group of muscles called the hip abductors. This group consists of the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae. These muscles lie on the outermost aspect of your hip, between the top of the pelvis and the greater trochanter (the part of the femur you can feel at the outer, upper thigh). If you place your fingertips into that space on the left, you can feel the hip abductors contract as you stand on your right leg and lift your left leg out to the side (hip abduction).
The hip abductors have the important job of holding the pelvis level as you stand on one leg. They contract with every step when you walk, as one foot is planted on the ground and the other is lifted to swing through. They also must contract firmly during one-legged standing poses. If they are weak during Vrksasana, for example, the pelvis will sway to the right and drop down on the left as you stand on the right leg. To feel the instability this weakness brings to Vrksasana, stand on your right leg, press your left foot strongly into the inner thigh, and let the pelvis sway out to the right. Notice how your torso begins to lean to the left and your balance becomes shaky. Now press the right thighbone into the sole of the left foot. Feel how strong and stable the standing leg becomes, how the pelvis aligns over the standing leg, and how the whole pose can now extend up. Pressing the right thighbone into the left foot elicits the strong, stabilizing contraction of the right hip abductors. As you continue to hold the pose, the hip abductors will co-contract with the hip adductors (the inner thigh muscles) to fine-tune your stability.
With standing balances like Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) and Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose) the buttock muscles are the primary stabilizers. These include the gluteus maximus, piriformis and other deep hip rotators. To explore these muscles in Ardha Chandrasana, start again with awareness of your foot. Grounding the base of the big toe will help you keep your balance as you lift form the inner arch to the inner groin and roll your pelvis up off the standing leg so that your navel points to the side instead of the floor. It’s the buttock muscles that provide the lift of the pelvis. To build strength and endurance in these muscles, try using a little support: Rest the hands lightly on a ledge in Virabhadrasana III, for example, or stand with your back lightly against a wall in Ardha Chandrasana. Even a tiny bit of support will allow you to hold the pose longer to build endurance. Support can also help you maintain correct alignment, using and strengthening the right muscles instead of compensating for their weakness with other, less optimal actions.
Obviously, keeping your equilibrium in standing balances requires fine coordination of several muscle groups. But just as important as muscle training is training the mind to be focused, present in the moment and in the pose. Over time, balancing poses teach the mind to be centered, a benefit that spills over into the rest of your life, making you better able to concentrate at work, be present with your loved ones, and savor the experiences of your life.