It’s no secret that yoga, when practiced regularly, can improve your balance. In many ways, balance training is the same as training in anything else—the more we practice, the better we become. It’s about challenging ourselves enough so that we learn positive adaptations.
Yet all too often, as soon as we can confidently stand on one foot in Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose), many of us are content to check the balance box and turn our attention to other skills.
Not so fast. When we no longer challenge ourselves, we stop learning and adapting. This means that when balance poses become easy, we stop enhancing our ability to find steadiness or preparation for real-world balance challenges, which often more varied and unplanned movements, like stumbling on a sidewalk, finding equilibrium in a precarious position, or dancing to keep yourself steady on slippery floor.
So how can we practice balancing postures in a way that better prepares us for life? It has a lot to do with proprioception.
Proprioception, sometimes called kinesthesia, is our awareness of how our body is oriented in space. Unsurprisingly, our eyes are key anchor points for this system. Most of us have already experienced that keeping a steady gaze at a fixed point, or drishti, makes balancing easier, while closing our eyes makes it significantly harder.
To support the information we gather through our vision, it also requires our nervous system to interpret a symphony of inputs from specialized nerve receptors in our muscle and tendons, joints, and the vestibular system in our inner ears.
The vestibular system is an apparatus in the inner ear that constantly informs our sense of balance. It consists of three connected semicircular canals, partially filled with fluid, in three different orientations to gravity. As we move our heads, the resulting movement of fluid within the canals stimulates extremely sensitive nerve endings, which then feed that information to the nervous system for instantaneous interpretation so that our body can take the proper compensatory actions to remain steady.
Think of proprioception as almost a “sixth sense.” The more varied the inputs we offer our proprioceptive sensors, the more efficient and adaptable the system becomes, and, therefore, the more likely we are to retain our footing when we slip or trip in everyday lifee. Obviously practicing a wider range of balance positions will help—as will standing on unsteady footing like a folded blanket or yoga block—but it’s possible to challenge our proprioceptive sense in a much more fundamental way.
Since our eyes and our vestibular system are both located in our head, there’s a relationship between them. Our nervous system expects their inputs to be consistent, which is why keeping our eyes and your ear canals still makes balancing easier.
We become skilled at what we practice. While it’s gratifying to hold Tree or Half Moon Pose on our yoga mat, that ability doesn’t translate directly to being able to recover from the awkward or unexpected movements that result from a real-life trip or slip. Honing our capacity to remain steady while we move our eyes and the vestibular system in our inner ears provides a more realistic challenge to our sixth sense of proprioception. Repeated over time, practices like these make us much more skillful at maintaining equilibrium as we navigate the inevitable bumps on the road of life. And isn’t that why we practice yoga in the first place?
Therefore to challenge our balance, and thereby gain the positive adaptations that result, it’s essential to disrupt that expected relationship. Here are three ways.
Why this helps with balance: In this practice, your eyes adapt to their new position a little more quickly than the fluid in the semicircular canals, prompting a moment of disorientation for the proprioceptive system. But since your eyes and ears soon regain alignment, you likely will be able to make small adjustments in body position to recreate a stable stance fairly quickly, especially with practice.
How to: Stand in Tree Pose and establish your stability there with a steady gaze on the wall in front of you. Quickly turn your head 90 degrees to your left, moving your eyes with you to find a new drishti. You might waver for a moment, but as your gaze steadies again you should be able to regain your balance fairly quickly. Do the same rapid movement of your head and eyes, this time tilting to look straight up above you to the ceiling, and find stillness again. Pivot your head and eyes to your right, finding a gaze point to stabilize you as quickly as you can, then return to your original position. Come back to standing and then try again on the other side.
Why this helps with balance: You might think, intuitively, that smaller, slower movement is easier to adapt to than larger, faster movement, but when it comes to this special relationship between your eyes and inner ears, the opposite seems to be true. The momentary disorientation created by the time delay between your eyes and the fluid in the semicircular canals finding their new orientation is now repeated countless times, forcing your proprioceptive system to recalibrate every tiny step of the way. Come back to standing and then try again on the other side.
How to: Stand in Tree Pose once again, your gaze soft and still on the wallin front of you. Ever so slowly, begin to rotate your head, and your eyes along with it, toward your left, fixing your drishti on every little feature of the wall or floor as you go. You might feel your body position shifting almost constantly to find equilibrium. In the same very deliberate way, inch your gaze up toward and then across the ceiling, over to your right, and then gradually back across the wall or floor to your starting point. Take your time, pushing your body to continually seek a stable center of gravity despite the moving target created by your shifting head and eyes.
Why this helps with balance: This practice creates a similar challenge to that of moving your gaze gradually. This time your eyes are still but the fluid in the semicircular canals is shifting constantly, through a much larger arc and in different planes. The end result is to force your nervous system to constantly adapt to disagreement between the signals coming from your eyes and your inner ears, once again challenging the limits of your proprioception to prompt positive adaptations there.
How to: Take Tree Pose once again, this time with the intention of keeping your gaze still as you transition between Tree and Half Moon Pose. Fix your gaze on one spot on the wall in front of you as you slowly tip your torso forward and extend your lifted leg backward, rotating your hips and torso open as you brush your bottom fingertips to a block or the floor to ease your way into Half Moon. It’s not necessary to come to your deepest version of the pose to benefit from the moving transition, so it’s okay to stay a little higher than you might normally. As smoothly as you can, lift back up to Tree Pose, then repeat the movement once or twice more, keeping your gaze steady as your body tilts and rotates through space. Go slowly enough to feel the micro-movements your body is required to make to maintain stability along the way. Come back to standing and then try again on the other side.
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.