Balancing yoga postures can be an intense challenge for many practitioners. When we hold balancing poses for extended breaths and even cycle in multiple balancing poses in a row, we readily see many students in the group coming out of the sequence needing to shake off the tension and lactic acid build up in the feet. Equally problematic for many is just the simple process of finding steadiness. When I did my teacher training (eons ago), we were taught to suggest to students that they step off their mat to find more stable grounding. I have recently come to a conclusion that this may be of disservice and in fact, we may want to consider going in the opposite direction to, in fact, challenge our balancing poses even more.
Balancing postures primary goal is to develop core strength, endurance and awareness regardless of the limb position. Therefore, spinal quality and alignment trumps how simple or how contorted one’s desire of the limbs. We want to strengthen and enhance proper spinal lines, not exacerbate poor postural form and lifestyle patterns.
Balancing postures also provide the opportunity to enhance coordination and proprioception (spacial body awareness). This coordination begins with healthy connection and biomechanics of the foot and ankle. Due to overuse of improper footwear from childhood and a vast array of dysfunctional lifestyle habits, we have a society disconnected to their feet and suffering from structural foot issues.
I often took for granted my ease of balancing as I saw new students struggle with the most simple of balancing poses. It initially made sense to suggest to people ‘step off your mat to a firmer surface’ as we entered balancing poses. However, let’s consider that much of the surfaces we act on in life are NOT perfectly flat and ideal. Should we not actually practice (at least once and awhile) on less-than-ideal surfaces to mimick reality?
An interesting approach by Katy Bowman of Align and Well is to fully engage the muscular of the feet and ankles by balancing on surfaces that are unstable. She recommends working the arches and supportive tissues of the feet by balancing on a folded towel. For beginners, I would recommend simple poses keeping the body upright (like Crane pose or Tree Pose) and using a wall or chair close by to offer stand-by ‘support’. For more experienced practitioners, I would integrate a series of multiple poses on the towel that transition the body in different planes (vertical, to horizontal, to twisting). Example: start with a basic single leg Quadricep Stretch, flow into Tree Pose, ease into Twisting Stork, and finish with Warrior 3. Tell me that after this you aren’t working your feet!
Given the deep work going into the feet and ankles, ample isolated stretches afterwards are recommended. Ease the feet through natural dorsiflexion and planterflexion, and pass these motions into the toes and arches. Single or double toe tuck stretches would readily stretch out the tension felt after these towel exercises – be mindful, though, of any discomfort in loaded knee flexion. Child’s pose or Zen Pose (sitting on heels) would counter stretch the toe tuck stretches.
Consider adding a towel to your next yoga practice or teaching. Sequence in a series of appropriate yoga poses and emphasize working those all-important feet, arches, and ankles.
*Maintain buoyancy in the knees (avoid knee locks)
*Sustain an ample, but not rigid, connection to core engagement
*Set a drishti (focal point) that encourages neutral neck and head lines
*Avoid grasping the towel with your toes to avoid pre-mature fatigue and lactic acid
*Retain your central line of gravity through the front aspect of your heel
*Concentrate on keeping a functionally balanced spine and pelvis ALWAYS