March 2011 – Balance


This months topic will mostly refer to finding your balance in inversions and arm balances . . . however before you find our balance upside down or on our hands we need to find our balance on our two feet! Finding your balance requires finding your “center” where you are balanced with the least amount of muscular tension. Finding our center starts with find our neutral spine–neutral spine is the natural “S” curvature of your spine. Many hours at a desk sitting bent over, or worrying with our shoulders up around our ears, or standing with our lower back in a sway position and our abdomen protruding leave our spine misaligned. When our spine is misaligned we use muscular tension to hold ourselves up creating physical stress on our bodies. When you find your neutral spine you are able to “hang on your skeleton” in a posture that requires very little muscular tension to maintain. Finding this posture will help you find your center–where you are balanced and grounded effortlessly.

Finding Neutral Spine
Initially neutral spine may not be the easiest position to hold as muscles that have not been used get weak and other muscles that are overused to hold us up get tight and stressed, so you may have to go through a period of time where you need to strengthen the muscles that keep in alignment and stretch those that have become tight pulling you out of alignment. But with a little attention your body will naturally find and enjoy staying centered–in a neutral spinal alignment–with ease. Finding neutral spine from your base upward:

  • Stand with your feet together–big toes touching, your heels can be slightly parted. Lift up your toes and feel the ‘4 corners’ of your feet (the outer edges of the balls of your feet and heels), distribute your weight evenly over those 4 corners. Now relax your toes down but let them be wide–if you have healthy feet you may see your mat between your toes . . . if not, you need to stop wearing shoes so often 😉
  • Moving your attention upward gently contract your quadriceps–the front of your thigh muscles. Just enough to feel as if you are lifting your knee caps with your quads. This is not an all out muscular contraction, just subtle. This engagement helps to align and protect your knees; and it also helps your hamstrings relax through a mechanism in the body called reciprocal inhibition– when one muscle group contracts the opposing relaxes allowing the joint to move.
  • Now bring your attention to your pelvis–this is where most of us lose our center. The word pelvis is latin for basin, so picture your pelvis as a basin filled to the brim with water–now level your pelves so as not to pour any water out of your basin. This will require a subtle lift in your lower abdomen. This little inner lift will help to connect you with your bandhas, support your abdominal organs, move lymph in your gut, and help you to feel lighter and more energetic. It is not a big physical effort–IT IS MORE MENTAL EFFORT THAN PHYSICAL! In time it will become habit and will not even be mental effort either!
    • Many of us stand with our pelvis tilted forward pouring water out the front of our basin, stressing our low back and letting our organs prolapse outward (where the organs do not function well and our abdomen protrudes . . .), or some of us collapse our chest and ribs and roll our pelvis back pouring water out the back of our basin stressing our upper back and shoulders and making it difficult to breathe. And then many of us stand in a contra-lateral position with one hip lower than the other hanging on the ligaments that support the hip stressing those ligaments . . . So let your pelvis rock forward and back and side to side and find the level position. Realize all the movements around the pelvis and how you can control them.
  • Now bring your attention to your ribs, float your rib cage above your hips creating space between your ribs and hips all the way around your waist.
  • Relax your shoulders and broaden your collarbones. Be careful not to over-work the ‘lifting of the heart’ into what I call barbie doll posture where we puff out our chest and pop our ribs. This position creates stress in the mid back and closes down the back of our heart.
  • Lengthen the back of your neck with head retraction; pulling your head back so your ears are over your shoulders and lengthening the crown of your head upward. This position will release tension at the base of our skull–many of us sit and stand with our head hanging forward stressing our neck and upper back.
  • Now RELAX and allow your skeleton to support you. Make sure you are keeping your breath deep even as you slightly lift in your lower abdomen to support your posture. You should feel your breath expand your ribs all the way down to your lower ribs and around to your back ribs.

You will be challenged to find this posture in a myriad of positions! Not only will you find this posture on your feet; but in push up position (chaturanga), seated, balanced on your sitz bones, standing on one leg, supine, prone, upside down, on your side . . . this is what is fun about ashtanga yoga, it will teach you to find your center every which way! Then when life pulls you from your center will know how to find it and stay in balance and grounded. And even though this feels very physical, there is also a lot of inner work going on, the inner work of connecting with your bandhas and paying attention to staying centered.

And just a side note, do not become too rigid holding this neutral spine! Remember your spine is meant to bend forward and kiss the earth and bend back to see the sky and drop into your world from a completely different view . . . so it is good to stretch the spine in all directions, but when sitting or standing for periods of time you want to standing in your center (neutral spinal alignment).

We have been working with finding your center, now we want to take it just a little further and find your center of gravity. Science describes balance as getting your center of gravity over your base of support. Center of gravity is easy to find in a uniform object–it is the center. however in an object like a body that is not very uniform it can be harder to find, so I did a little research on what science has to say about finding our center of gravity:
“The center of gravity is the theoretical point where all the body weight is concentrated or the theoretical point about which the body weight is evenly distributed. If a body is of uniform density and has a symmetrical shape the center of gravity is in the geometric center. If the object is not symmetrical and does not have uniform density, it is more difficult to describe the location of its center of gravity.” (!)

So to simplify, most women’s center of gravity is toward their hips, most men’s center of gravity is around their chest. However this too varies depending on body shape, pear shaped people tend to have their center of gravity lower while apple shaped people have their center of gravity higher. The area in your body where your weight is concentrated, generally around this area you will find your center of gravity.

IF you TUCK into a little ball it will be easier to find your center of gravity! . . . although a certain level of flexibility is required to tuck yourself into a tiny ball.

So balance = center of gravity over your base of support
Usually our base of support is our feet, however in inversions and arm balances we have to get used to our base of support being our hands! Very different. Just look at walking for example, walking is a very difficult balancing act–yet we figured it out and do it without thinking. Same thing can be done in arm balancing. You just have to work with it.

So to get used to balancing on your hands, before we try it upside down, how about trying it on your hands but right side up . . . as in jumping through from down dog, or by practicing bakasana. –All you need to do is get your center of gravity close to your hands–you don’t have to find the exact balance point as you will be able to “muscle” yourself into ‘balance’ if you even get your center of gravity close to your hands . . . but once you get your center of gravity directly over your base of support balance is effortless 🙂

SO when you jump through–instead of pushing your body weight toward your feet and away from what is going to be your base of support once you take your feet off the ground . . . lean forward and get your center close to your hands–grip the floor with your hands making your base more stable, then jump and TUCK into as tiny as a ball as you can (making it easier to find your center of gravity and move your body) and carry yourself forward and through your arms, as you bring your body forward with your arms you will feel where your center of gravity aligns over your base–your hands. Pause there and let your body find that balance.

So Turning it Upside Down
Headstand has the reputation of being the king of all yoga poses (and shoulderstand the queen of yoga poses). This is due to it’s benefits; as Pattabhi Jois says:
The brain and the eyes are purified by the inflow of fresh blood

  • Blood flow to the brain improves clarity and focus and relieves depression and anxiety. The power of memory is also increased.
  • Eye disease is destroyed, the eyes glow, and long sightedness improves.
  • Inverted asana are very good for balancing your hormonal system as they stimulate the thyroid, pituitary, and pineal glands–this is especially important for women entering menopause.
  • Insomnia is relieved
  • the mind is improved–in cases where there is abnormality long periods of up to 3 hours in head stand or shoulderstand are said to gradually over time improve these conditions.
  • Also of importance here is the Amrta Bindu, the nectar of life. Bindu is stored in our crown chakra, when we invert this preserves the bindu–the bindu is our fountain of youth. It is said that after taking good food, the blood absorbs the nutrients, after 32 days one drop of fresh blood is made. It takes 32 drops of this new blood to make one single drop of amrta bindu. Our amrta bindu is mostly depleted by bad food, bad thoughts, negative deeds, and lazy lifestyle. However just living our daily upright lives (where the bindu drips down to the fire (agni) within our abdomen and is consumed) with stress and responsibilities, this too depletes our life force. It is written that when our amrta bindu is depleted, life itself is lost. Headstand (and shoulderstand) are particularly helpful in storing your bindu safely in your crown chakra.

And many other benefits from Inversions:

  • Inversions are first and foremost about blood circulation. Blood pools in the lower portions of our organs–only when we max out our heart rate do we circulate blood through the entire organ. Where stale blood accumulates in the organ, this is where disease and cancer settle in. Just like watching a creek flow, where the water stagnates it gets murky–so too in our body, where the blood stagnates it holds disease. So when we invert we drain the blood out of the entire organ, the blood is then purified by our circulatory system.
  • Inversions also help move lymph and aid in detoxing our body.
  • Also inverting helps to relieve tired legs by improving blood circulation
  • Inversions are good for your sinuses too as headstand is a natural decongestant.
  • Headstand improves bone density, strengthens the arms and spine and tones the abdominals. Headstand also strengthens the ligaments that support our joints.
  • Headstand strengthens the lungs (when inverted the diaphragm has to lift the abdominal organs on the inhale as they fall on to the diaphragm–making your diaphragm “lift weights” with each inhale!).
  • Headstand is also therapeutic for asthma
  • Inversions reduce the effects of aging!

One can receive all these benefits with consistent practice over a long period of time! The benefits do not come instantly–persistence in your practice is key. As Pattabhi Jois says “An aspirant can only enjoy its happiness through its practice.”

So finding your balance upside down so you too can reap these benefits is just a matter of figuring it out–doing it and feeling it. We are not so used to seeing our world upside down, so first we must get used to the new view.

To find your balance upside down you need to find your center; your neutral spine as mentioned above. The more you find your neutral spine, standing, seated, lying, in the pushup position, etc. the easier it will be for you to find your center upside down. Here are some tips:

  • First — LEARN HOW TO FALL. Once you safely know how to fall you will feel more confident upside down and be less likely to hurt yourself when you fall (notice I said when and not if!)
  • Next, find your center, pull your ribs in and make your center compact-then try to align this center over the base of support you created with your arms. A big part of this is finding your proprioception (where your body is in space) upside down.
  • Align yourself over your skeleton, by finding neutral spine you will let your bones support your weight instead of your muscles. Many people can muscle themselves into a headstand–but it is not very enjoyable that way. When you are aligned in your headstand you find your sweet spot and it becomes enjoyable and easy to hold longer. Remember the secret here is in your PELVIS! Just like standing most of us lose our alignment at our pelvis, so learning to find and level your pelvis upside down will help greatly with your balance.
  • Root and lift, Stabilize your base–root yourself–use your bandhas to additional stability, then lengthen and lift out of this solid base of support. Stretch your legs for the sky. If you overemphasize the lifting qualities you will have a weak foundation; if you are too rooted it will be hard to find the lightness necessary to float upward. You want to find the balance between rooting and lifting.

Sometimes initially to get used to being upside down we will find our balance in a banana shape–this may be ok for a beginner as you have ‘more room for error’ when your body is arched vs. when your body is straight–your balance point is very fine. Over time you do want to do your headstand in a neutral spine as it will be the safest position for your body–and it allows you to align in your sweet spot where it becomes effortless to spend more time there.

And how long? Well you do over a period of many years want to work up your headstand to 6-10 minutes long. However this progress should be very slow and should take many years. If you hold headstand too long too early you will feel a bit dizzy or “loopy” when you come down. Extending your headstand by one breath each week is a nice way to slowly extend your time.

And for those of you who struggle with inversions; remember the closer your center of gravity is to the floor the easier it is to balance, so if you are a pear shaped body-when you invert your center of gravity is higher up–which = more challenge to balance inverted. So it is even more important for you to align your center over your base of support . . . and to be patient and not get frustrated 😉

The major factor that keeps many people from finding balance upside down is fear. There are two types of fear, fear that keeps us from getting hurt and fear that holds us back . . . the fear that protects us can be healthy. The fear that holds us back because something is outside the realm of something we have yet to experience (outside of our comfort zone)–this kind of fear–may keep us from having a wonderful experience. The trick is to know which kind of fear you are facing, and if it is a fear that is holding you back in your life perhaps it is time to confront it. The best way to overcome fear is to go right into it!

However, pay attention to how you go right into it. Fear makes most of us tighten up–strain. My son used to be afraid of roller coasters, when we would get on one I would feel him gripping my arm (he actually made me bleed once!) and tightening up his whole body, riding this way made his neck feel sore when we got off the ride. Where as I was more fluid and not rigid on the ride (and enjoying it), so my body was able to roll with the motions and not get hurt.
When I am assisting many people in headstand I fell their entire body tighten up and clench. I many times can not even adjust someone because of it, some people are able to loosen up the rigidity when I ask them and others can not. If you are tensing up when inverting you will have a higher risk of straining your neck or back, and this rigidity makes it harder to find balance.

So what to fear in a headstand?
–fear of falling? You won’t fall if I am there helping you . . .
–or fear of seeing your world from a different perspective — where it can be difficult to distinguish right from left and front from back?
If you go right into this fear, and learn how to be comfortable upside down, not only will you get all the benefits I outlined above, but you will have increased self confidence. Balance is more than not falling over, it is also an internal component of self awareness–this internal component is what is valuable. Then you can take this self confidence and self awareness with you off your mat 🙂

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