Finding Balance From the Outside In
The definition of balance is “a state of equilibrium”. There are so many things that we must try to balance in our daily lives—work, family, leisure time, relaxation, caring for others and ourselves, our core emotional needs and basic physical needs, political awareness, environmental awareness, social awareness, and the list goes on. We’re often unconsciously balancing many issues all the time. Finding balance is something we need, seek out, and work toward. However, even in nature, balance is a fleeting thing. The actual equinox – the balance between day and night, dark and light, is identified as a day on the calendar but is just a passing moment. The moment it occurs, it’s over. Looking around in nature, we see more evidence of that teetering of balance. One day the wind is calm and still, the next day it’s all gusts and tumbles. The balance of predator and prey is a constant ebb and flow. There is no perfect flower, no perfect tree, no perfect creature. Everything in nature is in flux. Everything moving in a flow toward balance like a pendulum--finding the tipping point, and then going back the other way. Balance turns out to be more about navigating the transitions than trying to find the ONE magical spot that will sustain. I’ve found myself miserable when I catch myself trying to find the one magic solution for anything—that one thing that will solve all my problems. And just like balance, that one solution doesn’t exist. When I shift away from trying to “nail” a pose, a solution, or a fix, and move towards curiosity and inquiry, I paradoxically feel closer to a feeling of balance. I feel less like I’m being knocked about by the waves and more like sailing through the breeze. We can use many tools to find quiet moments, to find a sense of balance, and to find that navigation of transitions. We have the tools of meditation, self-care, routines and schedules, journaling, breathwork, exercise, and yoga.
One fun way to work on finding balance from the outside in is through balance postures and exercises.
Maybe the idea of balancing poses doesn’t sound that fun to you. In my yoga classes, I often hear the groaning and frustration come up during balancing. It’s a similar fight to “nail” the pose like we try to “nail” the right life balance. I see the tension in the shoulders, the gritting of the teeth, the laser eyes, and hard set of the jaw. We all work so HARD to get it right. I have found in my own practice that bringing a sense of play and finding places that can soften and flex to the constant wobbling can help me find a little something that resembles balance. I still must remain present, aware, and focused to keep from falling over, but without the fight and grinding away. Finding a little strength and a little ease. This is where the real magic happens. Your mind can’t run through your to-do list, worry about that disagreement with your partner, or contemplate dinner when it’s busy keeping you upright by moving dozens of muscles at a time. In fact, as soon as I even think, “I did it!”, that’s the moment I fall over! That’s why balancing poses can bring a sense of deep calm even while requiring alertness. Not only do balancing poses help concentration and calm, but they also strengthen muscles and build coordination to improve our ways of standing and walking. This can help improve how we do many of our other everyday activities and can reduce the risk of falls and injuries. The next time you feel swept away by your emotions or anxiety, come into a balance pose. Here are a few to try:
Tree: Start standing. Shift your weight into your left foot, lifting your right foot off the floor. Keep your left leg straight but don't lock the knee. Lift the right foot to your ankle, calf, or thigh (above or below the knee). Focus your gaze on something that doesn't move to help you keep your balance.
Take 5 to 10 breaths, then lower your right foot to the floor and do the other side.
Warrior 3: From standing, move to a high lunge with your front knee bent and back leg straight. Hips squared to the front. Lean forward and extend the back leg up, foot flexed, and toes dialed down. Arms can stay at the side, palms together at the heart, or reaching forward.
Dancer: From standing, draw one leg back behind you, bending at the knee, reaching back to take hold of the ankle. Stay there or begin to tip forward and reach your lifted foot up behind you.
Spinal Balance: Come onto all fours with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Look down at the ground so the back of your neck is long. Draw in your belly and extend the right leg long behind you – foot flexed and pointing down. Reach your left arm forward alongside your ear. Hold for a few breaths, then switch sides.
If you’re looking to increase your balance, here are a few exercises to improve your balance and strength:
Rock the Boat
Stand with your feet apart, hip width apart. Transfer your weight to your right foot and slowly lift your left leg off the ground. Hold that position for 30 seconds. Slowly put your foot back onto the ground, then transfer your weight to that foot. Slowly lift your opposite leg. Start by doing this exercise for balance five times per side, then work your way up to more repetitions.
Back Leg Raises
This exercise strengthens your glutes and lower back muscles. Stand behind a chair. Slowly lift your right leg straight back – don’t bend your knees or point your toes. Hold that position for one second, then gently bring your leg back down. Repeat ten to 15 times per leg.
Single Leg Stance with Arm
This balance exercise improves coordination. Stand with your feet together and arms at your side next to a chair. Lift your left hand over your head. Then, slowly raise your left foot off the floor. Hold that position for ten seconds. Repeat the same action on the right side.
Side Leg Raise
Stand behind the chair with your feet slightly apart. Slowly lift your right leg to the side. Keep your back straight, your toe facing forward, and stare straight ahead. Lower your right leg slowly. Repeat this exercise ten to 15 times per leg.
This strength training exercise also improves balance. Stand straight and put your arms in front of you on a chair or counter. Raise yourself up on your toes as high as you can go, then gently lower yourself. Don’t lean too far forward on the chair or counter. Lift and lower yourself 20 times.
These strength training exercises can be done sitting or standing. To do calf stretches while standing, find a wall with nothing on it. Stand facing the wall with your hands at eye level. Place your left leg behind your right leg. Keep your left heel on the floor and bend your right knee. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat two to four times per leg.
If you want to stretch your calves while sitting, you’ll need a towel, tie, or yoga strap. Sit on the floor with your legs straight. Put the towel around the soles of your right foot and hold both ends. Pull the towel towards you while keeping your knee straight and hold it for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat the exercise two to four times per leg.
Balancing poses can bring us a deep sense of calm even while we are focused and alert.
This finding balance from the outside can help us to find that internal balance. The shifting from strength to ease back and forth, and all at the same time. Like a see saw, we work to keep ourselves near center. Finding places we can strengthen and places we can let go. Not only do balancing poses help concentration and calm, but they also strengthen muscles and build coordination. Give these a try and let me know how it goes. How are you finding balance outside and inside?