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Better Balance Through Yoga

Tree Pose

The thought of falling is scary to an elderly person. If she breaks her hip that could mean the beginning of the end - the end of her independence and ability to take care of herself. She may eventually be confined to a wheel chair or a nursing home. It's a horrible scenario that happens all the time. And it's often preventable if certain precautions are taken earlier in life. One of the most important is retaining the ability to balance.

(Article continued below.)

As people age, their sense of balance often diminishes - but that's not a natural occurrence in the aging process. Balance is lessened through the subtle ways in which a body is misused over a lifetime. Bad posture, favoring one side over the other, inactivity resulting in weaker muscles - all these contribute to bad balance (and a lot of other physical ailments, for that matter). We're not naturally symmetrical beings, and our actions make us even less so. One of the best ways to become more balanced - not to mention one of the most enjoyable - is Yoga.

All of Yoga, really, is about balance. Look at the meaning of "hatha" in Hatha Yoga, the most commonly practiced form of Yoga in the Western world. The first part, "Ha" means "sun," and the last three letters, "Tha" are "moon." The whole purpose of Hatha Yoga is to balance opposites - sun-moon; male-female, yin-yang, left-right, inhale-exhale, aggression-submission, push-pull. In every Yoga session, the different postures should be balanced - forward bends balance out backbends; a move done on the right side, like Triangle, must be repeated on the left. Then there are the poses which focus specifically on balance.

Poses such as Tree (Vrksasana), Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III) and Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana) are all about balance. They're great strengtheners for the whole leg - they tone the muscles of the thigh and calf, and work your hip, knee and ankle joints. They also bring your mind right into the present - a necessary factor in balance that's sometimes overlooked (think about it - weren't you zoning out the last time you tripped or lost your balance?). Other balance poses, such as Eagle (Garudasana) and Dancing Shiva (Natarajasana) bring more elements into the mix - Eagle also stretches out your shoulders, while Dancing Shiva offers a nice backbend. Balance poses give you immediate feedback when it comes to form (bad form and/or lack of concentration almost always cause you to lose the pose). That's why they can be some of the most rewarding - and most frustrating - Yoga postures. It feels great to be able to effortlessly hold a balance pose. And it's incredibly maddening on the days when the pose eludes you completely. You can't "try" to do a balance pose - you either do it or you don't.

Usually a busy mind is the reason that a balance pose isn't working. If that's the case, then take a step back and focus on your breathing. Breathe deeply and evenly and bring your mind back into the present. Then work on the pose from there, placing all of your attention on it. If it's still not working, go back to the breath again. Stop judging and berating yourself - that will only inhibit your ability to perform the posture. It also might help to do an easier form of the pose - brace your foot lower on your standing leg in Tree or use a block for your hand in Half Moon, for example. This way you can really focus on what it feels like to be balanced without being concerned about toppling over. Once you feel comfortable there, you can always attempt a more advanced version of the pose. Never feel bad when you have to take a step back in a balance pose - balance is not static; it changes constantly. Some days you will have better balance than on other days and there's nothing you can do about that but accept it.

What about the senior citizen in the first paragraph? It is too late for her to work on her balance through Yoga? Not at all! A Yoga instructor who specializes in teaching older folks can give her a full series of Yoga poses that will strengthen her muscles and improve her flexibility, thus improving her balance. And, of course, the balance poses will be part of that, offered most likely in a modified form. A good teacher will have quite a few tricks using chairs, blocks and straps that will make almost any Yoga pose doable for older people. Lost balance, like lost muscle tone, is not gone forever - it can be regained. Of course it's better not to lose it in the first place. That's why the best time to work on your balance is right now.

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