This weekend I took a workshop with Ashtanga maestro David Swenson entitled ‘so you think you can balance?’ and I thought I would share a few of the things that I learnt. You might be familiar with Swenson from studying his book ‘Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual’. I feel like I have known him for years, as his book was a core text on my teacher training and I have eagerly studied it. Here are a few thoughts……
The meaning of balance
The typical image that springs to mind when we talk about balance is standing on one leg, in tree pose (vrksasana). However, there is so much more to consider when striving for balance, in our practice and in life.
If we look to the root meaning of the word ‘balance’ in the dictionary we can get a clue as to what is involved:
Balance is: a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight; something used to produce equilibrium; counterpoise; mental steadiness or emotional stability; habit of calm behavior.
1. Equality - David talked about equality in terms of equality of opposition in asanas, for example, in Padangusthasana – the action of the fingers pulling on the toes, results in moving the torso down. There is equality between the upward movement (pulling up on the toes) and the resulting downward motion of the torso (folding forward).
2. Relax – in order to find balance we need to be able to relax. When we are calm, balance and stability in asanas comes more naturally. When we start to tense it is harder to move with a sense of lightness and ease – essential to finding balance in our practice.
3. Grounding – a key consideration when approaching balance in terms of asana, is to bring the attention to whatever part of the body is touching the ground. In standing postures, the feet. In arm balances, the hands or the forearms. Spread the fingers or toes wide and find the point of equal balance across the surface area of whatever touches the ground.
The idea of balance is at the very heart of yoga. Through our yoga practice we learn to find balance both on the mat and in our daily lives: between effort and effortless; between giving and receiving.
Inversions and fear
Inversions notoriously create a feeling of fear in a lot of practitioners (speaking from personal experience also!). Swenson had a few handy tips on dealing with fear, in inversions and generally, in life.
1. What is your fear? If we state our fears, we can begin to address the root issue. Perhaps stating the exact fear will help you to break down what might seem like an overpowering fear into something more manageable that you can work on step by step.
2. Learn to fall. If your fear in inversions is of falling, then learning how to fall safely will give you the confidence to progress. In headstands and pincha mayurasana, tuck the chin to the chest and roll out of the posture (“tuck and roll”). In handstands, there are two options, walk on the hands or release sideways into a cartwheel.
3. Types of fears: David had a wonderful saying about fears that I wanted to share:
There are two different types of fears. There are fears that keep us alive, and fears that keep us from living. Wisdom is knowing the difference.
If inversions are something that you want to work on in your practice, don’t give up. Speak to your teacher and ask them to break down postures and give you something manageable to work with.
I also picked up several great teaching techniques for approaching headstands, pincha mayurasana and handstands that I look forward to sharing with you in class soon!
See you on the mat!