Standing Yoga Balance Poses for a Strong Core
Core strength and balance go hand-in-hand. When the “core” muscles around the trunk are strong, they prevent chronic lower back pain and many other injuries. They also keep you from losing your balance and falling down. A strong core helps to keep you upright — especially as the risk of falling increases with age. Happily, practicing yoga balance poses is a good way to build a stronger core, too.
Role of the Core in Balance
The core muscles enable you to stand, get out of a chair, bend, lift, and maintain your balance. So regular maintenance and tune-ups of your core muscles are important.
Your core muscles provide stability for the moving parts above and below them — namely, the mid-back, or thoracic spine, and lower body. The thoracic spine helps you twist and turn while the lower body moves you up, down, back, or forward. Having good stability at your core allows for safe and effective movement in the hips, knees, and ankles.
Core exercises train the muscles in your pelvis, lower back, hips and abdomen to work in harmony. This leads to better balance and stability, both when exercising and in daily activities. But your core muscles are more than just your abs!
There are two groups of core muscles: inner core and outer core. The inner core muscles are attached to your spine; they’re the muscles that stabilize your core. The outer core muscles work in conjunction with the inner core muscles when you need to move your body from point A to point B (or to do most physical activities). It’s important to strengthen both and balance poses can help.
Working Your Core in Balance Poses
Standing balancing poses can be challenging, especially if you have arthritis in your hips or knees. Leg strength, upper body flexibility, and the ability to balance on one leg are all required for balance.
In the sequence below, the invitation is to move gracefully from pose to pose as you hold your lifted leg off the floor for several breaths. If your standing leg starts to shake, that’s a good sign that you’re building muscle. Take your time and breathe to help keep your balance. And don’t forget to engage your core for extra support to make the most of each pose. Enjoy!
Awkward Chair Pose (Utkatasana)
Begin in Mountain Pose (Tadasana) with your feet about hip distance and arms by your sides. Bend both knees, focusing on moving your hips, thighs, and buttocks back to “sit” as you keep your toes pointed straight ahead. Engage your low belly muscles as you raise your arms to shoulder level. Move in and out of Utkatasana 3-4 times with your breath before staying in the pose for 2-4 breaths.
Need more support? Place your hands on your waist and engage your abs. Focus on sitting back with your weight in your heels.
Take it up a notch: Take your arms overhead, being careful to avoid shrugging your shoulders. Deepen the bend in your knees and hips to bring your thighs almost parallel to the floor.
Shift your weight onto your right leg as you lift the left foot off the floor. Keeping the right knee bent, wrap the left thigh over the right. Then, bring your left foot either to a block or to the floor by the right calf. Once you feel stable, incorporate your arms into the pose by wrapping the right arm over the left to hug your shoulders. As you exhale, bend the knees more deeply, engaging your low belly to sink the hips. Stay here for up to five breaths. Repeat on the left.
Need more support? Try Garudasana seated in a chair with your left knee crossed over your right. Hug your shoulders as above. Then on an exhale, bring your elbows towards your knees. Be sure to engage your abdominals and maintain a long spine.
Take it up a notch: Wrap your left foot around your right calf so you are balancing on the right leg. Then, instead of wrapping your arms around your shoulders, bend your elbows so the backs of the hands touch and fingers point to the sky.
Warrior III (Virabhdrasana 3)
Next, bring both hands to your hips in Tadasana. Step your right foot forward. Lift the left heel, shifting your weight onto your right leg. Then raise the left foot off the floor, reaching it back behind you. Square your hips to the floor and keep the low belly engaged. Extend the arms out to the sides, like the wings of an airplane, to help with balance. Stay here for three to five breaths. Bring the hands back to your waist and lower your back foot to the floor, stepping back into Tadasana. Repeat on the left side.
Need more support? Keep your hands on your hips or practice near a wall to help with balance. Lift your back foot only an inch or two off the floor.
Take it up a notch: Bring the back leg and torso parallel to the ground. Extend the arms forward with palms facing to create a long line from the fingertips to the heel of the extended leg.
Dancer Pose (Natarajasana)
From Tadasana, bend the left knee to bring the left foot off the floor behind you. Reach back with your left hand to hold the ankle or inside of your left foot. Inhale the right arm overhead, taking your weight slightly forward and lifting the left foot higher. Stay for 3-5 breaths before slowly shifting your weight back to center and releasing your arm and leg.
Need more support? Hold the back of a chair instead of lifting the arm. If reaching your foot is difficult, bend the back knee as much as you are able and focus on balancing on the standing leg.
Take it up a notch: Shift more of your weight forward while simultaneously lifting the back leg higher to come more deeply into the pose.
For more ideas on how to strengthen your core, stay tuned for my next blog, “3 Best Yoga Poses to Work Your Core.” Happy practicing!