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Yoga for Balance Training: Why Static Poses Don't Cut It
“Last weekend at a yard sale I was carrying a box and tripped. Not only did I keep my balance and not fall, I didn’t even drop the box. This wouldn’t have happened six months ago. I know my balance has improved thanks to Jennifer’s water yoga class.”
My boss showed me the email he received from 82-year-old Miss Bessie just last week. Miss Bessie has been taking my water yoga class and my regular water aerobics class, where we end every class with a series of balance challenges, for about six months now. I’m always telling my yoga class that practicing balance in the safety of the water will also improve their balance on land.
Miss Bessie is now my most vocal advocate of water yoga and balance practice. In fact, she’s encouraged quite of a few of her friends to attend class.
It's never too early to start thinking about your balance. All ages should practice balance exercises and the earlier you start, the better. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an older adult falls every second of every day. Falls are the number one cause of injury, and death from injury, in the older population. (www.cdc.gov/steadi)
Risk Factors for Falling:
Vitamin D deficiency
Certain prescription and over-the-counter medications
Environmental hazards such as broken steps, unsecured throw rugs or lack of support rails
Difficulty walking or with balance
Keys to Healthy Balance
No matter the age, a person’s ability to maintain balance depends on three major components:
Sensory systems to relay information about your body’s position in space,
The brain’s ability to process this information,
The muscles and joints working together to maintain balance.
Normally these actions happen unconsciously and automatically. However, inner ear infections, diabetic neuropathy in the feet or diminishing eyesight are common ailments in the older population that can alter the sensory systems. The brain’s ability to process this information can also be altered due to degenerative disease or the effects of accumulated injuries.
Yoga for Fall Prevention: 5 Flowing Balance Poses
Yet falls don’t have to be an inevitable fact of the aging process. With proper screening and effective prevention techniques, the risk of falling can be greatly diminished.
Water yoga classes are a great way to begin a yoga balance practice because the buoyancy of the water helps support the body. If a student does fall out of the yoga pose, they won’t hit the floor as in a traditional yoga class. I remind my yoga students regularly that balancing in the water will transfer to improved balance on land. In fact, Miss Bessie is just one of my many water yoga students who has transitioned to my senior chair-based yoga class on land!
When planning a fall prevention yoga class, it’s important to remember that most falls don’t happen from a standing still position. Rather, like Miss Bessie above, a fall is more likely to happen when you are moving or transitioning. Therefore, it’s important for yoga classes with older students to work on flowing balance poses. I like to flow the movements about three times before holding the final pose for three to five breaths.
Warrior I to Tree Pose
From a Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose), ask students to shift the weight forward into their front foot.
Slowly and mindfully bring the back knee up, open the hip and find Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
Then release back into Warrior I.
More advanced students can move between Crescent Lunge Pose and Tree Pose.
Side-to-Side Goddess Squat.
Beginning with feet together, take a large step to the right.
Turn your feet outward and bend your knees so that they are aligned over your heels. Hold for three breaths.
Step the right foot back and repeat on the left.
Warrior II to Balancing Half Moon Pose
From Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), shift the weight forward and slowly lift the back leg into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). Hold for three breaths.
Slowly and with control, drop the back leg back into Warrior II.
Mountain to Warrior III
Standing in a tall, strong Tadasana (Mountain Pose), extend arms forward and slowly bring the right leg straight behind. Hold for about 3 breaths.
Then lower the leg back to Mountain Pose.
Fierce Pose to One Knee Up
From Mountain Pose, drop the hips and raise the arms to Utkatasana (Fierce Pose).
On the inhalation, stand tall bringing one knee up in front of the body, holding under the thigh if necessary.
General Consideration when Practicing Yoga for Balance
Your students will find their balance is stronger on one side versus the other. This is perfectly normal, and why it’s so important to practice balance poses on both sides of the body! The dominant side of the body is usually stronger and can balance longer. However, this creates more force and risk to the dominant side, while at the same time further weakening the non-dominant side and creating extra stress on the joints.
Be sure to encourage the use of props and modifications in fall prevention yoga classes. A student with balance issues might find even a block on the floor too difficult to use for support. Students instead can use a chair or the wall for support. They might not need to use the chair or wall each class, but sometimes, just knowing support is available is enough to get over the fear of falling.
Ask students to stand to the side of the chair for Tree Pose. If they need balance support, they can place just one hand on the chair. Sometimes I’ll even say just place one finger on the chair if you can.
The floor seems far away to someone afraid of falling, so in Balancing Half Moon Pose, bring the bottom hand to the seat of the chair rather than to a block on the floor.
Goddess Squat should be done behind the chair. As the students move side to side, they have the chair back to hold on to for support. If I have a student who is really having difficulty with balance, I will encourage her to stand in front of the chair. I remind her as her hips push back into the squat, the chair seat is right underneath her in case she feels the need to sit down.
Of course, be sure the chair is strong and secure. Rubber stoppers on the leg bottoms or placing the chair on a yoga mat will stop it from slipping or moving unexpectedly.
Challenge your yoga students to increase their balance time. Begin with two breaths gradually increasing to five deep breaths. Or, as your students get stronger, encourage them to briefly close their eyes in the standing balance poses.
Getting older may be inevitable, but aging without worrying about falling is possible.
Check out Loren Fishman, MD and Ellen Saltonstall's in-depth webinar on yoga balance training for fall prevention on YogaUOnline.
Jennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT 200 is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. Her first book "Creating A Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned From Yoga and My Mom" is now available on Amazon. She has had her essays featured on Yahoo! and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, Your Tango and YogaUOnline. See more from Jennifer at jenniferwilliamsfields.com