Athletes know that four of the main types of exercises are balance, strength, endurance, and flexibility. In many sports, balance is one of the most under-rated, often being overlooked in workouts in favor of the other three.
So what is balance and how do we achieve it?
Merriam Webster lists many different definitions, but for athletic and yogic purposes, we generally refer to physical equilibrium—the ability to balance and not fall over; to mental and emotional steadiness; and to finding a happy medium between conflicting or interacting elements.
It is widely known that one of the most common predictors of injury is muscular imbalance. Yoga combats this by constantly working towards muscular balance—every movement and posture is practiced bilaterally and is geared towards balancing effort and relaxation.
Additionally, yoga helps develop our actual balance (physical equilibrium) by challenging our sensorimotor control systems. Specifically, yoga challenges our vestibular system, our sight, and our proprioceptive awareness. Many movements or postures such as vinyasas and inversions stimulate the vestibular organs, while the twisting and turning of the neck and head challenge the sensory input our brain receives from our eyes. Strong, balanced muscles, good proprioceptive awareness, and healthy eyes and vestibular organs lead to less falls and less injuries.
Just as importantly, yoga works to balance the two nervous systems and hemispheres of the body. It recalibrates the brain. In the modern world of constant stress and overstimulation, young athletes need as much attention to this area as any adult. Yoga begins by calming the breath because it is easier to calm the breath than the mind. In his book titled One Simple Thing, yoga teacher Eddie Stern says, “If stress levels are high, yoga practice will down-regulate, particularly through breathing, the parts of the brain and endocrine system that are responsible for hormonal release of adrenaline and cortisol.... (Yoga) restores the functions that are out of alignment toward a state of balance.” (74)
Don’t have time for a long practice? Begin with the following 6 poses and practice them mindfully, focusing on keeping the breath full, smooth, and even for the entire practice. Breath becomes short or labored? Then back off on the effort level. Remember—the goal is balance, not intensity.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. Hand to Big Toe Pose. This is a great posture for a daily balance check. When standing on one foot, try to feel the opposing actions of grounding into the standing leg from the hips while lifting from the waist through the crown of the head. Keep the glutes of both legs engaged—they help support the standing leg and may help lengthen the adductors of the raised leg. Use a strap around the foot if the hand doesn’t reach the big toe. In part B, turn the head at the same time as you open the leg to the side to help with balance. Hold A & B 5 breaths each on each leg.
Garudasana. Eagle Pose. This pose enhances awareness of alignment and develops the sensation of opposing forces. The glutes squeeze towards each other, inner thighs, shins, and arms do the same, but all in different directions. The standing leg roots down, while the elbows and torso rise up. In figure skating this pose is often taught with a twist to the torso to mimic the last position of a jump before checkout. Pressing the outer shin of the free leg against the shin of the standing leg adds stability. You can rest the toes on a block for balance. Gaze can be upward or forward, depending on what is most appropriate for you today. Hold each leg for 5 breaths.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana. Revolved Crescent Lunge. Athletes know that lunges build strength, which helps balance. Adding a twist further challenges the balance. Squeeze the sit bones towards each other and lift the front of the extended leg, pushing out through the heel. Engage the core to twist and hold and press the upper arm against the outside of the thigh to create more twist. This pose is said to build confidence and courage. Option: lower the back knee to the mat. Hold on each leg for 5 breaths.
Ardha Chandrasana. Half-Moon Pose. The standing leg uses the gluteus medius to stabilize the pelvis and maintain balance, while the lifted leg is using the gluteus medius to lift. Weakness in this muscle limits balance. Work to create maximum energy and extension in all directions, as extension facilitates balance, even though extension takes extra strength and flexibility. Turning the head towards the lifted hand further challenges the balance. Place the hand on a block or on the floor--whichever you feel gives you more stability. Hold each side for 5 breaths.
Paschimottanasana. Seated Forward Fold. While this is a very effective pose for lengthening the hamstrings, this pose is also important for massaging the abdominal organs and resting the heart, which calms and balances the mind. Engage the quadriceps and hip flexors to avoid overstretching the hamstrings. If the low belly is on the thighs, you may wrap the hands around the feet and clasp the fingers around the wrist. If hands don't reach the feet, bend knees to your comfort level, take chest towards the thighs and clasp hands behind knees or rest them on shins. Hold and breathe deeply for 1-2 minutes.
Viparita Karani. Legs up the Wall. This is by far my favorite pose. I do it when I'm stressed, tired, when I’m getting ready to travel, or when my legs are extra achy. Some say this is the #1 pose for every athlete and every yogi to do every day. Place a blanket a couple of inches from the wall (or chair or bed), Lay on the blanket with hips slightly off the edge. If hamstrings are tight, you can move blanket further away. Arms can go in a T, overhead, or on the belly. Place a blanket over feet to warm them and help legs stay vertical with minimal effort. Breathe deeply and evenly, and stay for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Notice how your heart rate slows and your mind becomes more centered.
Sit in silence in a comfortable cross-legged position for a few minutes after your practice. Keep a soft gaze or eyes closed, hands resting softly in your lap or on your thighs and notice how you feel.
There are so many other poses that can be added to this sequence to help develop balance, but these are some of the most effective to begin with to target both the body and the mind.
Click here for a downloadable pdf of this sequence including pictures of the poses. If you choose to try it out, let me know how you feel afterwards by leaving a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!
Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. Schocken Books, 1976.
Long, Ray MD FRCSC. Key Muscles of Yoga: Your Guide to Functional Anatomy in Yoga. Independent Publisher, 2010.
Solloway, Kelly. Yoga Anatomy Coloring Book: A Visual Guide to Form, Function, and Movement. Get Creative 6, 2018.
Stern, Eddie. One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How it Can Transform Your Life. North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2019.
Young student athletes may not realize it yet, but parents in competitive youth sports know that even though the days are long, the years fly by.
If we know this, then why don’t we learn to savor the little moments of the sports journey instead of rushing about from one thing to the next, cramming as many things into a day as possible?
When we strive for efficiency just to achieve more (rather than as a means to free up time for hobbies and quality time), then efficiency is just code for pressure.
And the pressure we have created here in the US has spread around the world. Recently I met some friends from Guadalajara, Mexico whose children attend the American School there—a bilingual private school that issues both a Mexican and a U.S. high school diploma. Although they are Mexicans living in Mexico, my new friends said, their kids are expected to keep up with the pace of the American academic system, applying to dozens of universities and participating in multiple sports and activities. It’s all about standing out from the competition.
I am a highly sensitive recovering perfectionist who suffers from anxiety and is easily overstimulated. As such, competition is a chronic stressor for me. While I have implemented many tools to be less bothered by others' words and actions and to stay grounded in my own journey, many days are still a struggle.
Do more, be more, buy more, the world around us says. When the pace of growth and information overload makes our bodies and minds suffer, it’s time to step away from the competition and courageously and honestly give ourselves a reset.
What kind of reset? Sometimes a reset may look like embodiment practices such as restorative yoga, conscious breathing, and walking in nature. Other times it may look like journaling, meditation, and talk therapy. Even other times, though, that reset might look like a dramatic change of scenery.
Over twenty years ago I learned that one of the best ways for me to reset my nervous system—bring it back into balance—after chronic overwhelm was to get far away from the outside influences and expectations pulling me in all directions. I like to go far enough away that it’s clear to myself and others that communication will be minimal while I’m away.
If you or others have a hard time respecting your boundaries, or if you are easily overwhelmed by competing demands, this type of physical distance can be a helpful tool for a personal reset.
To be clear— getting away is never an escape from your problems long-term. You must do deep work on yourself for any change to be lasting.
Mindful travel, however, is an opportunity to reset your nervous system out of fight or flight mode and to help you see things through a different lens.
To this end, I decided to travel to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino, or The Way, is a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. The first pilgrims made their way to Santiago nearly 1000 years ago, as the pilgrimage was one of three main pilgrimages in which Christians could earn a plenary indulgence. The main route follows an earlier Roman trade route and stretches from France across the northern part of Spain to Santiago and all the way to the coast at Finisterre.
Most definitions agree that a pilgrimage is a lengthy journey often on foot or horseback to a destination of special significance—such as to a shrine or other sacred place—for some spiritual or deep personal reason.
While traditional pilgrims made the trek to Santiago for purely religious reasons, now people do it for all sorts of reasons. What is clear, though, is that most pilgrims choose to walk the Camino to experience a period of reflection and to reconnect with themselves or nature. I met people along the way recently divorced, widowed, retired, and graduated, and I met whole families, school groups, military squadrons, best friends, and solo travelers.
I chose the Camino because I wanted to reset my mind, body, and soul after many difficult years working in a toxic environment. Additionally, I needed to let go of old thought patterns holding me back, and I hoped to feel connected to the shared humanity of everyone who had walked before me. Besides, I love to walk, and being in Spain fills my heart with joy. So, what better time and place for contemplation than on the Way?
Pilgrims can begin their journey at any point along the Way, but to receive an official “compostela” –the document certifying you have completed the Camino—you must complete at least 100 km on foot or 200 km by bike. You must also have a “credencial” or pilgrim’s passport stamped at least twice a day during the last 100 km of the Camino. To walk the entire 500-mile route may take 5-6 weeks. Since I only had a few days, I opted for the most popular journey of 115 km (about 70 miles) in 5 days.
(To learn more details about the Camino, visit the website of the Pilgrim’s Reception Office, or to understand more specifically about the compostela, check out this article by Correos, the Spanish postal service.)
Athletes and sports parents looking for a break or departure from the competitive lifestyle can find their reset on the Camino and learn a lot about life and themselves in the process:
Whether or not you make it to the Camino de Santiago, these are valuable lessons that hold true for our journey through life and sports.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. Having experienced the highs and lows of being an athlete, the effects of toxic training environments, and the loss of identity upon retirement, I am passionate about coaching athletes who have been through some of the same challenges. I love working with young athletes, former athletes, and anyone that wants to reframe their athletic experiences to re-write their story, rebuild their identity, and thrive in life outside of sports.