In Yoga, as in life, we seldom think about balancing with our backs.
Balance is something we do with our feet and our legs, right? Or with our hands or head if we’re in an inversion. But combining balance with some stretching on our back can be a pretty effective way of doing several things at once–the key to making your yoga practice more useful and compact.
The following position lengthens your lumbar spine and your hamstrings, engages some abdominal muscles, and gives you a sense of what it is to balance on your spine.
You’ll need a yoga block (or equivalent) and a tightly rolled up yoga mat. And about 2 minutes.
1. Sit down atop the bottom end of your (once again, tightly rolled up) yoga mat. Set up your block at the top of the yoga mat so it’s there to support your head.
2. Lie down on the mat. Your spine should be well supported by it. Also, slide up or down on the rolled mat until both the shoulders and your hip bone feel well supported by the rolled-up mat. Take 3 slow breaths in this position.
3. Extend your right arm to the right on the floor. Lift your legs and tilt them slightly to the right, so your balance shifts toward the support your right arm is creating. Lift your left hand toward your left leg.
4. Grab your left calf (or ankle, or wherever you can reach with your left hand) and gently pull your left leg in toward your chest, while breathing slow, even breaths.
5. Here’s another view of the pose to highlight the fact that your upper body is supported by the cilindrical shape of the mat and the block: only your right arm actually touches the floor. Take five slow, deep breaths in this position and then repeat the sequence on the other side.
Benefits: Increases your sense of proprioception and balance. Relaxes your spine, which can often be tight from long periods of sitting. Lengthens your lumbar area and lengthens your hamstrings at an easy, gentle pace. Helps to increase your focus, as you have to be paying attention to where your balance is currently shifting to, in a dynamic, ever-changing way.
Avoid if: When you lie down on the rolled mat (and adjust it, again, so hip and upper back are equivalently well supported atop the mat), it should feel comfortable. If it doesn’t; if your spine objects to that much pressure on it when you lift the legs, then you might want to try other gentler poses first before you tackle this one. Also, some yoga mats are flimsy and too thin to provide enough cushioning for this practice; if you have a second yoga mat, roll it together with the first one, so you have a more robust cushion.
Final thoughts: We don’t always attempt to do several things at once in yoga. Yes, poses that do multiple things (stretch, strengthen, balance and release) can be the yogic equivalent of getting more yoga in by cutting corners, but beware of cutting too many corners. A yogi once tried to balance (on one hand), stretch (feet on top of his head), strengthen (abs and arm strength from the balance) and have his morning cup of tea, and everything was going well till he discovered he hadn’t let the tea cool enough for drinking. He had to get a new tea set and wear a cast for two months. I’m just sayin’.