more balance

Not to fall. Not to lose autonomy, pushed by gravity, out of control. This is the most basic role of balance, and we have complicated physiological systems to tell us when we’re leaning and vulnerable to the pressures of gravity. As yoga students, we up the ante and make balancing ever more difficult by assuming more precarious poses. Why do we flirt with falling? What role does refined balance play?

When we balance, we are exploring, and equalizing, the relationship between parts. We may be balancing something visible and external, like our body, but as we do so, we must be attentive to the invisible fulcrum. Balancing helps us do more than just discover our center. Balancing creates the center. The more precarious the balance, the more we must refine our center.

Benefits of practicing balance

Balancing builds strength, especially to the postural muscles of the torso. When we stand and walk, we are balancing, but it’s not too difficult. Most of us have habits that inhibit balance but so slightly that we generally don’t notice, at least not while we’re healthy. But when we try to hold ourself upright in an upside down position, say head balance, we find it is not so easy. We have to reorganize ourself around a narrower center, building new strength and flexibility.

Balancing teaches us to orient with self references more than external references. Try standing in tadasana, gazing at the horizon, and notice your ability to balance. Then close your eyes. Most of us sway and waver much more with the eyes closed. Vision is an important part of how we balance. But when we go upside down or sideways, we may become disoriented; vision can actually confuse us. Practicing these disorienting poses teaches us to think not so much in universal terms like up and down but in relative subjective terms like shoulders away from the ears or tailbone towards the feet. This is a fundamental pattern of all yoga practice: we learn to find our bearings from self rather than external references, from our understanding of immediate circumstances rather than general belief. Then, we are not so confused or frightened by unfamiliar territory.

Physical qualities of balance

The philosophy of Patanjali believes there are three basic energies in the universe. These are called gunas. They consist of tamas (mass, inertia), rajas (energy, change) and sattva (often translated as illumination). If we take two coins and lay one flat on the table and set the other on its edge, most of us would say the flat coin is at rest and only the coin that is on edge is balancing. The flat coin is tamasic, still but unlikely to change barring strong external force. The coin on edge is precarious. It is still but it won’t take much to cause it to fall. It has the inertia of mass but also a high potential for change. We might say it is in a sattvic state -balancing tamas and rajas. Further, the balance is rare, unlikely to happen as a result of chance. When we come across a coin balanced on edge, we’re pretty sure it got there through purposeful action.

Meditations on Balance

Observe yourself in light of these basic energies. Do you feel tamasic? Rajasic? Or sattvic? That is, intelligently and dynamically balanced between the two? As we observe these qualities in our lives, our attention brings them into meaningful relationship. What effect, if any, does this have on our idea of our center?

Join us Wednesday Feb. 10 from 6-8pm for an informal discussion on balance.