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The One Cue That Will Steady You in Balance Poses

The One Cue That Will Steady You in Balance Poses
The One Cue That Will Steady You in Balance Poses


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When you come into a balancing pose of any sort, there comes a moment. It typically happens when you’re quietly pleading with your body to attempt something gravity-defying and trying to steady yourself. Then you start to overthink, feel yourself begin to sway, and overcorrect or undercorrect or otherwise find yourself unable to correct. That moment is typically accompanied by an internal “oh f*ck.”

Despite your sometimes dramatic attempts to the contrary, that moment of trying to cheat the laws of physics tends to be followed quickly by losing your balance. It’s not an elegant experience, whether you’re feeling it or witnessing it, but it is a common one.

In that moment, yoga teachers typically try to assist you with words. A lot of words. Words that are well-intentioned but that ask you to do something confusingly vague, like, “Engage your core.” Or something insanely specific like, “Engage your transverse abdominus.” These platitudes are especially unintelligible when you’re already upside-down or twisted to the point where you’re uncertain which way is left or right, up or down.

That’s when you need to hear something simple. Instinctual. Laughably elementary. Something like, “Push through your heel.”

I don’t recall the specific class I took years ago when I first heard that cue, but we were transitioning from Chair Pose to a standing twist. Well, trying to transition. We came into a Figure Four with our right ankle to our left knee. Then we were asked to bring our left hand to our outer right foot and stand upright with our right leg extended straight ahead while we reached our right arm back. From the periphery of my sight, I could see a lot of lifted legs wobbling haphazardly, just like mine was.

Then the teacher broke the silence with four simple words, referring to the lifted leg. “Push through your heel.”

Boom.

The cue requires minimal translation from brain to body. And isn’t that exactly what you need in that moment?

I later thought about those push button toy animals from years ago that are made of plastic or wood pieces connected by string to a small base. When the button on the bottom of the base is pushed, the string goes lax, the toy becomes limp, and everything collapses into a misshapen heap. But when you release the button and the string goes taut, it instantly delivers a steadying force that causes the giraffe—or cat or dinosaur or Scooby Doo—to become perfectly poised at attention.

That’s exactly how I felt in my body as I reached through my heel toward the wall in front of me. Perfectly poised.

Curious, I tried pushing through the heel of my lifted leg in other balancing poses that demand a flexed foot, whether I was taking class or practicing at home. Extended Hand to Big Toe. Warrior 3. Side Plank with one leg extended toward the ceiling. Even arm balances like Dragonfly or Baby Grasshopper. Same steadiness.

Eventually, I began to cheat and use this cue in almost any standing or arm balance by first pushing through my heel and then, when needed, pointing my toes.

When I started telling students to “push through your heel” in balancing poses, I witnessed the same effect. Those who had previously faltered in that moment found unprecedented balance, not to mention a surprised and somewhat baffled expression. Once, when I neglected to say the cue, a student who attended class religiously each week whispered loudly, “Push through your heel!”

Why This Simple Cue Works

As with so many things in life, the answer to why the cues works is simultaneously simple and complex. Figuring out in your brain the location of your heel and where you want it to go is simple. The action of pushing is simple. The anatomy of that action is complex.

“We have a whole posterior chain of muscles and connective tissue along the body, starting with the plantar fascia wrapping under the heel, which connects to the Achilles tendon, which connects to the calf muscles, which connect to the hamstring tendons, which connect to the hamstrings, which connect to the glutes,” explains Jenni Tarma, a Yoga Medicine therapeutic specialist and founder of Kaari Prehab.

The front of the body has an equivalent chain of muscles to the backside, from the top of the ankle to the quadriceps and into the deep hip flexors and abdominals, says Tarma. It’s all connected. When those muscles are engaged, it creates stability.

It’s not just muscles that contribute to your steadiness. Dense, fibrous connective tissues—ligaments, tendons, and fascia—intersperse the muscles of the body and provide additional structure. Notably, there’s also a thick sheet of fascia that covers the low back and has been the subject of recent research related to core stability. Its role is a lot more significant than we had initially thought, explains Tarma.

“The thoracolumbar fascia weaves into and between all the layers of the muscles of your core,” she says. You can’t engage one part and not have that apply tension to the whole system.”

It becomes impossible to disentangle the fascia connection and the activation of the muscles. So when you push through your heel, you activate a chain-reaction of muscular and connective tissue tension, not unlike the string in that toy, that results in core activation. That’s what helps steady you.

Not that you need to understand or even think of this when you’re balancing, because that can very easily take you right back into the brain.

Putting “Push Through Your Heel” Into Practice

The “push through your heel” cue is an example of a recent trend in teaching, which is to cue a simple movement that results in the intended action rather than overcomplicating things by overspecifying. I have found time and again, in my own practice and when helping others through theirs, that the more instinctual the cue, the more intuitive the movement.

Let’s say you’re standing on one leg and drawing your right knee toward your chest with your peace fingers hooking your big toe. You want to extend your leg straight in front of you in Standing Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Uttita Hasta Padangusthasana). Rather than focus on figuring out how not to lose your balance as you create that shape with your body, simply push through your lifted heel as you slowly extend your leg forward. Let the pushing be your primary focus and then, from that place of relative steadiness, you move your body into the position.

Even after you find the basic shape of the pose, keep pushing as you subtly refine your alignment. Maybe you lower your right hip in line with your left. Perhaps you stand a little taller as you draw your right shoulder back and down. Maybe you slowly take your leg out to the right as you keep your gaze forward or over to the left. Keep pushing through your heel.

It will work in any balancing pose in which your foot is flexed with your toes drawing back toward your shin. If you’re still working on balancing on one leg, try practicing the pose close enough to a wall so you can press your heel into it.

Feel the difference?

Balancing may not be easy. But it doesn’t have to be quite so hard.



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