When we think about setting “yoga goals” for ourselves, they often revolve around achieving certain poses — arm balances, inversions, you know the “fancy” ones. But how many of us strive to totally nail tree pose? Or hold a side plank for 10 breaths? My guess: not many.

A lot of the yoga instructors I know would argue that digging deep into these balancing poses, focusing on holding them and breathing, is just as important (if not more so) than flowing through a dozen vinyasas. Not only does doing so build strength and balance, but it also helps cultivate concentration and relaxation that you can carry with you throughout the rest of your day. Today, Kate joins us to share her tips for getting in, staying in and getting out balance-cultivating poses with more grace and ease.

photography by Molly Winters; sequence + instruction by Kate Waitzkin; location is MOD Fitness; outfitting by Outdoor Voices


Tabletop Balance

Come to kneeling on all fours. Bring your hands in line with your shoulders and your knees hip-distance apart. Make sure your wrist creases are parallel to the front edge of the mat and spread your fingers wide, pressing evenly through all four corners of your palms.

Take a deep inhale and as you exhale gently draw your lower belly in and up towards your spine, which will help to protect your low back. Maintain this action and stretch your left leg straight back, lifting it to hip height. Flex your left foot keeping the toes pointing down towards the floor and press strongly back through your heel.

Stay grounded through your left hand and on your next inhale stretch your right arm up alongside your ear. Turn your palm to face the left, thumb towards the ceiling. Bring your gaze just slightly forward of your bottom hand so the back of the neck stays long.

Bring awareness to your left and right side waist and gently lift both evenly towards the ceiling to maintain length and stability in your spine. Continue to reach forward through your finger tips as you stretch back through your left heel. Stay here for 5 breaths.

Release your left knee and your right hand back to the mat. Take a child’s pose for a few breaths then come back to hands and knees and repeat these steps using the opposite arm and leg.


Classic Side Plank 

Come to kneeling on all fours.  Bring your hands just slightly forward of your shoulders and step both feet back to plank pose. Make sure your wrist creases are parallel to the front edge of the mat and spread your fingers wide, pressing evenly through all four corners of your palms.

Keep your right hand down and begin to pivot the pinky toe/knife-edge side of your right foot to the mat.  Stack your left foot on top of your right and flex both feet pressing out through the inner arches of the feet.  Bring your left hand to your left hip and turn your torso to the left.  If you feel stable there, consider taking your left hand towards the sky in line with your bottom arm.

Press down through your right hand as you lift up through your top hand and lift your hips up and away from the floor.  Look at the wall you are facing or, if it feels OK in your neck, look towards your top hand. Stay here for 5 breaths then, slowly, bring your top hand down to the floor and step back to plank pose.  Either take a downward dog or child’s pose for a few breaths between sides or go directly into the second side.


Modified Side Plank

Come to kneeling on all fours. Bring your hands just slightly forward of your shoulders and step both feet back to plank pose. Make sure your wrist creases are parallel to the front edge of the mat and spread your fingers wide pressing evenly through all four corners of your palms.

Keep your right hand down and begin to pivot the knife-edge side of your right foot to the mat. Keep that foot flexed as you step your left foot in front of you with your toes and your knee facing the (left) long side of your mat. Bring your left hand to your left hip and turn your torso to the left. If you feel stable there, consider taking your left hand towards the sky in line with your bottom arm.

Push down through your right hand and lift your hips up and away from the floor. Look at the wall you are facing or, if it feels OK in your neck, look towards your top hand. Stay here for 5 breaths then, slowly, bring your top hand down to the floor and step back to plank pose. Either take a child’s pose for a few breaths between sides or go directly into the second side.


Tree

Stand in the middle of your mat with your feet hip-width apart, hands on your hips. Close your eyes and notice that both hip points are facing straight ahead. Now, open your eyes placing your gaze on one single point in front of you. Shift your weight into your right leg and lift your left knee up to hip height. Bring awareness to all four corners of your standing foot and do your best to keep these areas rooting down into the earth. Keep your hands on your hips as you start to rotate your left thigh and knee out to the left. If you feel your pelvis start to turn with your leg, you’ve gone too far, so back up a bit and then place the sole of your left foot on the calf or inner thigh of your right leg, making sure to avoid putting any pressure on the knee joint of the standing leg. Energetically press the foot into the leg and the leg back into the foot.

Keep your gaze steady and your breath smooth. Consider taking your palms together in front of your heart or your arms up alongside your ears. Stay for 8 – 10 breaths. Bring your hands back to your hips, turn your left knee forward and step your foot down. Take a few breaths between sides with your eyes closed. Then, repeat on the opposite leg.

To modify: Perform this pose next to a wall. Place the hip of the standing leg near the wall. Keep one hand your hip and place the other hand on the wall to help with balance.


Warrior Three (with arm variations)

Arm Variation 1:

Stand in the middle of your mat with your feet hip-width apart, arms down by your sides. Place your hands on your hips and step your left foot back a few inches so you are balancing on your left toes.

Bring your palms together in front of your heart and begin to shift your torso forward and down towards the floor in front of you. Simultaneously, lift your left leg up to hip height. Both your torso and lifted leg should be parallel to the floor.

Keep awareness in the lifted leg by flexing the foot, pointing all five toes toward the floor and pressing back through the heel. Do your best to keep your left hip point shining down towards the floor (rather than opening out to the side wall). Gently hug your lower belly in and up, slide your shoulder blades down away from the ears and maintain length in the back of your neck. If you feel any strain in the back of your standing knee, micro-bend the knee.

Stay for 8 – 10 breaths then slowly rise to stand and step your feet together. Pause for a few breaths then repeat on the second side.

Arm Variation 2:

Once in the pose, consider extending your arms forward alongside your ears keeping the sides of your neck soft. Stretch forward through your fingertips as you press back through your lifted heel. Again, keep the lower belly gently drawing in and up towards the spine.

Stay for 8 – 10 breaths then bring your palms together in front of your heart and slowly rise to stand, stepping your feet together. Pause for a few breaths then repeat on the second side.


Half Moon

Stand in the center of your mat facing the long edge and step your feet wide apart, roughly 3 ½ – 4 feet apart. Turn your right leg and toes to face the front (short edge) of your mat and angle your left toes in slightly. Inhale your arms out to a T shape and bend your right knee coming into Warrior Two.

From here, place your left hand on your left hip and reach your right hand forward placing the fingertips on the floor beyond the little-toe-side of your right foot, about 12 inches. Consider placing this hand on a block for more support and lift.

Begin to shift more weight into your right foot as you gradually stand into and straighten your right leg. Simultaneously, bring your back foot forward and lift your left leg up to hip height. Keep your gaze towards the floor so start.

Right away, flex your lifted foot pressing back through the heel and start to turn your torso open to the left. Lengthen your tailbone towards your lifted heel. Keep your right hand underneath your shoulder and your left hand on your hip. If you feel stable here, consider taking your left arm toward the sky and turning your gaze towards the top hand.

To come out of the pose, bring your top hand back to your hip. Slowly bend your standing leg making sure to track your knee straight forward over the center of your standing foot. Step the lifted leg back to the floor and return to Warrior 2 for a breath. Straight the front leg, turn your feet parallel and repeat on the second side.


Half Moon with Wall Support

To assist with balance, consider performing this pose near a wall. Stand one leg’s distance away from a wall with your back towards the wall. Fold forward brining your hands directly underneath your shoulders and lift your left leg parallel to the floor placing the sole of the foot on the wall. Bring your left hand to your left hip and begin to turn your torso to the left while turning your lifted leg and foot so that the inner edge of the foot is parallel to the floor and the toes are pointing to the left. Press your lifted heel into the wall and extend the crown of your head forward into the center of the room.

To come out of the pose, bring your left hand to your hip and turn your left toes toward the floor as you bring your left hand down to the floor. Step your left foot down to meet your right and inhale as your rise to stand. Repeat on the second side.


Eagle

Stand in the middle of your mat with your feet hip-width apart, arms hanging alongside your body. Place your gaze on one single point in front of you and begin to shift your weight into your right leg as you lift your left knee up to hip height. Bend your standing leg and cross your left thigh over your right as if you were sitting in a chair with your legs crossed. If it is available to you, wrap your foot around the calf of your standing leg. Otherwise, rest the toes of your left foot on the floor just outside your right foot.

Stretch your arms straight forward, parallel to the floor, with your palms facing down. Cross your right arm underneath your left arm and bend your elbows so that the backs of your hands are facing each other. Keep the hands here or, if it is available to you, spiral your forearms around one another so the palms are now facing each other.

Lift your elbows up to shoulder height and gently press your forearms away from your face. Stay here for 5 breaths, then unwind the legs and arms and stand in Mountain Pose with your feet hip distance and arms alongside your body. Repeat on the second side.

3 comments
  1. 1
    Laura | March 23, 2016 at 11:03 pm

    Totally admiring those fab abs!

    Reply
  2. 2
    SaraLou · Yoga | March 24, 2016 at 9:59 am

    Yes! Totally agree with this article —look to the fundamental poses to learn balance and tone up for those other bigger…loftier goals…definitely something I also teach to my yoga students! Xo

    Reply
  3. 3
    Kelly | March 25, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    This weekend is about yoga. Two or maybe three poses. I have to relieve some stress. Thank you!

    Reply
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