A sample discussion of the psychophysical effects of yoga practice

The Psychophysical Lab

Balance

Balance does not mean merely balancing the body. Balance in the body is the foundation for balance in life. In whatever position one is, or whatever condition in life one is placed, one must find balance.[1]

Balance is a very central concept to yoga at all levels: physical, mental, emotional and intellectual. At the physical level, we learn to balance on one foot (e.g., Vrksasana – Tree Pose), on foot and hand (e.g., Ardha Chandrasana – Half-Moon Pose), on two hands (e.g., Adho Mukha Vrksasana – Full Arm Balance), on the head and forearms (e.g., Sirsasana – Headstand), on two forearms (e.g. Pincha MayurasanaFeathered Peacock Pose), and so on.

Balance in asana is typically achieved due to proper structural alignment, or because of countless micro-adjustments happening simultaneously. An aligned balance can be likened to a tower of blocks that derives its balance and stability from its proper placement and the effect of gravity upon it. This type of balance has a sense of ease and stillness; it rests on the stability of the bones and the natural pull of gravity, and invites a quiet calm of everything being in its place. The second form of balance, like that of walking on a high rope, is achieved by constantly adjusting the body to the underlying shifts happening. This is a very organic adaptive process. From the outside it may look calm, but it is not still when delving below the surface.

In asana practice, both ways of balancing are utilized at different times. For example, in sitting poses, aligning the spine like a tower of blocks one on top of the other, achieves a steady balance. But this type of balance is not pragmatic when one attempts to balance on a narrow base, as in Vrksasana (Tree Pose) or in Adho Mukha Vrksasana, (Full Arm Balance; literally means downward-facing tree). A tree may bend with the wind, but if it is well rooted and not rigid, it will not get uprooted. A rigid structure doesn’t adapt well to environmental changes and is prone to break or collapse more easily when the earth shakes. One can think of these metaphors when taking for example, Vrksasana. We achieve balance by grounding the standing foot, and also by constantly adjusting it to the inevitable movements of the body. This type of balance requires attention and focus. For instance, thinking of lengthening vertically (upwards) may help to maintain stability in this pose. In Adho Mukha Vrksasana (when done without leaning on a wall), balance is achieved by the interplay of many actions. Constant changes occur because of the organic nature of our muscles, the ongoing movement of the breath and the constant fluctuations (vrittis) of our mind. How often have you lost balance precisely when you ‘caught yourself’ balancing and lost confidence and concentration? To maintain a balance one must therefore constantly adjust by manipulating many large and small muscles, starting from the hands and up to the feet, and also to still and focus the mind.

Similarly, finding balance in interactions off the mat may require the use of an aligned and stable response or at other times, the situation may call for a dynamic adaptive response.

Another type of balance is counterbalance, a balance that is achieved by pulls in opposition, by simultaneously doing an action and a counter action. For example, in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) the action of moving the front thighs back and that of moving the tailbone forward are such a pair of actions. The front to back alignment and balance in that pose is kept by balancing maintaining these two actions.

The concept of balance extends to our life in general. In the asanas we must find a proper balance between flexibility and strength. We need to stretch our muscles, but at the same time to strengthen them. We need to maintain a delicate balance between over-doing and under-doing, between over-exertion and laxity.

As we already discussed, asana is a balance between stability (sthira) and comfort or ease (sukha), between effort (prayatna) and letting go of effort (shaithilya)[2]. We should seek the ‘middle-way’ (viva media) between these seemingly opposite attitudes. The result of learning to balance effort and non-effort, says Patanjali[3], is acquiring immunity to dualities. It seems like Patanjali is telling us that when one learns to stay on the middle-way (which changes constantly), then one is no longer affected by the dualities, such as those mentioned in earlier section, and is able to keep a balanced mind in all circumstances and eventualities. This is equanimity! The practice can teach us this, as said by Yehudi Menuhin: ‘The practice of Yoga induces a primary sense of measure and proportion[4]. This sense of measure and proportion helps us to develop intellectual and emotional balance as well.

Still another kind of balance is a long-term one. It is the skill of maintaining a balanced state of mind over time. In the practice, this turns into finding a sequence of asanas that will leave us in a sattvic state of tranquility and quietness. We learn this as we get mature in our practice and know how our body and mind react to different sequences of asanas and find sequences that are balanced in this respect – neither too heating nor too cooling; not exhausting but deep enough to create a mental and emotional transformation.

By acquiring this skill in our practice, we may learn to keep a balanced state in any activity, be it our working day, or a long hike that we do on our day off.

A balanced life means also to fulfill one’s duties, obligations and responsibilities. If our practice time don’t allow us to perform our duties, then the balance and harmony is disturbed. If the practice of a mother to a new baby prevents her from being devoted to her duty as a mother, then it is unbalanced conduct of life. Yoga is not a path of extremes but that of finding balance and harmony within ourselves and between us and our environment. In the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna describes, “Verily, yoga is not for him who eats too much or abstains too much from eating. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much or keeps awake too much. For the men who is temperate in food and recreation who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensues discipline (yoga) which destroys all sorrow”[5].

 

[1] B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Life, p. 43

[2] see: The Yoga Sutras II.46-47

[3] In II.48

[4] From the introduction to Light on Yoga

[5] From The Bhagavad-Gita VI.16-17, by S. Radhakrishnan,

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