Control: Inverted Balance

Originally published on LiveJournal, 10.9.08

Control. No, I’m not referring to Anton Corbijn’s heart-wrenching biopic about Ian Curtis, but to that special kind of muscle coordination we need in order to maintain balance in yoga poses.

I’ll focus on two complimentary poses, forearm stand (feathered peacock) and unsupported shoulder stand. Though there are other inverted stands that require control, these two poses feature the spine at its extremes: full inhale for forearm stand, full exhale for shoulder stand.

Control comes after strength. If you’re not very fit, you might not have the abdominal or back strength to pull yourself up into inverted poses against a wall. In such cases, some yoga teachers advocate “kicking up” (actually leaping) into the pose. The momentum from the leap helps you defeat gravity. This is good in that it lets you get into an inversion, which you otherwise couldn’t achieve. And inversions, as I wrote earlier, are good for you. But, it’s bad, because by kicking up you are not working the muscles you would need in order to pull you up.

What I would do instead is the “half” versions of inverted balances. Half headstand and half handstand (“L” pose) are each actually harder on your core muscles than their full versions, so you can work those without the extra challenge to your balance. And, you still get the benefits of the inversion.

Even if you can pull yourself up to the wall without kicking up, it doesn’t mean you have the strength to push yourself away from it. It might appear that you do when you come out of the pose, but it’s really gravity doing most of the work for you. Strength has to work both ways before you can achieve control. For control to work, balanced without the wall, you need both the pushing and the pulling to even themselves out.

That’s where my examples of forearm stand and shoulder stand come in, since each works on front and back muscles respectively. To succeed in one, you need to work on the other. Even though forearm stand and shoulder stand rely on opposite sets of muscles to pull you up — front vs. back — your ability to stay balanced in either pose requires both front and back, and ends up being very similar for both poses.

Finally, I get to the point: being strong is not enough. You might be strong enough to pull yourself up in both poses, but when trying to balance you keep overshooting the strength of the front or back. What you need is the ability to minutely control the amount of strength applied on both sides. That’s hard. The best way to train for this is to work very, very slowly. Pull up to each inversion in ten breaths instead of one, and come down at the same pace. Working slowly is, in fact, working on control. Your opposite strength in such cases is gravity. But, unlike your own muscles on the other side of the body, gravity’s force is constant and easier to train against. Once you achieve good control on each side during pulling up and down, you will find it much easier to pit front vs. back and stop them both at perfect balance.