Sometimes, I sleep through my alarm and don’t exercise in the morning. I’ve been known to have more than one cocktail after work. I’ve left dishes in the sink, forgotten to floss after brushing and eaten half a pint of peanut butter vanilla ice cream in a single setting. (Okay, FINE! It was a whole pint. Fortunately, that flavor was discontinued.)
Why do I cop to these minor indiscretions? Because I’m actually pretty happy when they occur. While the better part of my life is spent focusing on the positive -- eating and cooking healthy foods, practicing yoga daily, being kind to my friends and family -- sometimes my ideals go out the window and I act in a way that is completely contradictory to the values I try to live by. What do I have to remind myself when I perform this behavioral 180? It happens.
This familiar lifestyle seesaw essentially acts as my personal balance monitor. Sometimes I’m adamant about living a certain way and sometimes… well… not so much.
In a yoga practice, elements of balance are constantly coming into play. From the most basic exercise of trying to distribute your weight evenly between both feet to learning to stand on your head, it is the ability to find your balance that will help build strength throughout your practice.
The following sequence of balancing postures focuses on the quadriceps, located at the tops of your thighs. Whether actively engaging them or gently stretching them, this large muscle group is a powerful force of support in many balancing postures. They are also an important group to exercise and lengthen as they support so many of our activities like jogging and biking. And since your quads can become fatigued by simple actions -- like sitting at your desk -- it is important to build up their strength.
Be conscious of your quads when practicing these exercises but, at the same time, forget about them. Sometimes it may seem that you can balance on one foot forever and other times you can barely lift your toes off the ground. It happens. Take a deep breath and enjoy it. And the pint of ice cream? Sure, enjoy that too.
When an exercise calls for you to “engage your quads,” imagine there are arrows on top of your kneecaps pointing up towards your core. Now try and lift all of the muscles from your knees through your thighs up towards your navel.
Practice each posture for five deep breaths or for as long as you can hold the pose whenever you feel out of balance.
Downward-Facing Dog into Standing Split
Begin in the middle of your mat with your hands and knees shoulder- and hip-width distance apart, respectively. Press your palms into the ground, tuck your toes underneath you, and send your hips up to the ceiling and towards the back of the room, coming into a downward-facing dog. Try to send your heels towards the floor as you press the ground away from you. Engage your quadriceps by lifting them up off your kneecaps. Allow your head to rest between your arms and take five deep breaths.
With your hands still pressed firmly into the mat, carefully walk your feet into to meet them so you are in a forward fold with your palms or fingertips on the ground. When you are as close as is comfortable for you to keep both legs straight, point the toes of your right foot and extend it up towards the sky, coming into a standing split. Firmly engage your core and quads, keeping your back and legs as straight as possible. Hold for five deep breaths. Place your right leg on the ground and walk your feet back out to downward facing dog. Either repeat immediately on the left side of rest in child’s pose before beginning the opposite side.
Triangle Pose into Half Moon Pose
Stand across your mat with your legs about three feet apart and parallel. Turn your right toes out towards the front of the room and your left toes slightly in so they’re pointing in the direction of your right heel. Extend your arms up to shoulder height, hinge at our hips and place your right fingertips on the floor and extend your left arm up towards the ceiling, coming into triangle pose. Keep your legs and arms very straight. If this is so NOT happening, place a block or some books to the outside of your right foot and rest your fingertips on top of them. Look up towards your palm and take five deep breaths.
With your right fingertips pressing firmly into the mat or block, slightly bend your right knee as you point your left toes and begin to lift your left leg up off the ground. Firm the muscles throughout your legs -- especially your quadriceps -- and activate your core to find your balance. Flex your left foot and look up towards your palm. This may take LOTS of time. It’s okay! Keep trying and falling down. The ground is only a few feet away. Remain here for five breaths before bending your right knee and placing your left foot on the ground. Straighten your right leg and come back to triangle pose. Come back up to standing and repeat on the left side.
Quad Stretch into Modified Dancer’s Pose
Stand at the front of your mat and evenly distribute your weight between both feet. Lift your right leg off the ground and hold onto the outside of your right foot. If you need to hold the wall to balance in this pose, do so. Press the back of your foot into your palm so that your right knee is behind your left thigh. Take five deep breathes in this pose. If it feels like enough of a stretch- or if you are not yet finding your balance without the wall- place your right leg on the ground and repeat on the left side.
For a deeper stretch, and an additional backbend, continue to draw your right leg back behind your left and allow your upper body to come forward and towards the floor. Engage your quads and your core to find your balance in this position and find a single spot to hold your gaze. Continue to press the back of your foot into your palm and breathe. After five breaths, come back through the original posture, release your right foot and come back to standing. Repeat on the left side.
Mallory Stuchin studied Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore, India and has taught classes at PURE Yoga and New York University. She is also a Natural Foods Chef and a Vegetable Butcher at Eataly.