Raise your hand if you are guilty of this: When practicing balance poses in yoga class, you are determined to get the lifted leg really high. Let’s face it, whether it’s Extended Hand to Toe pose, Dancer’s pose, Single-leg splits, Half-Moon pose, Tree pose, Warrior III, really any pose that requires us to stand on one leg, our propensity is to be preoccupied with the extended leg – the one up in the air. We obsess and become hell-bent on getting that lifted leg higher and higher. Some of us even coerce that lifted leg to scale heights it has no business reaching!
Ah, that ever-present ego. It overpowers our best intentions to practice those wonderful lessons of yoga – mindfulness, compassion, non-violence, present mind focus, patience. It cajoles us into believing that the higher that lifted leg, the more awesome a yogi we are! The fact is you will experience a more profound expansion if you turn your attention to the standing leg. That’s the leg connecting to the powerful force of gravity.
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The duality of standing balance poses holds that in order for that lifted leg to go higher, the standing leg must root deeper towards the earth. In other words, the lifted leg has to do the opposite of what the standing leg is doing. If we focus on rooting down into the earth and playing with that amazing force that wants to take us down, resisting it with the strength of our muscles and the integrity of our alignment, we will reap the power of lift and expansion in that other leg. That lifted leg will do so safely, with integrity, without wrenching the poor sacrum and hips out of alignment, which is what tends to happen when there is an imbalance between the strength and integrity of the standing leg and the lifted partner.
Take Dancer’s Pose (Natarajasana): The legs play that subtle dance of duality to keep the standing leg stable and strong, balancing the entire weight of the body while the other leg, extended and arching behind the back of the body passively lengthens. In much the same way muscles perform within the paradigm of agonist and antagonist to mobilize a joint, the legs work on a similar synergism to achieve balance and length in standing balance poses. The balance is achieved within the reciprocity of give and take between the two legs.
In Natarajasana, much like any other standing balance pose, the quadriceps seek to fire up against the give and take of concentric and eccentric contractions. In plain English: the muscles of the standing leg must generate the force and power to resist gravity (they contract) while the muscles of the lifted leg, while still active, yield and lengthen. The happiness of your spine, particularly the lumbar spine, hinges on this expansion.
Even the hips dance in duality: The hip of the standing leg is in flexion; the hip of the lifted leg is extended. The knee of the standing leg is extended; the knee of the lifted leg is in flexion. The neutral hip of the standing leg plays on abduction; the hip of the lifted leg plays on adduction.
Next time you are playing with single-leg balance poses, check in with the knee of the standing leg. Is the kneecap facing straight ahead, or does it torque to one side? The state of this knee in the pose is a good indicator of the integrity of your muscular and skeletal action.
Practice rooting the inner edge of the standing heel into the floor and press the front of the thigh back toward the back of the leg. Keep that knee facing straight. Think: left hip over left ankle. Keep the muscles of the standing leg firm and engaged and don’t sink into the standing hip.
Honor the function and the power of the standing leg in balance poses and you’ll be able to take the lifted leg along for a ride to great heights.