Bring balance to your posture

Hatha yoga is all about bringing balance to the pairs of opposites within us; the name itself brings together the opposites of sun (ha) and moon (tha), the warmth, energy and fire of the sun balanced by the cool calm of the moon.  We aim to balance strength with flexibility and bring the mind to a calmer, quieter place.  Many of the postures in our physical practice of hatha yoga are asymmetrical, and need to be ‘done’ on either side.  These postures can serve to highlight the asymmetry inherent in our physical body and offer a way to improve balance between the two sides.

We all have a dominant eye, one ear higher than the other (though a surgeon may be required to change that one!), we are left- or right-handed, we tend to lead with one leg in favour of the other when moving down awkwardly spaced steps.  Our posture can be affected by these tendencies; using a particular hand to write with will affect our seated posture as we write, perhaps we will lean to one side, holding the other shoulder a little higher. Slinging a bag over the same shoulder each time can cause a similar change in the way you stand, how you hold your shoulders, neck and head.

When you sit, on a chair or on the floor, you may have a preferred way to cross your legs, leading to differences in the movement required in each hip.  The chances are you tend to cross your arms a particular way, link your fingers a particular way.  We do these things without thinking, guided by our subconscious mind which gets things done while we are busy thinking about other things.  And after a while these patterns in the body become literally set in, as the body adapts to these positions and ways of carry weight.

Our asymmetrical yoga postures offer a chance to recognise where these patterns of movement and preference exist, and working each side of the body separately allows us to explore each side in turn, to feel the differences, to allow each side to have its full range of movement in the posture.  We become more aware of our posture, how the body feels and moves.  Perhaps this awareness may then extend outside the class, as we start to make simple changes that can re-balance our posture.

These days, if I carry a shoulder bag I move it from one side to the other regularly.  Carrying shopping I always opt for two bags even when one would do, so the weight is even on each side.  Sitting cross-legged I make sure each leg takes its turn to be in front and even linking fingers I alternate which thumb goes on top.  In these little ways we can become more mindful of our physical self in a positive way, perhaps realising the root causes of discomfort or imbalance and taking steps that will help to reduce it in the future.

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Movement and breath

A characteristic of many yoga practices is the co-ordination of movement and breath.  We can use the breath to help us to move in and out of postures and to work more deeply whilst we maintain a posture.  Breathing involves the movement of the spine as well as the ribcage and diaphragm and it is this movement that we can enlist to help us with our posture work.

Inhalation involves a lifting and opening of the ribcage and is associated with a straightening of the thoracic spine.  Conscious use of the inhalation during movements that require these changes will allow the breath to help our movement and the movement to help our breath.  For example, we might inhale as we move into a backbend, as we lift the arms or as we straighten the spine from a forward bend.  Conversely, during exhalation the ribcage lowers and the thoracic spine becomes more curvy, as in spinal flexion.  The exhalation can, therefore, help us to move out of a backbend or into a forward bend and links naturally with a lowering of the arms.

During the exhalation the pelvic floor lifts and the abdominal region contracts.  This can be used effectively to move us into a spinal rotation or a side bend.  Whilst in the side bend, we can focus on breathing onto the uppermost side of the ribcage, helping to open out this area.  During a spinal rotation, you may notice how the exhalation can help you to move deeper into the posture, whilst the twist tends to unravel slightly as you inhale.

Co-ordinating the movement with the breath into short sequences helps us to slow our movements down, fitting in with our own natural rhythm, and the concentration needed to co-ordinate movement and breath in this way also focuses our attention on what we are doing at that moment in time. By becoming more aware of how we breathe, we soon begin to notice more subtle changes in our breathing pattern which could be indicative of working too hard or in an inappropriate way. By responding to these signals we can learn to work in a way that is healthier for both body and mind.

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