Updated: Sep 22
I don't believe that a lot of people turn up at their first yoga class thinking "I want to build stability today". However, stability is one of the cornerstones of my own yoga practice, especially since I returned to the mat in earnest in 2017.
New students at my class complete a signup sheet. The most popular goals when joining the class are to increase flexibility, combat stress and gain relaxation (in that order). These are all totally relevant and beneficial goals for a yoga practice.
Building stability is something that can go on both around and within these (and other) goals as we move towards a different- perhaps improved- awareness of our bodies, our breath, our emotional state, our energy and how we exist both on and off the yoga mat.
Stability is a tremendous endowment in more ways than one.
Back in 2017 I lacked stability in many aspects of my life. Hypermobility (instability in the joints) was the superficial trigger for the resumption of my physical yoga practice, as I'd seriously injured my right knee and required mindful ongoing strength and maintenance work to prevent further injury (successful to date, I should add!).
I was equally but less obviously (perhaps) in need of building emotional and mental stability, having experienced a prolonged period of mental ill-health and emotional upheaval. With hindsight, I also craved situational stability, as I'd moved house, career, job several times and ended a long term relationship within the previous few years.
Coming back to my yoga mat turned out to be a way of not only developing my physical stability, but finding more stability in my life as well.
In the physical practice of yoga, there are several things that we can focus on to connect to and build stability in the body.
The first way, although not necessarily the easiest for everyone, is to find the stability that is already inherent within us (yes, just like finding your intention, working with stability is most successful when we realise it's already there).
One way I work with this is to focus on structures in the body that naturally stabilise without conscious awareness, such as the abdominal diaphragm and the pelvic floor.
These two webs of muscle provide the structure for our everyday lives. Moving in tandem, they keep the organs in place, allow the organs to move and work as they need to whilst our bodies move through the outside world. Most of the time we barely notice that the diaphragm and the pelvic floor exist, but they provide the stability on which the basics of life take place.
The bones are another amazing source of stability within us. Incredibly light (I'm always shocked by how light when I get my body composition mapped!) and made of a delicate internal honeycomb that is strong enough to hold up the rest of our being. We rarely give a thought to our bones, and the idea might seem somehow squeamish or morbid (bones being so representative of mortality in western culture!) but they provide a (bone) deep layer of strength on which we build our daily lives.
The best thing about this is, we don't need to do anything very special to connect with these deep inner sources of stability.
As you sit, you can connect to the sensation of stability in your pelvis and your sitting bones. As you breathe normally, you can tune in to the deep movement of the diaphragm, expanding, flattening and then contracting as you breathe in and out. Perhaps, if you already have a developed internal sense, you can also notice your pelvic floor expanding and contracting with the opposite movement to the diaphragm.
Coming back to a sense of ourselves as inherently stable physical beings provides a platform for developing stability in other ways too. Approaching things with a sense of "I have and can develop" rather than starting from scratch might be profoundly empowering.
Balance is a common type of stability that we come across in physical yoga postures, one that may be challenging for different people and in different ways at different times.
Balance is affected by existing tension in the body, the ability to tense and relax required areas of the body appropriately, alignment and weight distribution of the body as well as the ability to focus on managing all of these things at the same time.
When working with tree pose one day, you might notice that you're struggling more on one side than the other, and with closer examination find that you're holding unconscious tension in the shoulders and upper body. On another day, you might struggle with stability full stop, maybe to realise that you're having difficulty holding focus on the full leg activation required because of wandering, preoccupied thoughts or a poor night's sleep.
In this way, looking to stability in our physical yoga practice can also point in the direction of how to find more stability in the rest of life.
In my own case, poor stability pointed to a lack of strength and focus stemming from inadequate self-care and self-knowledge. The wonderful thing about yoga was and is that the practice itself provides a vital opportunity to continually develop that self-care and self-knowledge, just as stability provides a platform for further stability.
This month we're focusing on stability as part of our practice in class at Alwoodley on Thursday evenings. Book now if you live or work in North Leeds and would like to see how finding more stability might work for you!