Balancing Imbalance: Bilateral & Unilateral Asana

“Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.” ~ Rumi

A normal yoga class has a mix of bilateral and unilateral movement. Bilateral movement shares the resistance between two limbs. Unilateral movement places stress on only one limb. Sometimes we can find that our bodies have an imbalance and that can be due to past injuries or because we have a naturally dominant side.

When we move bilaterally our stronger side can compensate by taking on more of the load than the weaker side therefore adding to our imbalance. In Yoga, bilateral poses may be: Plank Pose, Low Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog, Camel Pose, Bridge Pose, Wheel Pose, Boat Pose etc.

Some examples of unilateral asanas would be Side Plank, Half Camel, 1 legged Bridge Pose, (Revolved) Head to Knee Pose and Wild Thing.

So, by practicing Unilateral exercises that challenge one side of your body at a time you prevent muscle imbalances from developing because each side is forced to bear the load independently.

There are other great benefits to using more unilateral poses in your practice; one of these is that core strength is improved because we automatically recruit the muscles of the core. When we work unilaterally, muscles also have to coordinate with the nervous system to control movement and maintain balance. So, we also see neurological benefits as the brain builds new nerve junctions.

So why not try practicing or teach a class that works you or your students in a slightly different way every now and then to encourage an awareness of balance and imbalance in the poses and class.

Things to try:

· Start the class practicing Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana Pranayama) this breathing exercise helps to balance and re-charge the nadis and the pranic body. If you are aware of which side of the body is more dominant you could change this practice a little by blocking the nostril on that side of the body and breathe in & out of the opposite nostril to try and balance the brain. (Eg if the right side of your body is dominant then block the right nostril and breathe in and out of the left nostril.)

·  Start all the sequences on the left side for a change. This may help the brain itself to find balance as quite often a dominant side of the body is initiated by a dominant side of the brain and you may be assisting the brain to build those new nerve junctions. Also, teachers at times get caught up with instructions on the first side and accidently hold that side longer than the next contributing to imbalance.

·  Take time in the practice to hold the poses a little longer to investigate if one side is able to hold with ease and the other starts to get the shakes. This might help indicate which side is weaker.

· Once it has been established (if it can be) which side is weaker and stronger, try in your home practice to start the practice on the weaker side first, notice the exact amount of breaths that you are able to hold an asana and don’t allow yourself to hold longer on the more dominant side.

· If you want to work on strengthening the weaker side of the body and you are 100% aware of which side that is, you could start to hold a strengthening pose for a little longer or repeat half the repetitions on that side. (Eg. If the left side of the body is weaker, you may choose to hold that side as long as possible, perhaps six breaths and then hold the right side for just four breaths). A specialist (chiropractor, physiotherapist, osteopath) may be able to tell you which side is your dominant side.

·  It is not just the left and right side of the body that can become imbalanced, make sure that the front and back of the body are also worked in unison. Some new students think working the core means lots of abdominal exercises and end up with a tight front body and an over stretched and weak back body. So remember to balance any abdominal exercises with backbends and vise versa!

· Once you have worked on finding a balance with your breath, asana and practice, pause in a reflective supine pose like Sleeping Butterfly (Supta Badha Konasana) or step off your mat and notice what may be balanced or imbalanced in your life. How is the work/home balance going? Are your relationships balanced at present; are you speaking your truth, walking your talk? What needs changing and how can you go about it?

Article by Martine Ford