by Allegra Gulino
I consider tree pose (vrksasana) to be a quintessential yoga pose. The eye delights in its stately beauty and sense of wisdom. It’s simple, yet challenging to practice. It fills one with a powerful sense of unity with nature and all of being.
When describing or teaching it, it’s nearly impossible to avoid using such language as “send your roots into the earth” or “spread your branches to the sun.” I believe that in most cases, this doesn’t come from the desire to be cute or funny, but from our basic “lizard brain” love of trees. Our instincts tell that our species has enjoyed a tremendous amount of practical and soulful nourishment from forests: old growth forests hold in moisture and cool shade, exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen, and sustain many species. They’re key in maintaining our complex web of life on earth, as well as providing a refuge for our weary, modern souls.
Therefore, with gratitude and reverence, let us explore tree pose. Practice barefoot on a firm, level surface for ease of balance. Stand in mountain pose (tadasana) with your heels directly below your hip points and feet parallel. Your knee joints are slightly bent to avoid hyperextension, and pelvis is in a neutral position with the pubic bone and tail bone level with the ground. Take in a long inhale and stretch the crown of your head towards the sky – lengthening the spine. Keep that height as you exhale and relax your shoulder blades down the back, hang the elbows below the shoulders, relax your hands and draw the belly muscles slightly inward and up to maintain your core strength and height. An ideal mountain pose creates a plumb line from head, to pelvis, to heels, with your shoulders hanging in between.
From here, inhale and lift up your toes and spread them wide, while pressing the balls and heels of the feet down. Doing this will lift your arches. Exhale and keep the arches lifted and toes spread as you press them evenly down to the ground. Imagine each toe and the balls and heels are sprouting roots deep into the earth. Pressing your active feet down creates a rebound of energy up the legs – important to all standing poses. Now that your weight is evenly balanced between the toes and heels, engage your leg muscles – squeezing them in towards the bones and maintain the active inward and upward pull of your belly and the height of your spine. Together, these actions establish your strong trunk.
Now lift the right heel off the ground – so you’re only on the ball of the foot, while squeezing the left leg muscles and pressing the left foot down. Shifting from two trunks to one requires the pelvis to slide a little over the grounded heel to counter balance you – allow this to happen without loosing height. Externally rotate the thigh bone at the hip, so your right knee swings wide. Stay here for a breath or two.
If you feel stable, slide your right foot off the ground and place it against the side of the left calf, so your arch fits into the curve. Keep rooting through your left foot, while pressing the right foot towards the standing leg and that leg into the right foot. Inhale and reach your crown towards the sky while maintaining squared hips, your hands can be on your hips or in prayer pose at your heart center.
If this stage is easy, reach your right hand down and grab the right ankle and place the sole of the foot against the inner left thigh. NOT AGAINST THE LEFT KNEE—a torn ACL is possible. If your foot doesn’t reach that high, go back to the calf. Wherever the foot lands, again press the leg into the foot and foot into the leg, while keeping the hips square and right knee moving back. If balance is still easy, stretch your hands up with straight and energized arms. Spread your fingers, like leaves reaching for the sun and slide your shoulder blades down. Keep the belly drawing inwards and up, ribcage and chest lifting and left roots reaching deeper. Gaze softly at an unmoving spot in front of you. When you’re ready, come out with control and rest in mountain pose – feeling the after effects of tree, before beginning on the other side. Repeat the same procedure with the right foot as your roots and left one pressing against the trunk.
As your practice ripens, you might notice how the breath (wind) causes you to sway, or that the taller you reach – the more energy you feel, or that bending your body when you loose your balance works better than stiffening. Keep exploring tree, seriously, playfully, or even with your eyes closed or outdoors. You may get a taste of the tremendous patience and endurance required to be a tree. Plant your tree.