When you see your teacher demonstrate Vrksasana (Tree Pose), with her foot placed high on her thigh and her knee pointing straight out to the side, you might be tempted to try to imitate her. You might even think that if your knee is not pointing straight out, you're not doing the "real" Tree Pose. But in order to find your balance in the pose, you need to explore the reality of your own body, especially your hip-opening capacity.
In yoga, there is a principle called satya (the practice of truthfulness) that teaches yogis to think, speak, and act in alignment with what is true. Because it's a challenging balancing pose, Tree Pose offers an opportunity to practice this principle by aligning yourself with the truth in your own body.
The pose teaches you to practice stable and upright Tadasana (Mountain Pose) alignment with your standing leg while working with a hip and inner-thigh stretch with your lifted leg. It's easy to practice Mountain Pose when you stand on two legs, but when you pick up one leg, you may find that you start to rotate to one side or the other and lose balance.
To avoid falling in Tree, you need to explore and understand your hip-opening capacity. If your hips aren't naturally open and you force the lifted knee to point straight out to look like your teacher's, your entire pelvis will twist in that direction, pulling you out of your Mountain alignment. When this happens, there's also a tendency to arch the lower back too much, tilting your pelvis out of its most stable alignment.
It helps to imagine that your body is centered on an invisible plumb line dropping from the crown of your head, through the middle of your torso and pelvis, and straight into the ground beneath you. You want to remain centered around that plumb line even though you're on only one leg. To do this, strengthen the trunk of the tree—your core—and firm your standing leg by hugging the muscles of your inner thigh in toward your midline. Your standing leg is like the roots of your tree, and your stable pelvis carries energy from your roots up into the spine and torso, creating a strong trunk. Your arms reach up and out like branches expanding into the sky.
Tree Pose is a chance to experience the magic of yoga practice: If you are willing, trying to stand on one leg becomes an inquiry into your own truth. Honoring your truth might mean lowering the foot to a place below the knee or even to the floor, bringing the lifted knee slightly forward in space to align the hips, or gently engaging the abdomen to remove the arch from the lower back. Through honest inquiry, you can discover your true alignment and find your balance, no matter where your knee ends up pointing!
Practice satya in all of your poses by being honest about your own limits. When you align yourself in a way that's truthful, you create a strong and balanced foundation from which your poses will grow and flourish.
Balanced Tree: When practicing Vrksasana, it helps to think of "balance" as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of trying to achieve a state of balance, focus on the act of balancing. You'll never be absolutely still and steady; you make countless tiny adjustments to maintain the pose. Just as a tree reacts to the seasons, to light and rain, you are always responding to the subtle changes within your body, refining and rebalancing with every breath you take.
Watch: To watch an instructional video of this Basics sequence, go to yogajournal.com/livemag.
Prep Pose 1: Supta Vrksasana
Try this reclining variation of Vrksasana to explore how open your hips are, with the support of the floor.
Lie on your back, bring your feet together, and flex both feet as if you were pressing against a wall. Lift your kneecaps and firm your leg muscles up toward your hip sockets. Notice the space between your lower back and the floor. If there is a lot, you may be arching your lower back too much. Draw the front hip points (the two bony knobs on the front of your pelvis) up toward the lower ribs, engaging your lower belly to help lengthen (but not flatten) your lower back.
Place your hands on your hip points and observe that they are level with each other and pointing straight up to the ceiling. Draw your right foot up to your left inner thigh as high as it will comfortably go, press the sole of the foot into your thigh, and let your knee open to the floor. For now, allow your knee to plop open completely and notice how your pelvis follows the leg and tips to the right. If you're like most students, your left hipbone will now be higher than your right. Can you see how far your pelvis is tipping to the right? (You may need to lift your head to see clearly.)
Lift your knee off the floor just far enough so that your hips are level again. Look at where your thigh and knee are now: This is your natural degree of hip opening. Remember how this feels for future reference, and notice what you are doing to cultivate this neutral pelvis. It helps to firm your legs and press the top of your left thigh firmly down while gently engaging your lower belly. Now try it on the second side, noticing how different each side is.
Prep Pose 2: Vrksasana at the wall
Now, practice standing Tree Pose, using a wall as support and as another tool to explore your hip-opening capacity.
Start in Mountain Pose with your back to a wall. Inhale deeply, root down through both feet, and engage your legs by firming the thigh muscles. Place your hands on your hips and feel your pelvis facing straight ahead. Bring your right foot up as high as you can on your left inner thigh; press the foot and the thigh together for stability.
Rotate your right thigh out and push it back toward the wall. As you do this, you will feel your pelvis being pulled to the right; allow this to happen at first. Keep pressing your knee out, going all the way to the wall, and see how far your pelvis swings open. Now, engage your standing leg strongly and bring your hips back to center until they face straight ahead. Bring your knee as far forward as needed. This action will show you your true capacity for hip opening. Feel which muscles you are engaging to maintain this position. Now try the other side, understanding that your hips will probably have slightly different degrees of openness.
Drishti is a Sanskrit word that means view or gaze. In yoga practice, every pose has a prescribed gazing point, or drishti, designed to focus the eyes on a single point and bring the mind to a steady, concentrated state. Drishti is a profound practice that teaches us to look outward while bringing awareness inward. In balancing poses, resting the gaze on a nonmoving point in front of you is an invaluable tool for maintaining your attention in the pose and staying balanced.
Final Pose: Vrksasana
Practice balancing and find your own true alignment in Tree Pose.
Stand in Mountain Pose. Spread your toes, root down through your feet, and firm your leg muscles. Raise your front hip points toward your lower ribs until you feel a gentle lift in your lower belly. Inhale deeply, floating your chest up, and exhale as you draw your shoulder blades down your back. Look straight ahead and find a drishti, or steady gazing spot (see sidebar above).
Place your hands on your hips and raise your right foot high onto your left thigh. Pause as you settle into the pose, and soften if you are hardening anywhere. Next, press your right thigh open as far as you can until your pelvis just begins to rotate with the leg. Play with how far you can open your knee without twisting your pelvis to the right. Open the knee and then bring your pelvis back to neutral, squared to the front. Go back and forth like this several times. Pause when you find your true pose and bring your hands to your heart. If you feel stable, stretch them overhead. Don't take them too far back, which might cause you to fall backward. Stretch your arms like branches reaching to the sun. Breathe into your Tree, embodying the roots below, the strong trunk, and the full flowering above.
Try these tips to help you balance:
Watch a video demonstration of this pose.
Annie Carpenter leads classes and trainings and mentors teachers at Exhale Center for Sacred Movement in Venice, California.