For many beginners, balancing poses are extremely challenging. Sometimes it is hard enough to do an asana (posture) with two feet on the ground, let alone to avoid toppling over while standing on one foot. The key to successful balancing lies in cultivating awareness of the midline (or median line) of your body-the vertical axis that bisects the face and neck, running straight through the center of the torso and pelvis and down between the legs into the ground.
To get a felt sense of your midline, stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your feet hip-distance apart and parallel, arms relaxing down by your sides, eyes closed. First bring your awareness to just the right half of your body: the right side of your face, the right arm, the right side of the torso, the right leg and foot. Be open to receiving whatever you may sense-feelings (strong or vulnerable, open or closed, focused or distracted) and also sensations, colors, textures, temperatures. Repeat this exercise on the other side.
Then take another breath and focus on your median line. What are you experiencing here? These sensations may be profoundly different, for your center can be a sacred place, untouched by the stories and variations of the left and right sides. My students have said that they feel equanimity, peacefulness, and truth when they focus on their midlines. Honor whatever you perceive. Vrksasana (Tree Pose) requires a sense of rootedness and centering down through your core. If you attempt to balance on your right leg with no sense of your midline, your weight will fall on the outer leg and outer foot, and the inner edge of your foot will lift. Before you know it, you will fall to the right like a felled tree.
So let's work from the ground up to establish your foundation in the pose, the roots for your tree. Start by opening the doors of perception in your feet by rolling a tennis ball underneath one foot and then the other. To stimulate the toes and encourage them to spread, sit cross-legged with the sole of one foot facing the ceiling and lace your fingers in between your toes; work the base of your fingers down to the roots of your toes and gently spread your fingers. You can also kneel, curl your toes under, and sit on your heels for a minute. After these exercises your feet should be alive and ready to support your torso and arms-your tree trunk and branches.
To awaken your sense of the midline running down the inner legs, stand in Tadasana, feet parallel, and firmly squeeze a yoga block between your upper thighs. Firming the greater trochanters (the knobby bones protruding at the top of your outer thighs, about five inches below your frontal hipbones) toward the midline prevents your standing-leg hip from jutting out too far to the side and taking you off-center. As you gently squeeze inward, slowly lengthen down your inner legs into the inner feet. Then zip energy up the midline of your trunk and press the center of the crown of your head skyward. When you practice Vrksasana, your foot will take the place of this block, and you'll want to recreate the same current down your inner leg.
Another important element to feeling centered is abdominal tone, which provides the core strength necessary for the pose. If the abdominals are weak, the section of the midline that runs through the belly area remains dull and provides no support for the low back in the posture. If you know any abdominal toning exercises or asanas, such as Navasana (Boat Pose) or Ardha Navasana (Half Boat Pose), do them before attempting Vrksasana. Otherwise, with your thighs pressing into the block in Tadasana, practice gently drawing your navel back toward the spine and up.
Now let's try practicing Vrksasana at a wall. Begin in Mountain Pose with the left side about a foot away from the wall. Spread the right toes and emphasize the arches in both the inner and outer foot. Take hold of the left foot with your left hand and place the foot against the top of the right inner thigh. Situate yourself so your left knee firmly touches the wall and you feel held in place. Lengthen down your inner right leg and press the greater trochanters toward your midline. Then draw your navel gently in again and move the crown of your head up. Press your palms together in Anjali Mudra (Namaste) at the center of your sternum. Now you are ready to begin focusing on your midline, grounding through it and lifting out of it. Repeat the pose on the other side.
Off the Wall
Now you are ready to try Vrksasana in the middle of the room. Fan out the toes of your right foot and ground the ball of the big toe and little toe, as well as the front of the heel. Make sure the knee of the right leg is facing straight forward.
Lift your left foot up to the top of the inner right thigh. The left toes should point down. If your foot keeps sliding, consider changing out of slippery tights if you are wearing them, putting on shorts instead and working on bare skin. If you're still having trouble and wishing for Velcro on your foot, practice with a strap around the left ankle, holding it in place with your left hand. It's also fine to practice with the left foot lower on the standing leg, at calf-height.
For those who have tight groins and inner thighs, lifting the bent knee too high may cause the spine to become swaybacked. If so, lower the foot against the standing leg and don't force the bent knee any farther out to the side than you can while still maintaining the parallel alignment of frontal hipbones.
Accentuate the pressure of the outer left foot on the inner right thigh so that the left knee comes more into the same plane as the left hip. This alignment will improve as your hips and groins open. Bring your palms together in front of your heart and isometrically press them together. Mirror this action by pressing the thigh into the foot and the foot into the thigh. The inward movement of your greater trochanters will help you with this. Feel how the tone in your midsection supports your balance. Keep your throat and eyes soft.
If you wish to go further with the pose, raise your arms overhead, palms facing each other. Relax your shoulders and tailbone down as you lengthen your spine upward. Breathe smoothly. If you find that looking straight forward is too challenging, pick a spot in front of you on the floor (about one body-length away from you) to gaze at softly.
For a few breaths, try to feel your vertical center, that quiet place of balance amidst the shifting energy of the left and right sides. Remember, there is no front to a tree. Relax your face, and from your awareness of your center, allow your attention and energy to radiate 360 degrees. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, about three to eight breaths. With practice, you might work up to a minute on each side.
Vrksasana strengthens and tones the legs and feet, opens the hips, groins, and chest, and fortifies your Muladhara (first or "root") Chakra. Through the practice of balance, you develop poise, concentration, and coordination-as well as steady and calm your mind. Practicing Tree Pose brings you back into your body, connects you to the earth, and helps you experience safety and stillness. Though praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow may "come and go like the wind," as the Buddha said, happiness comes if you can "rest like a great tree in the midst of them all."