The Mythology Behind Vrikshasana (Tree Pose)

January 26, 2015    BY Zo Newell

When the demon king Ravana kidnapped Queen Sita and brought her to Lanka, he naturally assumed that she would fall for him. After all, other women did. He was handsome (once you got used to his ten faces), strong, and fabulously wealthy and powerful. His palace was a sensualist's dream of beauty and pleasant surroundings. Ravana was not unlike an urbane, highly influential drug lord—repellent, yet fascinating at the same time. He offered Sita one pleasure after another, but she said no to them all. He proposed to make her his chief wife, and Sita refused. She refused to spend even one night inside Ravana's beautiful palace.

When the demon king Ravana kidnapped Queen Sita and brought her to Lanka he naturally assumed that she would fall for him. After all, other women did.

“I am your prisoner, not your guest,” she said, “and I will never be your woman. Remember, I am Rama's wife and he will find me. And when he does, you will wish you had never even seen me.”

“I'm a generous man,” replied Ravana. “Every day I will ask you to accept me. You have one year. After that, if you still refuse, I will cook and eat you.”

Outside the palace, inside its walls, stood a grove of ashoka trees. Ashoka means “without sorrow.” Ashoka trees are symbols of love in Indian folk tradition. They are also healers, containing powerful medicinal compounds. Sita lived under the trees, surrounded by Ravana's elite staff of rakshasa women—monstrous creatures with the faces of goats, fish, and dogs; with hair sprouting from unlikely places; and unusual numbers of eyes and limbs. The guards were ordered not to harm Sita physically, but they could use psychological methods to break her down. They told her that Rama would never find her, and even if he did, Lanka, being an island fortress and protected by magic to boot, was impregnable. They advised that life in the comfort of Ravana's harem was a pretty sweet deal, as his hundred satisfied wives could attest. They said that a woman as royal and beautiful as Sita deserved to live in a palace and to be treated like the queen she was, not wander the forest with her exiled husband.  "Forget Rama," they said. "Think of all that Ravana could do for you. And it's not like you're leaving here alive anyway," they reminded her.

But Sita sat, with her back against an ashoka tree, and she breathed slowly, and she waited. She concentrated her mind on Rama with one-pointed focus. Every thought, every breath, every beat of her heart said “Rama...find me. Rama. Rama.” She sent her love and longing into the trees, and imagined their leaves broadcasting Rama's name to the atmosphere. Sita was the daughter of Bhumi Devi, the earth itself, and deep within she felt kinship with rooted, growing things.

Every thought, every breath, every beat of her heart said “Rama...find me. Rama. Rama.”

Trees are patient creatures. They live a long, quiet time, and they know how to stand firm through all the changes of day and night, climate and season. Silently, those ashoka trees spoke to Sita: “Stay still, little sister. Be calm and steady, like us. Seasons change, we know, we know. This captivity is not forever. Stay still, and remember Rama.”

On the mainland, Rama summoned Hanuman, his monkey superhero aide-de-camp. Hanuman could assume any size he chose; he could fly; and he was prepared, at a heartbeat’s notice, to do anything Rama asked. “Go,” he said, “find Sita. But don't frighten her! Take my ring; when she sees it she will know you have come from me.”

And one day, Sita heard a name called softly from above: “Rama, Rama...” It was Hanuman, in the form of a tiny monkey. Hanuman spoke her beloved's name with all the love and longing that Sita felt in her own heart, and her heart told her to trust this peculiar messenger even before he produced a gold ring inscribed with “Rama-Rama-Rama” all around its circumference. (How Hanuman arrived in that very tree in the ashoka grove is another story. It is enough, here, to say that his visit restored Sita's sense of connection with her lord.)

The Pose

Stand in tadasana (mountain pose), with your feet together, or hip-width apart. Spread your toes. Lift your inner arches. Distribute your weight evenly between the right and left sides of your body. Settle your feet into the floor as if they were sending down roots.

Then, shift your weight into your left leg. Press down with the root of your big toe and your outer heel. Externally rotate your right leg and place the sole of your right foot on your inner left leg, above or below (but not on) your knee. Level your hips. When you feel steady, stretch your arms overhead, hands parallel to each other. Relax your shoulders away from your ears.

Imagine yourself a tree in a grove. Sense the calm, rooted presence of your tree companions. Gaze forward at a point that does not move. Widen your peripheral vision. If you are practicing in front of a wall, feel back through your body to sense its steady presence. Breathe slowly and quietly. If your eyes harden or wander, or if your mind is agitated, your balance will waver. Be easy. Observe your mind, your breath. This pose may reveal previously unacknowledged distractions. In the midst of them, can you draw stability from the earth?

Imagine yourself a tree in a grove. Sense the calm, rooted presence of your tree companions.

Benefits of vrikshasana (tree pose) include improved balance and stability in the legs, feet, and pelvis—and also the emotions. Practice this pose when life makes you feel off balance, or when you have been moving too much.

Reflection

Trees appear throughout Indian sacred literature as symbols of the universe and as organic links between God and the individual. In this pose, imagine yourself as both Sita and the tree.

Sita, abducted and held captive, draws strength and comfort from nature. Contact with the earth helps her focus on Rama—who is, of course, not only her husband, but God, the personification of ultimate value. Her body may be constrained, but her mind is free. Have you been in a situation where there was overwhelming pressure to accept a way of life or a set of values that fought with your own deeply held sense of what is right? What helped you to regain and maintain your equilibrium? Perhaps you were in a difficult situation you weren't able to leave. Where did you find mental freedom? Did nature help?

The tree, patient, stable, and deeply rooted, offers shelter to the one who takes refuge beneath its branches, back snuggled firmly against its trunk. At the next opportunity, sit with your back to a tree and feel it breathe with you. Have you ever been called upon to comfort, to “back up” someone who needed your protection? Did their trouble disturb your equilibrium? It takes a lot to shake a tree. Through your back, sense the tree's profound calm.

As she remembers him, he also remembers her.

The Ramayana (the epic that this story comes from) is a teaching tale. Sita represents the mind or individual soul, Rama is the lord, or cosmic soul. They are separated through the machinations of Ravana, the ego, who kidnaps Sita by tricking her into desiring a magical golden deer for a pet. Mind loses its focus on the lord, the highest reality, and finds itself imprisoned. Now, Sita must regain her meditative focus. What helps her? Remembering her lord, being still and aware in a natural setting. And what helps her even more, once she has begun that practice, is the appearance of Hanuman. As she regains her composure and her focus, Hanuman—Rama's messenger—finds her and shows her Rama's ring as a token. As she remembers him, he also remembers her.

When events like this happen in our lives we sometimes call them coincidence, or synchronicity. (“I was just thinking of you, and you called!”) Remember a time when you sincerely turned to God (or to your practice) for help, and suddenly the world seemed full of “messages” from the universe, assuring you that you were on the right track. When that happens you are Sita in the ashoka grove, and those coincidences are Hanuman arriving with a token, reminding you that Rama remembers you too.

Zo Newell
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>

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