When I first began to practice yoga, I always looked forward to tree pose (vrksasana). Unlike many other poses, I felt I knew how to do it. And unlike child’s pose or downward dog, it gave me the opportunity to stand upright and make myself feel tall. At five foot two, I would take any opportunity to feel big. Tree pose encourages us to lengthen ourselves, giving little seedlings like me the chance to stretch our arms and embrace our bigness.
One day my yoga teacher had us step onto a block with one foot before coming into tree. Many instructors do this to test their students’ abilities to stand tall even when what we’re standing on is unfamiliar. I climbed onto the block with my right foot, placed the sole of my left foot against my right inner thigh, lightly pressed my palms together, and immediately fell off the block, eyes wide and nowhere to be found. I had grown so accustomed to the “ease of tree” that my brain would shift into autopilot mode whenever I assumed that pose, hence my fall. And while I had felt as though I was achieving great success in tree pose before my block experience (at least I wasn’t falling out of the pose!), I had actually been missing out on some of what vrksasana had to offer all along. Tree has more to teach us than how to stand tall.
After my stumble, tree pose became more of a challenge for me, even when I was standing firmly on the ground. Our yoga practices can be affected by many variables, such as what we’ve had to eat or drink that day, whether it’s morning or night, how well we’ve slept, or how stressed we are. Falling had disrupted my tendency to go on autopilot in tree and made me realize that I had taken this complex pose for granted. I stopped assuming tree was “easy,” stopped defaulting to autopilot when I practiced it, and suddenly I was much more aware of all of the tiny differences in my experience of this pose that were determined by other variables in my life. I noticed that tree was harder in the morning, easier in the evening, and that I was less likely to stumble when my meditation practice was regular. When I stopped taking tree for granted, I opened my mind to all the lessons tree had waiting for me—and invited in all the mental and physical benefits that this pose can bring.
The names of yoga poses not only reflect the shapes of the asanas but are also metaphorically meaningful. The word “warrior” evokes power and bravery, for instance, while “child’s pose” invites deference to the ego in that we take on a more humble, “childlike” physical shape in that asana. Our yoga practices can be as nourishing as we ask them to be, and the asanas’ names can play a role in that nourishment. Despite its seemingly simple nature, tree pose is rich with complex benefits and lessons that you can apply to your life off the mat. Here’s what I’ve taken away:
Strength Think of how strong trees are. They’re one of the oldest life forms on the planet, here long before mammals and dinosaurs, and they grow in practically every single climate. This type of endurance and strength can be related to our experience on both a mental and physical level. While tree may seem like a routine pose, at least as long as your balance is strong, its simplicity can make it easier to “zone out” than in other poses. But as my own experience illustrates, a lack of focus leads to falling trees. To keep standing tall, we need to be not only physically strong but also mentally strong enough to maintain our focus—and thus our balance. Tree pose also has a metaphorical lesson for us: Trees are known for their ability to plant deep roots; the deeper the root, the more able the tree is to grow tall and strong. If we allow ourselves to find moments of grounding in our lives, moments in which we metaphorically connect to the earth, we will develop roots of our own, an internal support system from which we can launch ourselves skyward to achieve our dreams. Engaging in this kind of grounding could mean simply pausing to take a few deep breaths when feeling overwhelmed or setting aside space for downtime despite your loaded to-do list.
In practice: To develop your grounding skills in tree, next time you slip into the pose, allow yourself to find connection to the earth: Before you come into the pose, feel how both of your feet are firmly planted on the floor, and how your leg muscles help you to stand tall and proud. Then, lift up through your low belly to mentally connect to and engage your core. When you’re ready to bring your foot to your calf or inner thigh, do so with focus and control, allowing your breath to guide your leg through the air. Once steady, take a moment to feel the connection you’ve established to the earth and the strength you possess in your legs and core. Then, reach your hands up and feel the power in your upper arms, lower arms, hands, and fingers. Tree pose is a fantastic opportunity for us to witness and truly experience the strength of our entire bodies. The next time you practice tree, think about how connecting to the earth, physically and metaphorically, can strengthen not only your body but the rest of your being as well.
A tree doesn’t grow three feet in a day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not growing.
Patience Another trait for which tree pose can be a metaphor is patience, whether with ourselves, with our progress in our practice or our lives, or with the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If you take a look at the maple in your backyard every morning, you probably won’t notice any day-to-day changes. The real growth of a tree occurs over the course of many months and years. I try to remember this when I’m stressing over my inability to tackle certain poses or when I feel as though I’m not as far in my career as I’d like to be. Sometimes we get so hungry for growth that we forget growing is a process. A tree doesn’t grow three feet in a day, but that doesn’t mean it’s not growing.
In practice: In your practice, if you find yourself attempting something new within a pose—such as placing your foot all the way up onto your thigh instead of your calf or closing your eyes in tree—and you can’t get it right away, understand that you are still moving forward every time you try. When we practice consistently, we are constantly moving toward more “advanced” poses and variations, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.
Practicing tree pose, because it is a mental challenge, also gives us an opportunity to develop patience we can take into our lives off the mat. Even though balance can be challenging, the pose is not very physically complex, so for an adrenaline junkie, it can be frustrating to stand still for so long. (We may tend to favor the physically intricate poses, such as firefly or bird of paradise.) If that sounds familiar, challenge yourself to be patient, remain focused, and enjoy the stillness of the pose. On the other hand, if tree doesn’t come as easily, you may find yourself standing there, shaking, and thinking, I’m going to fall; when will the teacher change the pose; where did my drishti go; dear God, please change the pose. In this case, let go of your impatience to be done and focus on the pose itself: Imagine that you are as steady and as strong as a tree, focus on your breath, and keep your eyes steady (you can look at the ground, if this helps). Either way, if you embrace the patience you need for tree, the patience you cultivate there may help you to appreciate the slow steadiness of growth in every aspect of your life.
Connection While trees might be called independent in that they are their own, self-sustaining life forms, that doesn’t mean they live their lives in isolation. Back in 2012, forest ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia discovered that trees and plants communicate and share resources with one another via an underground web of fungi, helping one another thrive to the best of their ability.
Um, hello?! What a good behavior model! This nurturing, magnanimous attitude is certainly worthy of imitation. Though it’s important to develop our individual strength, we must also look out for our brothers and sisters. Treat a friend to a surprise lunch. Offer to pay for a stranger’s coffee. Be willing to sit and listen when your loved ones are going through tough times. When we give to others, the entire forest thrives.
In practice: Consider practicing tree in a circle while holding hands with your fellow yogis. Practicing with others can help us find the patience to balance longer, as we have the support of other yogis (or trees) right beside us.
Tree pose is laden with delicious lessons that can inspire your physical and mental practice. While it challenges our balance, opens our hips, and requires us to tap into our core stability, it also encourages patience, strength, a meditative state of mind, and a sense of connection to others. Practicing tree isn’t the time to go on autopilot; it’s a time to root down, send your energy into the earth, lift up, expand, feel big, and cultivate traits you can bring into the rest of your life.
Enjoy your next tree pose down to the very last detail.