So much of finding contentment in life is about finding balance: between work and play, pleasure and discipline, solitude and social time. One way to bring balance into our lives is to learn how to balance our physical bodies; as well being an essential part of fitness and health, practicing outer balance can lead to insights about how to balance our internal selves.
A lovely pose to introduce or to maintain balance in your yoga practice is tree pose, or vrkasana in Sanskrit. Be aware that balancing the body involves muscular strength; as your muscles strengthen, tree pose and other balancing poses will become gradually easier.
Balancing is also an excellent mental exercise, involving meditative concentration while changing previously learned “rules” in the brain. The brain and the fluid of the inner ear work together to keep the body upright on a daily basis; these elements must be trained over time to allow the body to support itself in new ways. If you are new to tree pose or have any health issues which could cause you to fall, be sure to practice next to a wall for support. Tree pose, whichever variation you choose, will work with your physical, mental and spiritual energy to create new pathways of balance in the body.
To come into tree pose, begin by standing comfortably, feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides. On an inhale, firm your abdomen, bring your hands to your hips and slowly lift your right hip and leg off the ground. Take a moment to ensure that the left leg is firmly grounded from toes to hip; bending the knee slightly and spreading the toes will help with the weight transfer. Looking forward, slowly begin to circle your lifted right foot, visualizing the “roots” of your body coming down your left leg and growing into the floor through your foot.
Find a focal point, or drishti in Sanskrit, directly in front of you – something solid that you will maintain eye contact with throughout the pose. Keep your abdomen strong; the balance of the pose comes from your belly, just as your spiritual balance comes from your intuitive center. When you feel stable, inhale, bringing your right foot to rest in one of three places: toes resting gently on the left ankle, the arch of the foot curving around the inside of the left calf, or the whole foot pressing into the inside of the left thigh. Never place the foot on the inside of the knee – this can compromise the joint should you lose your balance and fall.
Whichever foot position feels best for you, make sure that you are opening at the hip, turning the right knee away from your torso. With practice, the right knee will be at a 90-degree angle to the left knee, with both hips facing forward.
On an inhale, bring your palms together in front of your heart, rolling your shoulders away from your ears and connecting your shoulder blades behind your back. Ensure that your abdomen is strong and on an inhale, lift your arms with palms pressing together over your head, extending until there is a straight line from elbow to shoulder to hip. Inhale and exhale deeply for as long as you can. Then, slowly, while exhaling, lower your arms to your sides and your leg to the ground. Repeat on the other side.
There are several adaptations to try if you would like to challenge yourself further: opening the arms wide and pressing middle fingers to thumbs, directing your gaze higher while lifting the chin, or attempting the pose with your eyes closed. Listen to your body, and be sure to use a counter, chair or other convenient object as support if you need it. As your body becomes accustomed to the position, you will find that the pose feels natural, centering the body and inviting balance into your being.
As a tree bending in the wind, your body, mind and spirit will learn to remain strong and balanced throughout life’s challenges. Enjoy your practice, and remember to breathe.
Jennifer McLennan is a certified Iyengar yoga instructor who has practiced in India, Canada and Costa Rica. She is currently a private yoga teacher in the beach community of Santa Teresa, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula.