The simple power of standing quietly on one leg: Vrksasana (tree pose)

I remember my first Vrksasana fondly.  Somewhat careworn and stressed, but having proclaimed myself ‘too busy’ to go to Yoga class, my wise and wonderful friend bought me two private sessions with her Yoga teacher as a birthday present.  Balancing in my Vrksasana in the first of those sessions, I felt that wonderful kind of happiness – a mixture of focused, absorbed, peaceful, both challenged and content, and just, well, good.  ‘Look, I can do Yoga’, I said joyfully, as I proudly replicated my Vrksasana again that evening in our family kitchen for my mum to see.

A long road of life and Yoga has been travelled since then, but tree pose, along with other standing balances, remains a favourite asana (posture) to practice.  And although I now look back smiling at my enthusiastic naivety – thinking my Vrksasana equals ‘I can do Yoga’ – there remains something of the microcosm of the many things I love about Yoga within that pose.

Certainly, as Tias Little points out in his book Yoga of the Subtle Body, Vrksasana is a quintessential posture, given prominence by B. K. S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga as the second posture after Tadasana (mountain pose) to be introduced.  In fact, Little goes onto say:

‘In yoga, we can think of tree pose, given its antiquity and simple power, upholding the entire hatha yoga tradition.’

 If Vrksasana is upholding the Hatha Yoga tradition, then it is the feet which are upholding our Vrksasana poses.  This one-legged balance challenges the ligaments, tendons and muscles of the ankles of the standing foot.  Meanwhile, the large muscles of the standing leg are engaged and toned, as it too works to support the upper body.  Muscles required for external hip rotation in the raised leg are dynamically stretched and strengthened, as we work with opening the hip and groin.  And as we balance here, the core and spinal muscles are recruited, the trunk of our body supporting the branches of our arms as they too are strengthened and the chest is encouraged to open.

‘That the body is like a tree is one of the oldest analogies in yoga’, writes Little, imagining our toes and feet bringing nourishment into the body like tree roots drawing what they need out of the ground.  Extending this metaphor, what then might we find, if we take our bare toes and feet outside, to direct connection with the earth?  Dr Rangan Chatterjee in his book Feel Better in 5, explains that there is more and more science suggesting that this type of direct contact with nature has positive health benefits and like him, I’d also recommend it simply because it feels so good:

‘…it feels fantastic.  It wakes up the senses and is a fabulous way to start the day.’

And as for the namesakes of Vrksasana, the trees themselves, in The Stress Solution, Chatterjee tells of the studies that have shown that spending time among trees, or forest bathing, has a wide range of positive effects, including better quality sleep, reduced stress and anxiety and improved mood, well-being, memory and concentration.  Much then that is mirrored in the mental benefits associated with tree pose.  As we stand quietly on one foot, it is said by Yogis that we will be developing focus, concentration, patience and poise, working towards grounding, centring and calm.  For, as is part of the beauty of Yoga, there is that reciprocal arrangement of the exterior and the interior.  To adapt a phrase more often associated with the breath – where the mind goes the balance follows, and where the balance goes the mind follows – making Vrksasana, like other standing balances, both a reflection of, and aid for, our emotional and mental equilibrium.  As Cyndi Lee writes in Yoga Body, Buddha Mind:

 ‘We know that our mind and body are really one, they’re both us, right?  Then when our physicality is balanced, so is our mind, translating into a sense of well-being and confidence.’

So then, does all of this come to explain my love of Vrksasana?  Nearly.  Because again, Yoga wouldn’t be Yoga, if it wasn’t just as much about the ongoing journey to the poise of the posture, including each and every strengthening wobble, even the ones that take us out of the pose. Back to Lee to explain again:

‘Enjoy falling, it’s your most valuable tool for learning balancing poses.  When you fall you learn about how much effort to use, how to stack your bones, how to use your visual focus, how to ride on the movement of the breath.  You will still be developing strength and flexibility, coordination and stamina, whether you stay in the pose or fall out.  The actual pose is not going to get you through your day but the composure, equanimity, balance, and patience that arises from standing on the threshold of every moment will.’             

So there you have it, Vrksasana – strengthening, opening, grounding, calming – as beloved by me now as it was back all those years ago in my family kitchen.  Like the beings it embodies and the wider system of Hatha Yoga it belongs to, it is a part of my own personal medicine.  Perhaps it can be part of yours too.

© Catherine Rolfe Hatha Yoga Teacher 2021

Inspired to practice?  Check out a great guide to working with Vrksasana, courtesy of Bob Insley and BWY, by clicking here