Ask the Teacher is a new advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at [email protected].
How do you develop balance for Tree Pose? Everything I have Googled assumes one can already balance.
—Leonard in Altadena, Calif.
We tend to think of Vrksasana (Tree Pose) as one of the yoga basics, but there’s a lot going on in this posture—and balance is a big part of what makes the pose challenging.
For me, developing balance starts with a firm foundation. We take Tadasana (Mountain Pose) for granted—it’s another one of those underestimated basics—but it’s important to start any standing pose from a position of feeling grounded.
Before you move to Tree Pose, begin with anchoring through your feet in Tadasana—really feel all your toe mounds and your whole heel on the floor. I like to have my yoga students practice lifting their toes off the mat. That emphasizes putting your full weight in the soles of your feet. Many of us have the habit of standing with our feet pronated (weight on the arch side of the foot) or supinated (weight on the outside edge of the foot). That can make you feel less balanced. Being strong and solid in both legs and feet can help stabilize a balance pose on one foot.
Next, try shifting the weight from one foot to the other without picking either foot up off the ground–playing with your center of gravity. One of my favorite teachers, Kiesha Battles of I Am Yoga in Charlotte, says “If your weight is in one leg more than the other, you’re balancing.” Once you get a feel for that shift, you can begin to lift one foot off the ground an inch or so.
Balance happens when you can create an even distribution of weight both sides of your body. That’s easy to do when things are symmetrical. But Tree requires us to shift that symmetry so we have to find a new center of gravity.
Use your limbs
To find balance in Vrksasana, variations are your friend—and there are a lot of them.
My friend Stephany McMillan, the founder of Rise and Flow Yoga, reminds students that you don’t have to keep the traditional anjali mudra at your heart. “You can have your hands on your hips, or one hand up and one hand on the hip, or both arms out wide,” she says. Use your arms in any way you choose to help you find balance. (That includes waving them around if you need to!)
The same goes for your lifted leg. You most often see the pose modeled with one foot pressed against the opposite thigh. Note: That pressing of foot against leg and leg against foot is an important part of the balance. We tend to put more emphasis on the bent leg and pressing that foot into your thigh. But if you press the standing leg into the foot, you’ll create a connection that can help you feel more stable.
If you’re struggling to balance, it may help to keep the lifted foot closer to the ground. Press it into your calf (never your knee), or place the heel right just above your ankle on the standing leg. You can also put your foot on a block.
Find something to hold onto (literally)
The wall is also an ally in Tree Pose. You can play around with putting your hand on a wall, chair, or any stable object. Even touching something with one finger can help you feel steadier. It’s a little bit of a mind game: knowing you have something to hold onto can help you feel more balanced.
With practice you’ll also develop confidence, another important part of practicing Tree. “One of the things I cue is, ‘Trust your body,’” Stephany says. “Confidence is part of balancing,”
When I talked to about this question with my colleague, senior editor Renee Schettler, she reminded me that steadiness comes with practice. “You learn to do something by doing it,” she says. Over time you build muscle memory; your body learns how to hold itself in space.
And that “holding” may not mean you are completely still. One of the most helpful instructions I’ve ever heard was on a video with veteran teacher Erich Schiffman. He said don’t worry about swaying or wobbling in Tree Pose. “Trees sway,” he said. The image of myself as a tree—rooted and reaching to the sky—helped me get over feeling bad about losing my balance. Frustration is a distraction. Distraction is the enemy of balance.
And finally, I remind my own students that, if you fall out of the pose—even if you fall down—you can pick yourself up and try again. That’s why we call yoga a practice.
Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at [email protected], and we may answer it in an upcoming column.