The Power of Play- A new approach to Tree Pose

Imagination. Such an essential quality for youthfulness and longevity. Yet we as adults totally neglect our ability to envision, imagine and create from this space of open possibilities. We take everything so seriously, seeking perfection and treating everything as an accomplishment. Even in the yoga world, you see so many serious faces; so much pushing into poses, so much desire to get the pose "right". With that mentality we forget to actually enjoy the practice, we push our limits and when we can't get into a pose to the same degree as the person next to us we feel let down by our body and our self judgment little voice turns on repeating over and over how bad we are at yoga. This becomes a great excuse to stop practicing. But here's the thing, our bodies are all different. The shape of our bones are all different. The elasticity of our connective tissue is different. At least when it comes to yoga, there is no being good or bad. The yoga practice is an exploration, a way to connect with your own body. Getting familiar with your range of motion and moving accordingly can create ease in your experience. Curiosity is key to this exploration. Treat the practice as play and keep it fun, breaking the negativity bias. This becomes the bridge to embracing your uniqueness.

Vrksasana, or Tree Pose is one of the poses where I see the most frustrations arise in students. There's the tendency to yank the foot up the leg and right away lift the arms so fast, expecting to become a statue, balanced and all Zen. But the process of getting into Tree is so much more important that just holding the pose. How you get into the full expression of your tree will essentially determine the ability to hold it. Below are the steps I teach my students and practice myself to have some fun in this exploration.

1. Step one: Grounding the feet-> The feet are of course an essential part of your foundation in tree pose. We need the arches of the feet to be strong and active in order to stabilize the weight-bearing ankle and the whole standing leg. A great practice I learnt from Doug Keller to facilitate this is:

Bring your feet hip bone width apart. Lift all 10 toes grounding the mount of the big toes and grounding the outer heels. Lower just the big toes, keeping the rest of the toes up. Keep the big toes down and see if you can lower the pinky toes too while keeping the 3 middle toes up.

Practice this a few times to activate the feet and stabilize the ankles. Have fun with this little exercise as you reintroduce your toes to your brain.

2- Step 2: Stabilize the torso-> Press the hands together at heart center. This activate torso muscles like Serratus Anterior, but also activates the lats which as a chain effect activates the Gluteus Maximus, stabilizing the lower back. Hugging the navel in and up can create a subtle Uddiyana Bandha that stabilizes the pelvis and creates lightness in the body.

3-Step three: Actively move into the pose.

There's a tendency in Tree to pull the foot up the leg. But consider this, the moment we grab the foot with our hands we lose our center of gravity and also the stabilization of the torso. This right here is a great opportunity to build functional strength as we use the muscles to bring the foot into the leg. To try this, after stabilizing the torso, find a focal point to fix your gaze; using your vision as your third leg shift the weight towards the right leg. Lift the left knee up, bringing the thigh parallel to the ground. Dorsiflex the left ankle, and externally rotate the left hip as you bring the knee out. Right here you are on a floating tree. To bring the left foot into the right leg gently squeeze the right outer hip (Gluteus Medius) and bring the foot wherever it lands, either above or below the knee resisting the temptation to use you hands. Toes can come to the ground too if that provides more support.

4-Step 4: Seal the pose. From here press foot and leg against each other, activating inner thighs to facilitate Mula Bandha. Press the right foot into the ground connecting to that line of energy running on the right side of the body, from your right foot all the way up the crown on your head. Create space in the back of the neck with a subtle Jalandhara Bandha. Reconnect to the hugging of the navel in and up, rooting all 3 bandhas in the pose.

5- Step 5: Express. Once you feel grounded and stable, perhaps explore growing your tree, moving the arms up as slowly as possible, using this opportunity to allow the brain to map the body. The slowest you move the more beneficial it'll be, it'll also allows you to remain in control of the stability of your body. Find any expression with your arms that intuitively arises, focusing on expanding the energy while being aware of the space around you. Hold the pose as long as you like, taking smooth deep breaths.

6-Step 6: Come out of the pose the same way you got in. Sometimes it's more difficult to come out of the pose in control, mostly if your muscles are fatigued. But see if you can lower the arms back down just as slowly, bringing the hands back to heart center. Lift the left knee out, bring it forward and release the leg. Shake your whole body releasing any tension and enjoying the mobility of a human body. Repeat on the other side! And always remember to counter pose, perhaps with an Uttanasana- forward fold.

To approach Tree Pose as play it's essential to welcome any experiences, and noticing if frustration or self judgement arise when your balance is not as you wish. And my general advice when working on balance poses: instead of challenging your balance by finding the ultimate expression of the pose, work with finding a variation that allows you to build self trust; trust in your body and trust in your choices. And just like that, you just did something fun for your body & mind, while building physical strength and new neuronal connections. How is your inner child feeling?

by Yinet Gonzalez Gomez