Iyengar's difficulty rating: 1* out of 60*
Vrksasana the Versatile! Tree Pose is great for strengthening feet and ankles, as well as learning to engage the inner thigh of the standing leg and the glutes and hamstrings in the lifted leg. It gently deepens knee flexion, and allows for a variety of arm variations to achieve different effects upon the spine, shoulders, arms, chest, and neck. Performed well, it can tone the entire body and feel graceful, steady, and effortless.
But I often observe two major problems in Vrksasana: difficulty balancing, and the hip of the lifted leg hiking up and dropping backwards. Often these two issues occur together, and to me, they usually signify that energy isn't flowing freely through the body. Look at Iyengar's picture; like taut ropes, his limbs are creating lift and structure by pulling evenly in all directions. His dristhi (gaze) is likewise direct and focused; in many poses a steady gaze can also create balance by aiding in proprioception.
You can create a similar effect by focusing on a point that does not move, then doing the following:
- squeeze your lifted foot and standing thigh towards one another,
- press down strongly through your standing foot,
- pull your lifted knee out and back by squeezing your glutes,
- and stretch your arms overhead with intensity!
Note that this arm position is somewhat controversial: one of the most common cues I hear in yoga classes nowadays involves “dropping / releasing your shoulder blades down your back,” and is usually accompanied by a hands-on assist that encourages students to bring their scapulae down away from their ears.
Many of my yoga-teaching peers would repeatedly attempt to correct Mr. Iyengar if he showed up in class looking like he does in the picture above. They certainly try to correct me!
It's relatively common in our society to have tense, hiked-up shoulders, arms that won't rotate fully, and shoulder blades that stick out due to muscle imbalances. That's probably where this well-intentioned “down the back” cue comes from.
Here's the thing: under most circumstances, when your arms are extended in the overhead plane, your scapulae (shoulder blades) are supposed to protract (move apart), elevate (move up), and rotate upward.
In moderation, that's part of their normal function and range of motion. Attempting to override these functions may mean 1) you'll miss out on some serious stretch, strength, and extension; and 2) you may actually irritate your shoulders by displacing the bursa between your shoulder blade and ribs or jamming the head of your upper arm on the edge of your collarbone. In short, I'm with Mr. Iyengar on this one... provided you accompany this upward stretch by turning the armpits to face forward (external rotation of the shoulder) and pulling them straight back behind the ears.
One of the most common things people remark upon when they thumb through Light On Yoga are the “effects” of the postures. Iyengar claims some postures can cure all sorts of ailments; they can change your perception, your outlook, your life. Miraculously, in my experience many of these claims are accurate. But they have required more than a passing glance and attempt at a posture or two.
If you seek to practice yoga postures for dramatic transformation, observe your own sensations while practicing. When you notice any part of your being that feels droopy, sluggish, or blank, you have found an opportunity to expand and take up the slack.
How to improve your Vrksasana (Tree Pose):
Enliven your feet, ankles, calves, knees, and inner thighs by giving yourself a foot massage and practicing postures like Garudasana (Eagle Pose), Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose), and Virasana (Hero Pose)
Activate your glutes by practicing open-hip postures like Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) and Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2 Pose)
Open your chest and practice extending your arms alongside your ears with postures like Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) and the upward hands version of Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Practice your dristhi by fixing a strong yet soft gaze on a single, unmoving point
Vrksasana (Tree Pose) prepares you for:
Open-hip standing poses like Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
One-legged balancing postures like Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe Pose)
Open-hip arm balances like Vasisthasana (Side Plank or Sage Vasistha Pose) and Eka Pada Koundinyasana II (Hurdler's or Sage Koundinya Pose)
Padmasana (Lotus Pose) and variations
Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand or Downward Facing Tree Pose) and other inversions
Pretty much anything requiring a strong, long torso and arms