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Tree Pose / Vrksasana

Let's talk trees! It's May and here in Pittsburgh the the leaves are out in full verdant glory! The oaks, maples, dogwoods and even the tips of some evergreen trees are a lush, bright green. What exactly defines a tree? Trees are essenially plants with a solid, rigid core that connects to the earth combined with a periphery that is resilient, flexible and draws energy from the sunshine above. Those are the essential elements that we are emulate when we do Tree Pose as part of our yoga practice. We root down through our standing leg, find strength in our trunk (including leg, pelivs and torso) and allow the arms, neck, and face to be at ease, possibly adding movement or taking in the enviornment through our eyes, ears and vestibular system.

Tree Pose is a perennial favorite balance pose because it is so versatile.  It can be adapted to provide a challenge to a wide spectrum of abilities. And it’s simplicity allows for mastery of the subtler aspects of asana, in other words the physical and energetic nuances of the physical posture.

Points of Body Awareness:

*First, be sure to really ‘root’ through the standing leg before lifting the other leg. In other words, the foot on the ground is in neutral posture (inner arch slightly lifted, outer heel in alignment with the pinky toe, toes actively spreading), the quadriceps are engaged and lifting the knee cap up, the knee is strait but not hyperextended, and the hip muscles are engaged, gently drawing the ball of the hip into its socket.

*Once the lifted leg is in place, note the alignment of the hip and pelvis.  Is the outer pelvic bone hiked up?  Is the standing hip jutting out to the side? If so, level the pelvis and center the hip by finding more action in the muscles on the side of the hip (gluteus medius and TFL).

* Draw the navel in toward the spine to engage the deep abdominal muscles (the transversus abdominus) and lift up through the perineum or saddle area to engage the muscles of the pelvic floor.

*Feel two lines of energy moving in opposite directions. From the navel feel rooting energy move down through the standing leg and spread out into the ground, just like the roots of a tree.  Also create energy that moves upward from the navel, providing space between each vertabrae and lifting and lengthening though the crown of the head.

*The arms can be in any number of positions. You can keep them in ‘prayer position,’ palms together in front of your heart.  You can stretch them out to the sides to aid in balance or you can reach overhead, either bringing the palms together or keeping the hands shoulder-distance apart.

*If the hands are overhead, be sure to maintain neutral spine posture.  If the latissimus muscles are tight, the lower back may over-arch and the lower ribs will jut forward.

*Maintain a steady gaze.  Keep the neck and jaw relaxed.  Do 5 to 10 breath cycles.

To Modify

For those who have any tightness or decreased range of motion in the hip or knee, do not force the lifted foot all the way up to the groin.  Instead place the sole of the foot on the inner calf, just below the knee.  This will give you more freedom of motion in the hips and lower back, allowing for better alignment. 

For those who are very unsteady and have a lot of difficulty balancing on one foot, there are several options.  You can unweight one foot but keep the big toe on the ground (sometimes called a "kickstand"). Lift the heel and turn the knee out.  As you get more steady with 90% of the weight on your standing leg, try lifting the big toe off the floor for just a few seconds, gradually lengthening the time you can balance as your strength and balance improve.

Another option is to do Tree pose with one foot just below the opposite knee and with the fingertips on a wall, countertop or the back of a chair beside you.  Eventually progress to balancing with just one fingertip for support.

To Challenge 

I often encourage all people to try the modified version of Tree Pose with the sole of the lifted foot just below the standing knee, on inner calf. I find that propping the foot on the groin of the standing leg is just that... propping. Once you’ve got that leg in position, there is not a lot of work to be done to hold it in place.  This is fine and can offer benefits from the pressure point on the inner thigh and it can feel great. However if your intention for the pose is to improve strength and endurance, keep the lifted foot below the knee.  For an added challenge, try moving the lifted foot slightly away from the standing leg. This requires co-contraction of the muscles all around the hip.

To further challenge balance, try moving your arms, turning your head, stand on a soft surface such as a thick carpet or mat, or close your eyes. All of these options can be done in any expression of the pose. For example, you can have one toe still touching the ground and add head turns or have one hand on the wall and try eyes closed. There are SO many possibilites for challenging balance using Tree pose!

PT Notes

This is obviously a great posture to use for single leg balance training. It is also useful for improving strength and endurance of hip muscles and the foot and ankle muscles.  It is somewhat quantifiable as you can progress the posture in difficulty from toe touch to foot off the floor to standing on a foam pad or other unstable surface. You can time how many seconds the patient can balance in a given variation then progress to the next variation once they’ve achieved 30-60 seconds of stability. You can also add some semi-dynamic challenges by moving the ams or turing the head. Reactive challenge can be added by applying external perturbations.

I have heard of a therapeutic version of Tree Pose in which the patient lies on the floor and presses the ‘standing’ leg into a wall.  The opposite is in an abducted/externally rotated position but supported by props.  I haven’t used this variation myself but I can see how it might be useful to work on neutral foot position, co-contraction muscles in the lower extremity and teaching yoga without weight bearing. This might be useful for patients who are very weak, confined to bedrest or who many have weight bearing limitations after surgery.

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