Trees are often a topic of inspiration in yoga class. Whether we are in Vriksasana (Tree Pose) or Tadasana (Mountain Pose), it is common to hear teachers say things like, “Root your feet firmly into the ground, and feel your body strong and steady, like a tree.”
Feeling strong and steady is not such a tall order when both feet are planted on the ground. We can certainly access our tree-like solidness when we have two feet to support us. However, things get a little trickier when we begin to carry this steadiness into postures in which polarity, balance and expansiveness come into play.
Consider the postures Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Big Toe Pose). In both of these poses, only one foot is on the ground, while the other is lifted and extended in mid air. Each of these poses challenge a yogi’s energetic and muscular balance and stability. They take the exploration of asana beyond a single plane, as the limbs extend in multiple directions and call upon vyana vayu, the energy flow which runs from the core to the periphery.
In other words, there’s a lot going on.
In balancing postures, we must remember to hold a three-fold intention: play, sway and trustfully let go. Though we’ve only touched on standing postures so far, more advanced yogis know that the same principles apply when entering poses like Bakasana (Crow Pose) and Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance). Once we build our foundation (be it with our feet, hands or forearms), we engage our core strength, and then we do something that seems counterintuitive: we let go.
One of the greatest teachings of balancing postures is that we must learn to accept falling as part of the practice. And while it’s important to engage deeply in the core and keep the toes and legs active in all of these poses, we must also cultivate a softness of the mind in order to bring in the divine play of surrender. We can witness this play in balancing asanas, as we often sway side to side while calling upon steadiness to enter the mind and the body. In this dance, we engage with our strength while easing into the spaces where we’re less steady. In these spaces of decreased stability, we witness countless physical micro-adjustments at work to steady the body while bringing stillness to the mind.
Remember: Trees, even powerful redwoods, sway with the wind. When crows fly, it is not because their wings are rigid; it is because they have learned to embrace the ever changing breezes and work with the winds in order to take flight. Just as real as the delicate balance found in the natural world, our muscles learn to relax and engage in the most helpful ways during balancing (and other) postures. Part of the learning is in learning to fall, as each fall has the potential to provide humility, laughter and radical self-acceptance.
Once, I was brought to laughter during my practice after tipping over, right onto my face, in crow pose. This small nose dive was a result of trying to give my cat, who had curled up on my mat, a little kiss. Playful and silly, this fall brought me out of my own mind and allowed me to face my fear of falling with light-heartedness. What are some of your experiences with learning to fall?