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What is it about trees that fills our hearts with joy when we see them?
Is it because we are so used to the concrete jungle of modern life? Is it because we see them so rarely?
Trees have a way of calming us down, grounding us, and sometimes even helping us consider scaling ourselves, just the way they scale up into the heavens.
I talk to trees—so what?
When I was going through my teenage angsty years, I used to take my dog for a walk down to the neighbourhood park. I would sit down on a bench near a tree, facing a lake, and contemplate how dismal my sucky teenage life was.
My dog, a stray that came to live with us, would scamper around the tree. That was when I really noticed the tree, and I felt it inviting me to vent. So, I did.
I am sure you know how terrible life can seem when we are 15 years old; everything seems to be against us, and nothing seems to go according to the way we want, and nobody understands the pain and suffering we go through.
The tree listened patiently. It listened to me with that somber, grounded patience for more than five years, all the way through my A-levels and into university. When I left for further studies abroad, I made it a point to go down to the park to visit the tree and wish it goodbye. I ended the farewell with a hug.
Journeying with trees
Vrksa means “tree” in Sanskrit. The tree holds an important part of the yogi culture through history, being a place under which yogis practised and received wisdom from their gurus. Trees were also a place under which enlightenment was received, notably the Buddha.
Trees are also a form of sustenance; their fruits, leaves, and roots offering nutrition for us. Still on the matter of provision, trees take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen when they perform photosynthesis. Because of all this, we tend to view the tree as a symbol of fertility.
Of course, we built stories and myths around trees throughout the world: The Tree of Life in the Kabbalah; the tree in the Garden of Eden; the Yggdrasil or the World Tree from Norse mythology; and Krishna comparing the world to the banyan tree in the Bhagavad Gita, to name but a few.
Embodying the tree
Who would have thought 10 years after leaving that neighbourhood tree of mine, I would be attempting to embody that tree on the yoga mat? Trying to express and feel that sense of grounding, then lengthening, then expansion to the heavens as we move into one of the basic standing yoga postures on the mat—vrksasana—or Tree pose.
Vrksasana is one of the more ancient yoga poses, said to have been in existence since at least the time of the Buddha (c. 4th to 5th century BCE) and the only pose said to be found in pre-modern Indian texts.
So, we have been talking about Tree pose all this while, but how do we execute it? The Gheranda Samhita, one of the three seminal treaties on Hatha Yoga, states: “Place the right foot at the top of the thigh and stand on the ground like a tree. This is called Vrikshasana.”
If we need more instruction, this is how I would suggest attempting the asana:
- Stand in Tadasana (Mountain pose) with both feet pointing forwards, and the ankles, knees, and hips stacked above each other.
- Rotate the right foot externally (about 45 degrees—very few people can rotate 90 degrees externally without shifting their midline). Then place the right foot either on the left ankle, calf, or thigh.
- Avoid placing the foot on the knee, because if we were to lose balance, we may press and place pressure on the knee ligaments and cause injury.
- Once settled, draw energy upward from the arch of the foot to the pelvic middle, from pelvic middle to navel and middle of chest, then from there, upward through to the top of the skull. The upward energy would mean that our core is activated, with the right tail bone lengthening toward the back of the knee
- Place the hands to heart. If you’re feeling grounded, expand the arms upward toward the sky.
- Stay for about five breaths (which is about one minute).
- Exit the way we entered, drawing the hands down to heart, then releasing the arms, then releasing the right leg.
As we practise this asana, we can attempt to connect with the philosophy of moving from form to formlessness—like a tree reaching from the earth (form) up toward the heavens (formlessness).
Teaching others to be trees
Years later, I went back to the park in my old neighbourhood. That park had been relandscaped and cleaned up. My friend, that old tree, was no more.
Yes, even as I think of him (to me, that tree is a “him”) now, I am a little sad. And yet, I think he may be happy that he made such a difference to me that I am writing an entire piece as a salute to his impact on my life.
And not only that, I am teaching others to be like him—standing tall with good grounding, being strong in the uplift of our trunks, and expanding upward toward the heavens. I think about this tree when I have new endeavours: grounded, being strong, and expanding—and perhaps we should all be like a tree as we move through our day.
“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” ~ Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam.