Notice what it feels like to hold the pose. What feels fluid within you? What feels tight or drawn? Do you have a sense of energy flowing? Take a look at the foot that you're balanced on - are the toes scrunched and white? Is the knee of your "standing leg" locked? Notice how the hip of the leg that you're standing on feels. If you're beginning to feel a burning sensation in the gluteals area (your backside "cheek and outer hip) more than likely your hip joint is locked. And how about your mindset? What is your intention for this particular pose? Are you trying to stay as static as possible...trying not to fall? Ironically, all the effort that goes into trying not to fall - in trying to be static - actually makes it harder to stay in balance. Once the roots are established, how can you allow for the flow of prana? As Erich Schiffman reminds us, trees sway.
If we spend a little time analyzing the anatomy and kinesiology involved in vrksasana you'll notice that there are certain muscles that we typically "go to" in order to control our movement and that these tendencies make it harder to balance. We tend to scrunch up our toes in an effort to cling to balance in the pose. Take a moment to observe the sole of the foot when you scrunch up those toes and you'll notice that in scrunching the toes the majority of the bottom of the foot actually pulls away from the floor, decreasing the surface area in connection to the ground. Typically, we lock the knee back (there's no movement available in a locked knee!) and we tighten up the gluteal muscles of the leg we're balancing on, which locks the hip, in essence restricting all movement in the standing leg by making it rigid... or maybe a better word for it would be brittle. What happens then when the upper body sways a little, precariously perched as it is on the rigid leg and the outer rim of the foot?
"Change is the only constant." So rather than coming into vrksasana with the sense that it needs to be static, let's take the approach of making it dynamic. If you've taken a yoga class with me recently you may have been subjected to a little jumping during our practice. Go ahead and come back to standing. Now jump or hop lightly. Try not to make any sound when you land. Notice how you hold your feet and ankles when you jump. Notice the bend in your knees and hips? Now prepare to jump but don't push off or let the balls of your feet leave the floor. Feel that sense of "cocking back," ...the coiled spring-action in your feet? Think of this as dynamic energy.
Stand a little closer to a wall, giving yourself room to move, but know that the wall is within arm's reach if you need it... oh, and make sure that you're clear of any breakables. Choose one foot to balance on. Try placing your other foot against the side of the calf muscle of your standing leg. (NOTE: Be sure not to place your foot against the side of your knee.) Now make a light hop or jump on your standing leg. Try the action of the light jump (without actually jumping) and think again of that coiled spring. Allow that dynamic energy to rise through your leg up towards your pelvis. As it rises through the leg be sure to keep a micro-bend in your knee and don't allow your gluteals muscles (on the backside "cheek") to clench. This time inhale and try the action of the light jump (without actually jumping) and use the inhale to take your arms up alongside your ears into a full vrksasana, tree pose. Allow the dynamic energy to rise up from the leg, through the pelvis, along the center-line of the body and through to your crown and your arms overhead.
So the question arises, how do you take the dynamic action of jumping into vrksasana and make it something that you can hold for several breaths? This deepening takes place through engagement of the core and by drawing the energy to the center-line of the body. Once you've drawn the energy in, it is from the center-line of the body that you can expand. You'll find this additional stability to aid in balance: 1) in the use of mulha bandha and uddiyana bandha, 2) by engaging your abdominal muscle to draw the lower ribs down slightly and the ASIS (the boney landmark points on the front of your pelvis) up slightly towards the ribs, and 3) by drawing your shoulder blades lightly towards the spine and slightly towards the waist. From here you can length the waist from hips to arm pits and lengthen the neck on all sides, keeping the chin parallel to the floor. Breathe.
Revisit your intention next time you come into vrksasana, garudasana, bakasana, or even sirsasana. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate our interpretation of balance in a yoga pose. Its not a static moment that we're trying to achieve, but rather an expression of all of the dynamic energy that flows within us in every moment - our breath, our heart beat, our prana - always moving, always flowing...
Julia McSheffery (updated based on an article written in 2010)