by Ellen Diamond
As a longtime yogini and an even longer time clinical psychologist who has studied both Freudian and Jungian analytic thought, I delight in the rich symbolism of becoming a tree.
Vrikshasana (tree pose) is one of the basic standing asanas and is considered an important balancing posture. It teaches us to reclaim our center, helps us feel fully supported on one leg, improves concentration, and cultivates grace and ease of body and mind.
The language used in cueing Vrikshasana captures the transformation from actual object to the physical pose and ultimately to greater psychological integration:
Stand tall and straight. Reach your crown to the sky. Pour all your weight into your standing leg. Root down. Hug the midline. Find your driste, or gazing point. Place your opposite leg above or below the knee. When you feel balanced and solid, stretch your arms and grow your branches. Visualize energy radiating out of your fingertips. Raise your gaze and allow your branches to gently sway in the breeze.
This asana (posture) is then repeated, standing on the opposite leg. The labyrinthine branches and roots of an actual tree echo the human body’s nervous and circulatory systems. We refer to the bronchial “branches” of our lungs and the “branches” of the arteries and nerves. Our spine, like the trunk of a tree, is the backbone (pun intended) of our health.
The benefits of Vrikshasana are enhanced when the yogi envisions these similarities between the tree, the human body and the psyche. A visualization of drawing up energy from roots (feet), to branches (arms and fingers) and the crown (head), then spiraling along the chakras (energy centers in the body) up the trunk (spine) is sure to release kundalini energy, or our inherent spiritual energy. Kundalini yogis believe that this energy lies coiled like a serpent at the base of the spine, and that it is awakened by practicing asanas, pranayama (yogic breathing) and meditation.
In Vrikshasana, the yogi becomes a living metaphor of a tree, firmly rooted in the ground even as it reaches its branches to the heavens. Trees are symbols of the unity of opposites, since a tree
is the very essence of the integration of opposites. The roots tunnel into the lower realm of matter, ground, Mother Earth; while the branches reach to the upper realm of heaven, spirits, Father Sky.
Trees, with their straight and upright form, express a phallic and masculine quality. However, trees also have been symbols of fertility and immortality, with many cultures having legends about human beings, royalty or divine spirits born from trees. Deciduous trees cycling from bloom to hibernation capture our fascination with rebirth, renewal and rejuvenation. Trees show us how from a tiny acorn a mighty oak can grow, thus symbolizing the cosmic potential for life and creativity seeded within us. The Tree of Life is a universal symbol of birth and sustenance. Yet if we choose to be buried in a coffin, we will end our life inside a tree.
Trees can survive on their own, and as such are potent symbols of autonomy. Like a tree, each one of us is unique and different. Trees represent that elusive psychological goal of individuation, of our desire to become our most authentic, best self. And, like the tree, we aspire to that quiet knowing of who we are and trusting that what we need to grow and thrive is within us.
In becoming a tree, in Vrikshasana, we inhabit their place of stability, harmony and connection to nature. We aspire, like the tree, to be steady and solid, balanced and grounded, strong but flexible, no matter what the weather or circumstances.
All this takes intense focus and equilibrium. The breath remains deep and rhythmic throughout, infusing the body and mind with a sense of calm and life-giving prana (energy). When the practitioner returns to Tadasana (mountain pose), the body and mind feel recharged, stronger, more alive and in greater alignment. Vrikshasana teaches us to cultivate a sense of inner balance, of standing tall and strong, of the flexibility to go out on a limb that reflects the beauty and majesty of a tree.
Ellen Diamond is a Jungian-inspired licensed clinical psychologist currently in private practice in Highland Park, Illinois. She is a long-time yoga devotee and a bona fide tree-hugger.