Vrksasana: The Story of Tree Pose


Several stories take place simultaneously in this pose. Vrksasana is both a balancing pose and, secondarily, a hip opener. It also contains elements of movement that ascend while others remain rooted into the ground. Apply the concepts used in Tadasana to the standing leg in Tree Pose, beginning with the foot. Remember that changes in the pressure of the standing foot are transmitted to the pelvic core and vice versa. Connect the two regions in the mind. Try the pose in a setting where you can place the hand on a wall for balance (even if you can balance without the wall). Then press the ball of the foot into the mat, and spread the weight evenly across the sole of the foot. Straighten the knee by activating the quadriceps, and be alert for hyperextension. Bend the knee to lower the center of gravity (creating stability), and then straighten back up.

Look at the subplot of the bent leg: the hamstrings activate to bend the knee; the adductor group presses the sole of the foot into the inner thigh of the standing leg; and the hip abductors, gluteals, and deep external rotators contract to draw the knee back and externally rotate the femur. The balance of the pelvis results from the interplay of various muscles that move the hip—the adductors, abductors, extensors, flexors, and rotators. Move up the body to the back and balance the activation of the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum with that of the abdominal muscles on the front body. Draw the shoulder blades toward the midline and down the back. Then activate the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior muscles to lift the chest. Let the head drop back in a relaxed fashion.

Basic Joint Positions

  • The standing hip is neutral.

  • The standing knee extends.

  • The raised-leg hip flexes, abducts, and externally rotates.

  • The raised-leg knee flexes.

  • The back extends slightly.

  • The shoulders abduct and flex overhead.

  • The elbows extend.

  • The palms flex slightly.

Vrksasana Preparation

Use a chair or wall for balance. Place the hands on the hips and then in prayer position on the chest. Finally, raise the arms overhead. If you lose your balance, bend your standing leg to lower the center of gravity. Practice poses like Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) to prepare the hip of the lifted leg for flexion, abduction, and external rotation.

Step 1 Flex, abduct, and externally rotate the hip of the bent leg by activating the psoas and sartorius muscles. Engage the hamstrings to bend the knee.

Step 2 Activate the quadriceps to straighten the standing leg. The gluteus medius automatically contracts when you balance on one leg. You can see from the inset that if the gluteus medius did not activate, the body would shift over and beyond the standing leg and the pelvis would tilt excessively. The bent-leg foot pressing into the thigh stabilizes the standing leg. The tensor fascia lata is a synergist of the gluteus medius in this pose. Visualize this muscle contracting to refine balance and stability. Additionally, the tensor fascia lata works to extend the knee, so it is also a synergist of the quadriceps.

Step 3 Use the gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata of the bent leg to draw the knee out to the side (abduct it). Activate the gluteus maximus to externally rotate the femur. Observe how co-activation of these muscles stabilizes the bent-leg hip.

Step 4 Contract the deep external rotators to open the hips and create space in the front of the pelvis. Notice the gluteus minimus in this pose. This muscle is deep to the gluteus medius and has different functions, depending on whether the hip is flexed, extended, or neutral. In Vrksasana, the standing hip is neutral, so the gluteus minimus works to stabilize the ball of the hip joint in the socket. Also look at the interplay between the gluteus minimus and the deep external rotators illustrated here. This combination of muscles stabilizes the hip of the standing leg.

Step 5 Activate the peroneus longus and brevis muscles on the side of the standing leg to spread the weight across the ball of the foot. Balancing on the standing-leg foot shows a complex interplay among the muscles that evert the foot and press the ball of the foot down, those that invert the foot, and those that flex and extend the ankle. The tibialis posterior balances the eversion force from the peronei and dynamizes the longitudinal foot arch. The muscles of the toes also contribute to stability in the pose.

Summary Connect the various parts of the body, from the foundation formed by the standing foot through to the palms of the hands. Engage the muscles of the ankle and foot to stabilize the foot, the quadriceps to extend the knee, and the abductors (the gluteus medius and tensor fascia lata) to stabilize the pelvis. The pelvis connects to the spine through the erector spinae. Engage the deltoids to lift the arms and the infraspinati to externally rotate the upper arm bones. Draw the shoulders away from the ears with the lower third of the trapezius. Contract the forearm pronators to counter this outward rotation and create a helical force through the elbows. Press the palms of the hands together evenly.

Disclaimer Always, in your particular case, consult your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. Yoga must always be practiced under the direct supervision of a qualified instructor. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor may reduce the risk of injuries. Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Practicing under the direct supervision and guidance of a qualified instructor, in addition to the direction of your health care provider, can also help determine what poses are suitable for your particular case. The information provided in the blog, website, books, and other materials is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor. The author, illustrators, editors, publishers, and distributors assume no responsibility or liability for any injuries or losses that may result from practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The author, editors, illustrators, publishers, and distributors all make no representations or warranties with regards to the completeness or accuracy of information on this website, any linked websites, books, DVDs, or other products represented herein.


Ray Long, MD, FRCSC

Ray Long, MD, FRCSC, began his study of human anatomy and science at a young age under the guidance of his father, David Michael Long Jr., MD, PhD, a cardiovascular surgeon and research scientist. He went on to graduate from The University of Michigan Medical School and became an orthopedic surgeon.  
Ray was introduced to the alternative healing arts by author and mystic Robert A. Johnson, who taught him about shamanism, dream work, and ceremony. He began practicing yoga while a medical student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and after graduation travelled to India to study with Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, his daughter Geeta, and son Prashant. During his time at the Iyengar Institute, Ray spent many hours observing and documenting Yogacharya Iyengar’s personal practice. These observations formed the foundation for much of his later work.
Dr. Long is the author of the bestselling books The Key Muscles of Yoga and The Key Poses of Yoga and the recently released Yoga Mat Companion anatomy series. Ray also writes a popular blog, The Daily Bandha, which details tips and techniques on how to combine modern Western science with the ancient art of Hatha Yoga. He leads workshops internationally and can be reached at www.BandhaYoga.com. Ray lives in New York with his French bulldog, Frank.


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