Guest Post: Tree Pose with Julia Payne

Julia Payne has been practicing Yoga since 1988. She is a Professional Level Kripalu Yoga teacher, with 10 years and over 5000 hours of teaching experience.  She also holds a Professional Level Yoga Therapist certificate from Joseph LePage’s Integrative Yoga Therapy program.  She is a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and is a Registered Nurse.

Julia is a super-active member on the yoga listserve that I read as a part of my continuing education. When questions get asked to the greater group, she often steps up with an answer (and a comprehensive, excellent one at that). This sequence originally came from a thread on the listserve; it was a response to a question about exercises for improving balance. I don't know if it's her favorite pose, but here is her ode to Tree Pose (which also happens to be my favorite balancing pose, too). 

She teaches Yoga classes and practices Yoga Therapy in Wheeling WV.

Tree Pose with Julia Payne

Tree pose…….hmmmm.
Do balancing poses instantaneously cause an adverse reaction in your mind? I have been working in a rehab setting for 7 years, with folks who are recovering from work related injuries, or who have major health problems, like Parkinson’s, MS or Fibromyalgia. Others are simply out of shape, or are elderly and have lost a lot of strength and coordination due to inactivity. Balancing poses are a serious challenge for them, and most of them wonder if they will ever be able to accomplish one. However, regaining and/or maintaining balance is critical to our safety and independence. Think: stepping off a curb into traffic, or walking down stairs with groceries.
Here are some ideas on how to improve your balancing act.
  1. Practice your balancing poses off your mat, preferably on a hard surface. But don’t worry if you only have carpet available, because having to work your ankle and foot muscles a little bit will be to your advantage in the long run! It’s just easier to begin on a hard surface.
  2. Stand facing a wall, preferably with a nice picture to look at. Stand within arms reach. Find something small to focus on in the picture or in the surface of the wall.  Having the wall there in front of you and just knowing you can reach out and touch it if necessary, seems to give the primitive brain more security than having the wall beside or behind you.
  3. Start with a very simple balance pose. Hold your hands forward as though you are holding a tray, tucking the elbows against the waist…again for a feeling of safety. Then raise one foot just slightly off the floor. Stare intently at your spot on the wall. Breathe deeply and regularly and count slowly. The counting seems to occupy the judging brain, which in my experience is the culprit in losing a balancing pose. Just try it. The very second you start thinking about anything at all, there goes the pose.  If you find your mind wandering (or judging your performance!), just say to yourself, “Here I am, just breathing and balancing.)
  4. Over time, progress to holding your hands in anjali mudra, and eventually working towards tree pose.
  5. You might also try balancing half-moon at the wall; that is, with your back to the wall. It looks like it will be difficult, and yet it is not. The wall allows you to explore the spinal rotation necessary for this pose, and not have to concentrate on balance. Practicing this pose usually gets folks wondering what else is possible in their lives that they haven’t imagined they could do.

Below are some exercises to help you strengthen your body for balancing poses.
  1. Stand beside the wall and place one hand on the wall. Come up onto toes and back down. Repeat to tolerance and build up tolerance. Practice this on both feet at the same time; and then when you are stronger, with each leg separately.
  2. Face the wall, with hands on wall, and slowly lift one leg out to the side, hold, and then slowly lower it again. The key here word is slowly, not how pain allowed! You will notice that as you raise the leg and then hold it, muscles in the opposite leg engage, and perhaps quickly become tired. These are the muscles that need to be strengthened.
  3. Sit forward at the edge of a chair. Place your feet far enough forward or backward that you can comfortably stand up without holding on in any way with your hands. If it is easy to stand up/sit down without hands, place your hands on opposite shoulders. If you need support, go for it, and work towards doing this hands-free. Practice standup/sit down about 10 times. Work up to 2-3 sets. Depending on how strong or weak you are, you will need to adjust the number of reps. Increase slowly.
  4. Stand at the wall, with your heels (if possible) at the wall, buttocks, shoulders and back of head (if possible) against the wall. Let your belly relax. It will tip forward and you will feel your low back in extension. Let your arms relax at your sides, even though the urge to grip the wall is strong. Hold this pose for a minimum of 1 minute. Now walk across the room, and notice that your stride has lengthened. Note that even folks with stenosis can usually do this pose without pain, but if not, then do not practice this pose, or modify by bringing heels away from the wall.
  5. Practice kegels daily. Work up to an extensive practice. Practice lifting your pelvic floor up during your balancing poses.
  6. Find your transverse abdominus. Place your fingertips just above the pubic bone. Press your fingertips against the belly while you give a short cough. Feel that muscle under your fingertips. That is your transverse abdominus. Work on contracting it back towards your tailbone. Learn to engage it in standing poses and balancing poses. Notice how engaging it brings your shoulder blades down the back and there is no effort in the upper body in standing poses when it is engaged.
  7. Do all of these daily. You will find that in a short time, you are confidently practicing tree pose, and exploring what else might be possible in your life, that you hadn’t considered!

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