On Being A Tree

Many years ago my then-boyfriend (now husband) asked me to do something one evening, to which I replied “I’ll try.” “Don’t try,” he said. “Be a tree.” Huh? I looked at him questioningly and he instructed me to stand up straight. “Now, try to be a tree.” I stood there and stared back at him. “Go on, try.” I pressed my feet into the floor and straightened my spine a little. “Ok,” he said, “now be a tree.” I breathed in deeply, firmly rooted both feet to the ground, and reached the crown of my head high. I immediately felt taller (sadly for my 5’1” frame, this sense was metaphysical, not literal), straighter, more grounded. I got the point. Don’t simply try to do something. Actually do it. The difference is not just semantic. It’s intentional. And I felt it from my head to my toes.

So much about this long-ago exchange strikes me as significant. For starters, it preceded the beginning of my lifelong love affair with yoga by at least a couple of years. Too, my husband does not practice yoga, at least not on the mat. And if you ask him he’ll swear he’s not a yogi. But his message has yoga written all over it. I took his words to heart when, several months hence, our relationship crumbled. I was heart broken and pregnant with our daughter. But I knew I had to act out of strength and resolve, not just for myself but for our child. I got a job with a big law firm hundreds of miles away, closer to family, packed up and set off to create a new life as a single mother. I was being a tree – applying focus and resolve to a difficult situation. Staying strong and forward looking when what I really wanted to do was lay down and cry. While our story has a happy ending (we reunited right after our daughter was born), I had no expectation that it would when I moved. But I dug down deep anyway and committed to do what I believed was the right thing to do.

The “tree” exercise speaks to the idea of one-pointed focus. I have often applied its wisdom on the mat as well. I can stand in Warrior II pose with my attention scattered. My eyes darting around the room, my to-do list running through my head, my breath shallow. In fact, I’ve done this many times. Or, I can stand in Warrior II and mindfully set my drishti (gaze) on a single point, hone my attention to my measured and deliberate breath, feel the energy spreading from fingertip to fingertip, engage my mula bandha (pelvic floor lock). More and more, as my practice evolves in subtle ways, I go to this place in Warrior II. My body might look similar in each instance, but the experience of the pose is like night and day. The former feels like I’m going through the motions, there but not completely there. The latter feels like my life depends on this very Warrior II. Like it is a precious opportunity not to be wasted. This kind of attention is an important aspect of growth in the asana (physical) practice. It is an even more important aspect of growth in life.

Over my years of practice, tree pose has become one of my all-time favorites. I love the feeling of rooting down with my standing foot, sole pressing into the earth, to rise up a little taller, brighter, straighter. The spark of energy I feel rising up my spine and shooting out of my raised fingertips and the crown of my head. When my husband first instructed me on being a tree, I’d never heard of tree pose. I didn’t even know what the asana practice was. I don’t think of this as mere coincidence. I think the tree exercise was predictive – of my impending foray into the amazing world of yoga, of the beginning of my path towards becoming a yoga teacher, of the awakening of my passion for living and sharing this beautiful physical, mental and spiritual practice.

I think of the metaphor of being a tree quite a lot. I know life has inevitable ups and downs. Things often unfold in a way that doesn’t line up with my wishes and plans. I certainly didn’t want or expect to break up with the love of my life while I was pregnant (or ever). But I try to remain grounded. Yes, my branches may sway with the winds of daily life. But I want my roots to be so firmly entrenched in the earth, my trunk so solid and strong, that my branches won’t break. That is (some of) my work. Yoga is my path.