One of my favorite moments in any yoga class is right between the two sides of tree pose, or vrksasana. You’ve just finished balancing on one leg and you mentally prepare to balance on the other, usually non-dominant leg. The teacher guides you into tree with a few simple cues and then remarks with a smile that one side might feel very different from the other side, that perhaps it’s harder to balance on this side. All the people smiling back at the instructor are the ones who understand unbalanced yoga.
Perhaps the most iconic and easily recognizable of the yoga poses, tree pose can be a source of empowerment when you feel grounded or a source of frustration when you feel unsteady. When I first started practicing yoga, tree pose was a challenge for me. Like most non-yogis, my everyday life didn’t include time spent balancing on one leg each day. Given that I never practiced this skill after the age of eight or nine when I stopped playing hopscotch, it made sense that it was difficult for me in class. It seemed so simple and the instructor always demonstrated with such ease that I couldn’t understand why my standing foot and leg would start to wobble uncontrollably the moment I lifted my other foot off the ground.
Historically, a major objective of practicing asana was to open and strengthen the body so that practitioners could comfortably spend more time in meditation. The process of performing the physical movements became their own moving meditation, reaffirming the inter-connectedness of the mental and physical self. Our modern understanding of the brain confirms this mind-body connection. Tree pose, along with its asymmetrical balancing brethren like eagle/garudasana, dancer/natarajasana, and half moon/ardha chandrasana, requires that the left and right sides of the body move independently of each other while maintaining coordination and balance for the body as a whole. This asymmetrical movement increases communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, with even more activity occurring if the movement is a new skill. In other words, if you gracefully stand in tree with your eyes closed and arms outstretched, your brain needs a more difficult posture in order to be challenged.
So to all my fellow practitioners of unbalanced yoga – wobble on! The ability to hold an asymmetrical posture in the body could translate into holding two opposing viewpoints simultaneously in mind during a debate or better decision making. And the connections you form in your brain while learning a new skill help preserve mental acuity as you age. Experiencing imbalance or asymmetry and constantly striving to find balance and steadiness is how we create true balance, in yoga and in life.