by Steph Creaturo
Running is a one legged sport. Unless we run or do yoga, we’re not standing on one leg for any length of time as an adult. Which is a shame, because there is no better way to build functional balance skills. In addition to strengthening our balance, tree pose also sharpens our mind and its ability to focus.
“Too many times I have given up on my goals mid-race, only to realize afterwards they were well within my reach, had I maintained my faith,” local running star Michael Cassidy wrote in his amazing Let’s Run piece after the 2013 New York City Marathon. Cassidy articulates the mental fatigue that every runner is all too intimate with.
Part of that deep runner faith comes from the ability to skillfully work with our thoughts. Notice I didn’t say empty the mind of thought, but work with it. Too many times, great runs have been acquiesced to thoughts and the many forms they take – too tired, too hungry, too sweaty, too early, too whatever.
Regular practice of tree pose provides me with a ringside seat to my mind and just what happens when the pose doesn’t go my way. Do I hit eject? Do I get frustrated? Do I push harder to “get” the pose? Or do I take a pause, recalibrate, and start over? Just like a chef regularly sharpens his most important tools, I must regularly sharpen my ability to mentally focus. This pose, more than any other, regularly sharpens my ability to focus and teaches me how to regain it when I get distracted with things like “Why the hell am I doing this?” at o’dark thirty in the morning in January.
As with running technique, stay with form to cultivate a strong tree pose that can withstand the most challenging attacks on the mind (The ping of a new text message! A new Kardashians episode! And so on and so forth).
1. Start in mountain pose, placing your heels under your sitting bones. Keep the outer edges of your feet as parallel as the yellow lines in the middle of a street.
Try using the wall! By gently but firmly placing your fingertips into the wall, your center of balance is established before you challenge it. Using props allows us to align from a steady place.
2. Shift your weight to your right foot, then bend the left knee and raise it to the height of your hip. Turn your left knee out to the side while keeping your hip points even with each other. Place the bottom of your left foot either above or below your right knee (not on the inner knee). On your exhale, draw the back of the navel towards the spine and fix your gaze at one point in front of you.
3. Hold for five breaths, then release your left foot to the floor with control and repeat on the other side.
If you fall out of the pose, get right back into it. Otherwise, you’re sending a message to your brain that it is a-ok to quit when things are hard for you. Those little messages add up over time to create an ethos and a pathos – tree is a great place to challenge that on a daily basis.
Key benefits of tree pose for runners:
- Strengthens the muscles of the standing leg’s foot, ankle, and hip
- Teaches us to resist gravity by drawing the chest skyward while pushing our standing leg’s foot downwards
- Builds functional balance skills by challenging our center of balance
- Teaches us to stand on one leg with confidence
- Builds mental focus when we can’t control a situation. When we practice tree, we have no idea if we’re going to fall or not. It’s like running – we can train and train, but we can’t control the weather on race day. We just have to go with it.
Try adding tree pose to your cross training 3x each week for a month. We’d love to hear how your balance (both in your mind and on your feet) shifts from a steady practice of being unsteady.
Visit us later this week for three versions of tree that up the challenge level in the body and mind and are great to practice when prepping for a big race.