For many sacred traditions, enlightenment occurs under the shelter of a grand tree. Entire revealed scriptures poured effortlessly from the lips of saints who made their homes beneath trees. Single banyans that stretch for miles and live for centuries have provoked awe and inspiration, generation after generation. The mystical elements of life in trees have lured civilizations across cultures for centuries. From the Druids’ fascination with the mysterious powers of trees to the Greeks admiration of their noble status, from Abraham’s angelic Oak of Mamre to the biblical Tree of Life, trees have served as quiet mentors guiding our spirits towards the inner truth we ignite through asanas.
The tree pose, or vrikshasana (“vriksha” plus “asana”), is a wonderful meditation that begins with an integration of our body, mind and breath that invokes the inspiring qualities of trees: mercy, generosity, flexibility, tolerance, strength, endurance, balance and grace. In the Brahma Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text in which the first created being, Lord Brahma, spontaneously composes poetic praises for the supreme divinity, he describes the kalpa-vriksha, or divine trees, that fulfill all desires, the archetypal spiritual trees on which all trees in this world are modeled (BS. 5.21). Known also as the parijata trees, they generously grant all wishes, producing any kind of fruit or flower. This type of tree is a meditation on the flowering tree of love’s abundance and its natural fruit: loving generously.
It is beautifully narrated in the Bhagavat Purana how Lord Krishna brought down from Lord Indra’s kingdom the heavenly parijata tree, as a love offering for his bride, Satyabhama. Although the tree was brought from the heavenly planets into the earthy gardens of his queen’s palace in Dvarka, it was successfully transplanted, thus expressing how spiritual love can be successfully harnessed even within our physical world. This rootedness in both worlds is symbolically represented in vrikshasana in which one foot is firmly planted into earthly soils while preserving a graceful balance between the joined palms that reach cathedral-like into the spiritual skies, channeling the descending blessings. The tree posture thus reflects a harmony between heaven and earth.
As the interdependence between these two dimensions is honored in the tree posture, the interdependence between trees and other living organisms on earth is equally honored. Within this ancient view of our planet as a living being supporting other livings beings, trees play a major role in how our planet (or Bhumi Devi, “The Earth Goddess,” as she is called in Sanskrit texts) breathes! Through trees, Mother Earth inhales our own toxic out-breaths of carbon dioxide and exhales pure oxygen back into the atmosphere in which we live. A single, mature tree produces an average of 260 pounds of oxygen each year. This is enough oxygen to sustain a human being for an entire year.
The earth we inhabit presently suffers from a shortage of trees. While yogis may take the time to reciprocate with Mother Earth by protecting her trees, they especially dedicate themselves to planting the internal trees of a life or prana-nourishing consciousness. This intra-nourishing relationship that exists between our breath and that of trees, powerfully enters into play as attention is gently given to the breath in vrikshasana. The resulting calm is the antithesis of the state that drives humans to strip Mother Earth of her trees. Deforestation is thus a symptom of one of the many ways in which humans separate their awareness from and cultivation of their own life breath. In practicing Yoga and asanas such as this one, we experience the connection between our inner and outer ecologies.
Traditionally, the tree posture is regarded as a form of “tapas” or austerity, favored by yogis, through which mystical powers over matter are gained. On a deeper level, spiritual aspirants engage this asana to connect with favored sentiments of great personages such as Sri Krishna Chaitanya of Bengal. Sri Chaitanya saw in trees the appropriate attitude with which to negotiate all obstacles that may present themselves on our spiritual path when approaching the Supreme Divinity; tolerance. Moreover, it is this tolerance along with perseverance that is the real act of tapas in our daily practice of Yoga. The true yogi is generous with his or her heart, just as trees generously offer us shade, flowers, fruits and wood with which to ignite our spiritual fires. Meditating on being more tolerant than a tree, the yogi is never distracted from the heart, and offering love and kindness to all others.
For those whose fire has already been ignited, trees take on an entirely different appearance, as they do for the cowherd maidens of Vraja, or gopis. Considered the greatest yoginis in the Bhagavat Purana, the gopis search for divinity, or Krishna, within the forest of Vraja. It is this tree-decorated setting that the ancient Sanskrit text considers most ideal for the blossoming of divine love. Throughout the climactic five-chapter story of the Bhagavat Purana, or Rasa Lila, we see all the characters in this divine play frequently interacting with the flora and fauna surrounding them.
In fact, the story begins with the beauty of nature stirring amorous feelings in the divine. When their divine beloved is lost to them, the gopis take clues from the nearby trees as to where Krishna could have gone. In the weighted-down tree branches, heavy with ripe fruits, the gopis recognize the bowing of the trees as being a result of having just seen Krishna walk by. They then ask the trees if Krishna glanced at them lovingly as he walked by. When the trees fail to answer, the gopis attribute their mute state to the intense grief the trees must feel in Krishna’s absence, for they are seeing the trees as being one in heart with them. This oneness of heart is thus enacted in vrikshashana and exists spontaneously when all is perceived through the lens of love. It is modeled by the gopis in their heightened sensitivity to the nature around them.
Having merged fully into the overwhelming madness of divine love for which all mystical love traditions aspire, the gopis then move from seeing the trees as a means to arrive at Krishna, to seeing the trees as Krishna himself! This is a classic characteristic of the path of a yogi, in which the means and the goal merge. During this irreversible state of unconditional love—and long before today’s tree-hugging movement—the gopis throw their arms around the trees of Vraja forest in an amorous embrace. We enact this very embrace of divinity when we enter deeply into the tree pose. As trees embrace us when we are in the middle of a forest, divinity always holds us within an eternal embrace. Our return of that embrace is our Yoga practice.
About the Author:
Catherine L. Ghosh, RYT, was introduced to Yoga when she was only two years old. In her mid-teens, she formerly took up the practice of meditational and devotional Yoga with teachers in India as well as the West. Catherine, also known as Krishna Kanta Dasi, traveled to India several times, visiting holy places, meeting teachers and deepening her passion for the study of Bhakti Yoga and Eastern philosophy. Together with Graham M. Schweig, PhD,, she develops workshops on “The Secret Yoga.” For more information please visit: www.secretyoga.com.
Excerpted from Catherine L. Ghosh, RYT’s column in Integral Yoga Magazine on asana.