If you can't touch your toes and think that means you can't do yoga, think again. Better yet, it might be one type of exercise you want to start (or continue) practicing into your golden years — especially balancing postures like tree pose.
Whether or not you're familiar with this asana (which means "posture" in Sanskrit) or it's completely new to you, tree pose is perfect for beginners and totally customizable. That means you can adjust the pose according to your body and still reap all the benefits!
Yoga and Healthy Aging
Research shows adopting a yoga practice can have benefits for cellular aging, mobility, balance and mental health, and it's been tied to the prevention of cognitive decline (i.e. loss of brain function due to aging), according to an August 2021 review in Advances in Geriatric Medicine and Research.
Policymakers have even begun to consider how implementing community and home-based yoga programs may offer a way to lower medical costs and improve health outcomes for older adults and seniors, per the same review.
But if not you're able to get to a studio or you don't have an hour to spend on your mat, you can still reap some the aging benefits of yoga by practicing balancing postures like tree pose, which train your posture and balance, strengthen your lower body and core and help calm the nervous system for less stress and better sleep.
How to Do Tree Pose
Tree pose is a hip-opening posture that works deeply into the groin and inner thighs, so you may want to warm up your hips with a posture like reclined or seated cobbler's pose first for about 3 to 5 deep belly breaths.
If you're feeling loose, you can practice tree pose without a warmup. Just be sure to move slowly and modify or stop if you feel any pulling or painful sensations. As always, talk to your doctor or physical therapist before adding a new exercise or yoga posture into your routine.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Let your arms hang by your sides, palms facing out, and your eyes gazing straight ahead.
- Engage your core as you put your weight onto your right foot and lift your left knee up toward your belly, grabbing hold of the knee at the top.
- Keep the standing leg straight but don't lock the knee. (Try your best not to bend down to grab the knee or foot.)
- Grab hold of your left ankle or foot and place the sole of your left foot onto the inside of your right thigh. Allow your left knee to relax down.
- Alternatively, you can place the sole of your left foot just below your knee. Never place the foot directly on the knee!
- Once you feel stable here, place your palms together in front of your heart and roll your shoulders down and back (away from your ears), creating length in your abdominals and upper back.
- For a more active stretch in the upper body, extend your arms above your head in a V shape, rolling the shoulders down and away from the ears.
- Hold the posture for 3 to 5 deep belly breaths.
- To come out of the pose, slowly bring your left knee back up toward your belly so that your knee is facing forward before slowly and gently placing the foot back down on the ground.
- Take 3 to 5 breaths before switching to the other side.
How to Modify Tree Pose
If you're finding it hard to balance in tree pose, start with a different version. You can modify tree pose by placing your left heel onto your right ankle, keeping the ball or toes of your left foot on the ground.
In this version, focus on engaging your legs and core and lifting up through the front of your body as you press your right foot down.
If you're still finding it hard to balance, you can also practice tree pose next to a wall and use a hand on the wall to keep you stable. Focus on your breathing, and when you feel stable, play around with taking your hand off the wall.
Other Tips for Tree Pose
Wherever your lifted foot lands, make sure you're pressing the foot into the standing leg and vice versa. Try to squeeze your outer thighs in to neutralize and stabilize your pelvis. This will help you start to create the equal and opposite force required for balance.
The way you engage your foot muscles can make tree pose easier and more effective. If possible, see if you can lift the arch of the foot that's on the ground, while pressing the ball and heel of the foot down.
If it's available to you, practice tree pose with an experienced instructor who can help you find the best version of the posture for you to practice.
Benefits of Tree Pose for Aging
If you want to maintain strength and stability as you age, take these benefits of tree pose into consideration.
1. Trains the Muscles in Your Feet
We don't always pay the most attention to our feet, but we should! By age 50, most Americans will have walked an average of 75,000 miles, which is about the same as walking the entire distance of the equator three times over, according to UCLA Health.
As you get older, the ligaments and tendons in the feet lose their strength and ability to spring back to their original shape, which leads to things like fallen arches and flatter, longer feet, per UCLA.
Practicing tree pose is one way to engage the muscles of the feet to restore strength and tone.
2. Strengthens Your Legs, Hips and Core
Tree pose requires that you balance on one leg, so many of the muscles of the standing leg —- feet, ankles, quadriceps, adductors and abductors (the inner and outer thighs) and glutes —- are activated and strengthened. And leg strength is an indicator of longevity, according to an older March 2011 study in the Journal of Aging and Health.
It also activates your abdominal muscles — specifically the rectus abdominis, or the area you'd associate with a "six-pack" — the muscles along your spine (the erector spinae) and your rhomboid and trapezius muscles on your back. Keeping these muscle groups strong is essential for aging gracefully.
3. Trains Your Balance and Posture
Balance is one aspect of physical function that becomes increasingly important as you age. Training your balance can lower your risk for falls and fractures, according to a January 2019 meta-analysis in the Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews.
It may also be directly tied to how long you live. Middle-aged and older people who were unable to stand on one leg for 10 seconds showed to have almost double the usual risk of premature death, according to a June 2022 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
Tree pose is known as a balancing posture in yoga, because it involves putting all or most of your weight on one side of the body. This requires the body (and brain!) to learn how to properly distribute your weight so you don't fall.
4. May Help Stabilize Your Joints
Joint problems like osteoarthritis are more common in older adults, especially after age 50, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
And while there used to be concern that yoga might not be appropriate for people with joint issues, practicing beginner-level poses (like tree pose) may help gradually build strength, balance and flexibility in the joints in the feet, ankles, knees, hips and pelvis, according to the John's Hopkins Arthritis Center.
5. Can Help Calm Your Mind
Tree pose isn't a posture that benefits just your physical balance — it can help you cultivate balance in your mind, too. While in the posture, you may notice that it requires quite a bit of focus. This is one of the best yoga postures for getting out of your head and into your body.
Ancient yoga teachings suggest that practicing balancing postures may help people feel more mentally stable and focused. Through these postures, we learn how to observe changing sensations and meet them with full awareness to keep ourselves steady. Like a tree, we can learn to sway and find stability in the changing winds.
6. It’s Modifiable
The many variations and modifications for tree pose make it accessible for older adults. The most important thing when beginning with a new pose, even one considered "beginner level," is that you meet your body where you are each day without judgment.
If you're struggling to balance, use a wall to help support you. If you can't get your foot all the way up to your inner thigh, start with placing your foot on the lower leg or keep the ball of the lifted foot on the ground.
Practicing with a mindset of growth and improvement (rather than judgement and achievement) will help you cultivate more strength and stability. You don't need to be in the most advanced version of the posture to get the same benefits!
Contraindications for Tree Pose
If you have conditions like vertigo, migraines, arthritis in the hips or knees or if you've had a hip or knee replacement, talk to your doctor or physical therapist before practicing tree pose. In these cases, it may be helpful to seek personal lessons with an experienced yoga teacher who can further advise you on how to practice tree pose safely.
And of course, don't practice tree pose if you're feeling pain getting into or while in the pose. Talk to a physical therapist or experienced yoga teacher for further advice, as there may be underlying issues preventing you from practicing comfortably.
- Advances in Geriatric Medicine and Research: "Yoga for Healthy Aging: Science or Hype?"
- Journal of Aging and Health: "Association between muscle mass, leg strength, and fat mass with physical function in older adults"
- National Institute on Aging: "Osteoarthritis"
- John's Hopkins Arthritis Center: "Yoga for Arthritis"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Successful 10-second one-legged stance performance predicts survival in middle-aged and older individuals"
- Cochrane Database for Systematic Reviews: "Exercise for preventing falls in older people living in the community"