In many yoga styles tadasana—mountain pose—is the starting point of the practice. Settling into the pose, we search for the feeling of the height of a mountain by finding the broad base of a mountain in the feet.
The challenge of tadasana is that humans are not built like mountains. In fact, with our small base of support and high center of gravity we’re closer to upside-down mountains—more swaying palm trees than bottom-heavy heaps of rock. (Interestingly, the Sanskrit word tada can mean palm tree as well as mountain.)
This swaying like a palm tree, called postural sway, is normal. Balance is not static. It is dynamic, a continual falling away from and regaining of the center. The nervous system receives input from proprioceptors in joints and muscles, visual cues, as well as information from the vestibular system in the inner ears. It processes that information to form a continuously modified sense of where you are in space. When the brain senses that you have moved away from the center, it unconsciously initiates muscular contractions to bring the weight back over your feet.
Postural sway can be measured. Early researchers used techniques like attaching smoked paper to a subject’s head and having them stand under a marker suspended from the ceiling. The marker would record the subjects’ movements as they maintained their balance, tracing a scribbled pattern on the paper. Someone who swayed a lot would draw a larger scribble; someone who didn’t move so much, a smaller one.
The smaller the scribble, the less work it takes to balance, because when you are close to the center it is easy to regain it; the more you deviate, the more effort you need to come back. Imagine standing at the summit of a high peak. If you take a single step in any direction, it’s easy to return. But if you move even a dozen yards away, you might have to do some strenuous climbing to regain the top.
So the closer you hover around the center, the more ease you’ll find in tadasana and the less muscular effort it will require. But how do you find that center? Forcibly inhibiting postural sway won’t help. In fact it’ll only make balance more difficult, by decreasing your sensitivity.
The key is rather to develop keener awareness. Where are you tallest? Where is the summit of the mountain? At that point each of your joints will be centered, with your weight centered over your feet.
Bring your awareness to your feet. When the heels and the balls of the big and little toes are evenly grounded the ankle joints will be centered and the arches will lift. Pay particular attention to the firm pressure of the balls of the big toes into the earth. For many, they tend to slide out, collapsing the inner arch of the foot; for others, it’s difficult to ground them at all and the weight falls to the outside of the feet. Either way, the foundation of the pose will sink.
Notice how your pelvis sits on top of your femurs. It’s common for the pelvis to shift forward or to be tilted or tucked under, so that the hip sockets are no longer centered on top of the femur heads. With your hand on your head, shift your pelvis forward and backward, left and right, to find the sweet spot where your head is at its highest point. Then tilt and tuck the pelvis, feeling for where the hip joints are completely centered and you are tallest.
Sense how your neck rests on top of your thoracic spine. If the sternum is pulled down or forced up, C7 (the bottom cervical vertebra) will not be able to center itself and the neck will be dragged out of alignment. Notice how your skull sits on top of the atlas (the top cervical vertebra). Is your chin tucked or tilting up? Where are you looking? At horizon level? Up or down? When your head is centered, it should be able to turn and move easily.
In fact, only from the center is it possible to move with ease in any direction. When you’re off center, your choices are limited. By finding the summit of the mountain in tadasana, you’ll discover a sense of relaxed readiness that will let you move into the rest of your practice more fluidly.