At first glance, Virasana (Hero Pose) looks simple. You don't have to balance on your head or bend your spine backward or support all your weight with your hands. Yet the classical seated posture can be enormously challenging the first, say, 12,000 times you practice it. An informal survey of my students confirmed this. They commonly reported feeling that their thighs were on fire, that their knees would explode, or that their ankles were going to break off. Since you don't come to yoga to increase your physical and mental discomfort, how can you make this pose more accessible?
The answer is not simply to avoid it. While Virasana's benefits aren't immediately obvious, there are many. The pose increases flexibility in the knees and ankles, teaches internal rotation in the thighs, reduces tension in the legs, and is said to aid digestion and soothe abdominal discomfort. It is also one of the classical seated postures for meditation and breath awareness. When your body is properly supported, you can sit in Virasana for several minutes at a time, becoming aware of the natural curves of your spine, the contours of your chest, the movement of your breath, and other internal sensations. In essence, it allows you to practice mindfulness, which is at the heart of yoga.
Give Yourself Props
For this version of Virasana, you'll use a blanket and a block to avoid aggravating your knees. The majority of new practitioners need this setup to do the pose safely—many, in fact, will need to use more than one blanket and block. Even if you can sit on the floor in the classical position, try it once with the props and see if you can work on refining your overall alignment. Then try the pose again without the props.
Fold a blanket in quarters and place it in the middle of your sticky mat with the neat edge facing the wall behind you. Place a block behind the neat edge of the blanket. (You'll rest your sitting bones on the longest side of the block.) The blanket will relieve pressure on your ankles and the block will raise your hips so your knees don't have to fold as deeply.
Find Some Leg Room
Kneel in front of the block, with your shins on the blanket and the tops of your feet on the mat. Your toes should point back and the soles of your feet will face the ceiling. Touch your inner knees together and separate your heels so they're just wider than your hips. Slowly sit on the block.
Do a quick scan of your legs. How do your feet, ankles, shins, knees, and thighs feel? If there's too much pressure on your ankles, grab another blanket—or two. The same goes for your knees. If you feel any sharp, searing, or localized pain as you sit on the block, first try separating your knees so that they're in line with your frontal hipbones (your thighs will be parallel to the blanket). Then add more props to lift your hips higher—a blanket or phone book should do the trick.
Once your setup feels supportive, focus on alignment. Start by bringing awareness to your feet. Look closely at the position of each foot. Before making any adjustments, simply observe how the feet are different from each other. Notice how one foot may turn in more than the other, how one ankle may have more sensation, or how one heel may list further from the hip than the other. After you've observed your body's instinctual alignment, try to make your feet symmetrical. See that your feet are in line with your shins. Hug your outer ankles in and press your heels firmly against your hips. Now place a finger under each foot and draw the skin out to the side so it feels smooth.