Most of us are overloaded with media input all day long, from ads on buses to elevator music to everyone's opinions on Facebook. Thank goodness for yoga! I often say that people come to yoga to empty the mental chatter and find some peace. The quiet and clutter-free ambiance of a typical yoga studio supports that quest. What a gift to experience an environment that is not about filling space but about offering spaciousness!
If you feel calm when you enter a yoga studio, you may notice that pleasant feeling start to slip away as you begin to practice certain asanas. It can be stressful to reach for the floor when it seems miles away from your fingers or to fold up like a grasshopper when your legs are fleshy and distinctly noninsect-like. The peaceful mind you had a moment ago has now left the building.
One of the most common poses in which students lose their sense of expansiveness is Virasana. This might surprise you, since at first glance it appears that a yogi sitting in Virasana is, well, just sitting there. "What's the big deal?" you ask. To begin with, Virasana requires a deep fold in the knee joints. It also demands flexibility in the ankles, thighs, and hip flexors. If that flexibility isn't available to you yet—and let's face it, most of us don't spend hours sitting on the floor with our legs folded underneath us—even a brief visit in the pose might create pressure on the tops of your feet, strain in your thighs or knees, and compression in your lower torso.
It is a rare person who is cheerful in the face of physical discomfort. For most of us, our mental responses mirror our physical experience. So if any of the sensations mentioned above describe your experience in Virasana, it isn't shocking that you might start to feel claustrophobic, grumpy, and obsessed with wondering, "When will this pose be over?"
But Virasana will reward you if you simply stick it out. With properly organized alignment, this pose stretches the tops of the feet and ankles, balancing the effect of daily activities such as walking, running, or bicycling. It also encourages strong, healthy arches in the feet; lengthens the quadriceps; and broadens the sacrum area, which is often congested from long days spent sitting in a chair. It is also thought to aid the digestive process.
And when you practice Virasana with the right support for your body, the pose reveals its deepest benefits. The shape of Virasana encourages a sense of inner spaciousness and quietude, which makes it an excellent pose for seated meditation and for viewing your mental state without attachment. It's the shape of a strong but steady-minded warrior.
Virasana means "Hero's Pose." As long as 5,000 years ago, the teachings of yoga suggested an alternative to the typical heroic mind-set assumed when conflicts arose. The nonyoga hero looked to conquer and pacify the external world, the enemies of family and community. The yogic hero offered a new paradigm—that of conquering one's own inner turmoil.
So, how can we experience a sense of spaciousness, or at least the potential for it, in such a foldy-bendy pose as Virasana? The answer is never to just sit there and suffer silently. We already suffer enough without letting our yoga practice be a source of disease! The key is to find the right combination of props—blocks, belts, and blankets—to help create space in your body where you don't yet have it.
There are a zillion options for creating space in the physical setup for Virasana. If the floor is far away, you can put a block under your seat. If your ankles are smushed, you can elevate them with a blanket. If your back is straining to hold you up, a block can lift your spine and, in turn, your spirits. You might not need all these supports, but it's best to start by putting them all in place and finding out how that feels. As my hairstylist told me when I decided to go gray, "You can always go back to coloring it again if you want." So you can always take away props you don't need when you feel your body opening, loosening, and settling into the pose.
To begin the process of creating space, find a block, a blanket, and a strap. Fold the blanket twice: First bring the fringe ends together, and then bring the sides together. Place the blanket in the middle of your mat with the fringe pointing toward the front edge of your mat.
Kneel on the blanket, with your knees together and your feet apart. Place your ankles and feet off the back edge of the blanket. This setup should relieve the pressure on the tops of your feet by creating a small space between the tops of your ankles and the mat.
Place the yoga block between your feet, on the middle-height level. Now, while still kneeling, slide your strap snugly behind your knees, holding one end of the belt in each hand. Firmly pull each end of the strap forward so that you start to feel space in the back crease of your knees. Continue this action as you slowly lower your seat down onto your block. Then buckle the belt and pull it snug around your thighs, just above the knees. If you have a pulling sensation around your knees, you can roll up the front end of the blanket and rest your knees on it. This will lessen the angle of the stretch in your quadriceps. You can also reach around to the front of your kneecaps and manually pull the skin up, which may relieve some pressure.
Take a moment to observe the sensation of being in Virasana. While you're noticing the good effects of Virasana in your body, also notice any discomfort you feel. Is there a spot that's calling for attention? Check your posture and your prop alignment to see if the following common remedies can help you feel more spacious.
If you're unable to sit up tall on your sitting bones and your pelvis tucks under and your lower back bulges backward, you will probably compensate by overworking your middle-back muscles and jutting your ribs forward. This can cause back strain. The remedy for this is simple: Sit higher. Use two blocks under your pelvis. This will allow you to be upright on your sitting bones, requiring less work in the back muscles.
If your ankles are not very flexible, the tops of your feet or ankles may hurt. The solution is to place two or three blankets under your shins, creating more space between the tops of your feet and the mat.
If you are totally comfortable in Virasana and secretly have a feeling that you don't need any props, then try taking them away, but have a blanket—folded into thirds—nearby. Start by leaning forward and placing one palm on the floor. Slip the strap off, take away your block, and slide the blanket out from under your legs. Have a seat and observe the sensations in your body. You might be one of those people who can do this pose the very first time. You might naturally feel at ease in Virasana. But if your back feels tight or strained, your breathing is labored, or additional stress is placed on your knees and it's just no fun, don’t be shy about sitting back on the block.
Now that you have scanned your body and done what you can to relieve areas of major discomfort, sit quietly. Connect to your breath and let your mind ride in and out on the tides of inhalation and exhalation. If an uncomfortable sensation makes itself known, try one of the solutions above and then resettle into the pose. Like everything else in life, finding your seat and resting your mind in Virasana is cyclic. This is a good pose for riding that pattern of activity.
Unless you are feeling something injurious, your practice now is to stay seated and observe things as they are. This is how the hero begins to experience peace: not from having to react to every external stimulus as an irritant or feeling the need to fix things. The hero includes each itch or mental fantasy or foot that falls asleep or traffic sound as part of the experience. Rather than try to control everything or respond to everything, can you merely observe what comes up and let it pass, without attachment or aversion?
This is also how we as yogis can begin to create peace in our world. These days, it is popular to want to do good deeds, to help others, to march for peace. This is a good thing. But we can't create peace outside if we don't have peace within.
The yogic hero always starts with herself. You can't practice on another person. You can't practice with someone else's mind or body. And you can't change the world if your own habits are unconscious. Yoga practice is like wringing out a mop. You can't clean the floor if your mop is dirty. So come back to your mat each day, and with gentleness and clarity, use the props that will help you find your own path to peace, quiet, and spaciousness. This is the gift of the Hero's Pose.
"Where should the gaze be?" asked my student while practicing a balancing pose. A perfect opportunity for a pop quiz! I asked the class for their ideas. "Four feet in front of you." "Up!" "At the tip of your nose." Then one student spoke up: "The gaze should be steady."
Exactly! The gaze—or drishti—is important in yoga practice, but where the eyes are looking is not the point; rather, the quality of the gaze is what matters. The quality of our gaze is a reflection of our current state of mind. Like anything else in our emotional drama arsenal, we often use our eyes to grasp for what we want, or avoid things we don't like, instead of simply resting with what is.
In your next asana practice, observe yourself. Are you working hard to hold yourself upright, striving to keep a fixed gaze, as if your eyes could actually latch on to a point on the wall? That is grasping. Or, are your eyes dropping down when you feel challenged or you don't like a pose or you are bored? That is avoidance. As you practice, can you soften the outgoing effort of your eyes and drop into receptivity? Try literally relaxing the muscles all around your eyes and imagine that you are looking out from the back of your eyes, from deep inside your head. Notice that even as your visual field expands, you can remain stable, concentrated, and self-contained. And notice that you don't have to do anything. Relax and be open to whatever you see.
Could this new, open way of seeing things help you in your life off the mat? Instead of hardening the eyes in an effort to be stable or dropping them down to avoid what's in front of you, explore a clear and steady gaze. Let your asana practice help you meet the world as it is, without fear or aggression, not too tight, not too loose.
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.