True confession: Virabhadrasana I is not my favorite pose. There, I said it, right out loud. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) is hard for me, and I've often struggled with all the seemingly contradictory efforts it demands. Sometimes, when I try to ground my back foot, I lose the lift of the rib cage. Or when I try to reach through my arms, my chest caves in. Trying to fix one piece,I lose alignment in another and start to tense up. If you feel this way too, don't worry! There's another way to approach Virabhadrasana I.
A yogi's task in any pose is to notice the holistic relationship among all the parts of the body. When we talk about that relationship, we are also talking about a conversation—all the elements of a pose speak to each other, and even more important, they need to listen to each other. So,in Virabhadrasana I, the grounding of the back leg can become a friendly invitation to the rib cage to lift; opening the chest can create space for the arms to reach. Each part has something to say to the others, and when you let them communicate, holding the pose stops feeling like a hard job and becomes instead an interesting dance, a call and response.
The physical benefits of this dance in Warrior I cover a full body spectrum: ankles, calves, and thighs get a good stretch; the quadriceps and back muscles are strengthened (and that toning continues right up through the shoulders and arms); the psoas gets a delicious lengthening,preparing the body for backbends; and a thorough stretching extends through the belly, shoulders, neck, chest, and even the lungs. Whoa! There's a lot going on here! No wonder I sometimes think I'll duck out of class and go to the bathroom when it's time for this pose.
But even though I sometimes think that, I never do it. I stay on my mat and try to let the conversation happen in my body while I keep a steady mind. When you practice Virabhadrasana I, allow for an open communication between the work of the arms, legs, and back and the thoughts that arise in your mind. By practicing steadiness in the midst of the opposing energies of Warrior I,you can reap the deeper benefits of the pose: developing the confidence and courage to face challenging situations in your life.
To start, explore the alignment of the pose with a preparatory version that allows you to practice the basic shape of Virabhadrasana I. Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) with your hands on your hips. Press down on your hip points, feeling the weight of your pelvis directed downward into your legs and feet, rooting you to the earth. Press evenly through the four corners of your feet: ball joint of the big toe, ball joint of the baby toe, inner heel, and outer heel. Now,activate the leg muscles. Draw them up your bones as if you were pulling on long socks. Let that upward-moving energy keep rising along your spine and through the crown of your head.
Step your right leg back,coming into a High Lunge and bend the left leg at a comfortable angle for you. Don't try to push your front leg into a 90-degree angle just yet. There will be time for that later. Take a moment to firmly reengage your leg muscles here. Press into the ball of the back foot, with the heel up; keep reaching through the four corners of the foot.
Slide your left thumb into your outer left hip crease, deepening the crease a little bit, with your fingers touching your outer thigh. Use your thumb and fingers to help keep your pelvis steady, as you roll your right thigh open so you can plant your right heel flat on the floor, with the foot angled about 45 degrees toward the right side of the mat. Although your right hip may be opening out to the right side, you don't want to twist your whole pelvis to the side, which could put pressure on the front knee. Your left thumb serves as a reminder to keep your front thigh stable, your front knee tracking straight ahead,and your torso facing forward as much as possible.
Make sure that your back foot is evenly grounded—spread your baby toe toward the back of the mat and push into your outer heel. Look for an upward lifting response on the inseam of your back leg, zipping up from your inner ankle to your inner groin.
With your chest facing toward the front of the mat, reach your arms straight out at shoulder level. Roll your thumbs away from each other and rotate your entire arm outward so the palms face up. Reach forward through your fingertips but keep your shoulder blades in place on your back. Now, from your elbows to your fingertips,turn your forearms inward so that your palms face each other. Slowly begin to lift your arms up to a 45-degree angle. You can take your arms all the way up alongside your ears as long as your chest stays broad and your neck is not gripping. If lifting your arms makes your neck vanish as if eaten by your shoulders, no problem! A friendly solution is to widen your hands, making a V shape for Warrior I.
Start the Conversation
Now it's time for a deeper exploration of the experience of this pose. First, you may notice that your back hip is opening a lot in order for your back foot to stay flat on the floor. That's OK! For many people,the back hip has to open to accommodate the grounding of the back foot and to protect the knee. To avoid twisting or strain, the back knee should be pointing in the same direction as the back toes, and the leg should be straight.
Many people think that the pelvis must be square to the front in Warrior I. Unfortunately, many people also find this position next to impossible; consequently,they feel like a yoga loser. But this pose is not about the hips! It's about the relationship between down and up, front and back, legs and arms, ribs and pelvis,breath and body, earth and heaven. Yes,that is a long list, so it's no wonder this pose is so challenging. That's why you are learning to let the different parts of your body talk to each other.
So instead of worrying about squaring the hips, explore the connections between thighs, pelvis, and low back. Check that your back (i.e., right) foot is firmly grounded, and your front knee is pointing straight ahead. Now, place your right middle fingertip on your right hip point and your right thumb on your right bottom ribs, just above the hip point. Slowly slide the middle finger up toward the thumb, encouraging your hip point to lift, lift, lift toward your ribs. A slight drawing up of your lower belly helps with this action. As you do this, notice how, without effort,your tailbone begins to drop, inviting space in your lower back and length in the side waist. Keep lifting the front of the pelvis while engaging your back leg and pressing the back foot down.
By doing this, you are creating the conditions to support the backbending action of the pose. Warrior I lengthens your front body and your psoas, the long muscle that connects your inner thigh to your lower back. This is what allows you to begin to safely bend backwards.
With your pelvis more upright and spaciousness in your lower back, you should find it easier to spin your belly and chest toward the front of the mat. This will turn your pose into a slight twist as your chest rolls up and slightly away from your back foot. Notice as you do this that your pelvis may follow your chest and your back hip may float forward. Check again that your back knee is protected with a well-grounded foot and a strong, straight leg. If it's not, let that hip stay open to the side. Experiment with what works in your body and find the alignment that is organic to you, keeping a healthy relationship between all the parts of your body.
After you have held the pose for 5 to 10 breaths, return to Tadasana and try it on the other side. Let the conversation between parts of the pose continue: The back leg presses down,and the ribs answer by lifting up, inviting the chest to open. This encourages the arms to rise up and say, "Yes!" It's like a Rube Goldberg contraption: One movement affects the next and then the next. Oops! Your back knee is rolling in? The arms have to move forward a bit, so you can replant the back foot. This in turn supports the back ribs and welcomes the chest to open farther.
Find Fluid Strength
If you feel ready to grow your Warrior I into the deeper expression of the pose, return to Tadasana with your hands on your hips. Then step the right leg back and plant the right foot. Begin to bend your front knee toward a 90-degree angle, bringing the thigh parallel to the floor. Take your time bending the knee. Keep your back knee safe by supporting it with a straight and engaged leg. The safety of the back knee is the boss here and must be obeyed! If your back knee is rolling in,unbend your front leg a bit, reground, and lengthen the back leg. Guide your front knee straight ahead and don't let it bend past your toes.
So that you avoid overstressing your front quadriceps in this deep lunge, engage your hamstrings so they can start to do some of the work. Ground the heel of your front leg, feeling energetically as if you were dragging the heel backward. This will hug your hamstring up onto your femur. If you can't yet feel this, that's OK. Just try it and then relax. Keep exploring.
Here again, create space in the low back by lifting the right hip point. Spin the belly and the chest forward and, if it feels natural to you, allow your pelvis to follow by gently drawing the right hip point forward. Do not force a squaring of the hips—simply invite them into the conversation. If moving in this direction causes discomfort in your knees or lower back,then move back to a stable alignment that feels more appropriate for you. Now, reach your arms out diagonally in front of you, and press your palms together, lifting the arms skyward. If your chest narrows when you do this, keep the arms open. Either way, your chest can rise up, too, following your lifted arms,which are like the sword of the warrior. After staying in the pose for several breaths, return to Tadasana and repeat the pose on the other side.
Those are all of the basic instructions for Virabhadrasana I, but here is one more: After you've absorbed what you can, relax with it. Really, you can. Soften away from your conceptual mind, all those words and thoughts, and lean in to your sensory experience, which is always and only now. Include all the feelings—burning muscles, delicious stretching, juicy sweating, full breathing into your nicely opened lungs. Stay steady and observe what changes occur within you.
What are the weapons of a yoga warrior? Gentleness yet fearlessness—that is what the sword represents. Yoga is about finding the relationship between opposites—strong physical exertion supporting a spacious, clear mind. A yoga warrior needs to be firmly grounded and yet fluid, ready to meet the world as it comes to her.
That's why I don't sneak out of class during Warrior I although I might feel like it. I know that the better option is to stay and let go a little bit. When I do that,a tiny space arises. If I stay steady, the space grows into an opening where my mind can rest. The warrior starts to come to life as a vibrant, clear being who cuts through the internal radio mind to ride a channel of breath joining heaven and earth.
Watch a video demonstration of this pose.
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.