Practice Tips for Virasana
Don't force. Teachers and students should never force Virasana at any level.
Avoid pain. If the student feels pain anywhere in the pose (especially in the knees), she should back off immediately.
Prop up. Have students prop the pelvis at an appropriate height. If props are not available, have students either sit on their heels (if they can readily go that far), or provide an alternative pose Bhekasana (Frog Pose), with knees only partly bent is one alternative). Note that sitting on the heels puts a lot of pressure on the ankles, so some students may need to support their ankles on a rolled blanket, or drape them over the edge of a stack of folded blankets, in order to do the pose comfortably. This type of ankle propping often also requires additional props under the pelvis.
Work gradually. Don't go too fast. Help your students bring their hips downward systematically over many practice sessions, lowering props as needed.
Point the feet in line with the shins. This provides the best alignment for the knees. In particular, encourage students to avoid turning the feet outward. Note that telling your students to place their feet "in line with shins" is not always the same as telling them to point their feet "straight backward," because if your student sits between her feet with her thighs parallel to one another, her shins are no longer parallel but angle away from each other from front to rear. Her feet should do the same.
Avoid overstretching the knees. The knees need the stability that their ligaments provide, so don't encourage movements that stretch them too much. If your student feels strong sensations within or around the knee joints in the pose, there's a good chance she is stretching ligaments. It may be legitimate to gradually and moderately stretch some ligaments in a student who cannot flex her knees fully, but if a student can sit on her heels (or on a prop at heel height), give her the option of stopping there rather than learning to go down all the way between her ankles. Explain that putting the pelvis on the floor between the feet is probably helpful for many, perhaps most, people's knees, but it may overstretch some people's knee ligaments, making the knees a little less stable. Let the student make the final decision as to whether the benefits of the full pose outweigh the risks. If your student does not want to go all the way down, one possible compromise is to have her sit with her outer hips, rather than her sitting bones, resting on her heels. Anatomically, sitting this way rotates her thighs inward a bit and puts her greater trochanters (the outermost part of her upper thighbones) atop her heels. This position provides nearly full flexion of the knees without any side bending at all.
Rotate the thighs inward as the feet move outward. Teach your student to rotate her thighs inward, moving her thighs, shins, and feet as a single unit, so her shins and feet move out to the sides as she lowers her pelvis. In this way, part of the range of motion your student needs to bring her feet to the sides comes from rotation in her hip joints, rather than side bend in her knees. In fact, if she keeps her pelvis propped at or above the level of her heels, she may be able to place her feet wider than her hips without side bending her knees at all. If she continues to lower her pelvis beyond her heels, though, she will eventually reach a point where her thighs cannot turn inward any farther. If she descends past this point, her knees will bend sideways and her inner knees will open. However, the degree of opening will be much less than it would have been had she not rotated her thighs in first. This helps protect your student from overstretching her inner knee ligaments.
Keep the ankles near the hips. If your student sits between her feet, encourage her to keep her ankles as close as possible to her hips. This will reduce the side bend in her knees, so the gap between her medial femoral condyles and her medial tibial condyles is as small as possible, minimizing stress on the inner knee ligament (the medial collateral ligament). If you see a student placing her feet far wider than the sides of her hips, encourage her to bring them toward her body until they touch the outer hips—but make sure she still keeps her feet in line with her shins.
Monitor adjustments. Many students have learned to use their hands to adjust the position of their legs as they bring their hips down into Virasana. Sometimes these adjustments are helpful, sometimes they are not. One common self-adjustment is to push the flesh of the calves outward. This allows greater flexion of the knees because it gets the calves out of the way of the descending thighs. This increased flexion is probably OK for most students, but it might be too much for some who have tight ligaments, injuries, or other problems. A more important issue with this adjustment is that, unless the student makes a conscious effort to hold the shinbones stable, she will probably rotate them inward as she pushes her calves aside (the fronts of the shins will turn in, the backs of the shins will turn out along with the calves). If she does this, you will see her outer ankle bones sticking farther out to the sides than her calves and feet. Rotating her shins (tibias) this way may relieve tension on her inner knee (medial collateral ligament) while adding tension to her outer knee (lateral collateral ligament), so it might be either helpful or harmful, depending on where her knees are tight.
Strengthen muscles that stabilize the knee. Virasana is a great way to stretch the fronts of the thighs, but stretching without complementary strengthening can make your students' knees less stable. Don't teach Virasana in a vacuum. Use it as part of a well-rounded asana program that includes standing poses and other postures that strengthen the quadriceps and other leg muscles.
Virasana is a wonderful posture for keeping your students' knees mobile and healthy. Teach it with care, and they will reap its benefits for a lifetime.
Roger Cole, Ph.D. is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher (www.yogadelmar.com), and Stanford-trained scientist. He specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.