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Ways of the Warrior

There are many ways to cultivate quiet strength in Virabhadrasana I. Here, teachers of five yoga styles reveal the nuances of Warrior Pose I.

By Hillari Dowdle

Viniyoga Instruction by Gary Kraftsow

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the back of the mat. Step the right foot forward to create a stance that's long but allows you to easily shift your weight forward and back. Feet are hip-width apart. Inhale as you simultaneously bend the right knee, draw the shoulders back, and lift the arms forward and overhead, fingers interlocked and palms facing upward. Keep the upper arms in line with the ears. Move the chest slightly forward, displacing it in front of the hips to bring the arch into the upper back.

Lift the sternum away from the navel. Keeping the weight firmly and evenly pressing through both feet, gaze forward with the chin level. Exhale, lower the arms, straighten the right leg, and return to the starting point. On the next inhalation, bend the leg and reenter the pose, retaining the breath for 2 seconds. Continue to move in and out of the pose with the breath 5 more times. Release the pose, and repeat it on the other side.

Kripalu Strong and Soft

Of all the schools in American yoga, three of the major ones—Bikram, Kundalini, and Kripalu—do not flow from Krishnamacharya. Though it shares its name and mythology with other traditions, the Kripalu Warrior was received by divine inspiration during Swami Kripalu's practice in the 1950s. "Our tradition holds that if you meditate deeply enough, hatha yoga will emerge from the inside out," explains Richard Faulds, a senior yoga teacher at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the author of Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat. "That's what happened to Swami Kripalu. At age 38, his evolutionary kundalini energy awoke, and his body spontaneously performed all of these postures."

The pose that Swami Kripalu ushered into the world does differ in one key detail: The back heel stays off the ground. Not that the physical specifics are the most important thing. "We see postures as tools to open and awaken presence in the body," Faulds says. "The question we always ask in Kripalu Yoga is: What does the posture bring forth in you?"

The answer, of course, is individual and personal. But, in general, Warrior I invites a sense of empowerment.

"The posture makes you simultaneously strong and open hearted, even vulnerable," Faulds explains. "That's something a lot of us are not so good at. We think to be strong means to be a tough ass and that to be open hearted means to be all soft and blubbery. Kripalu Yoga is really about this balance of 'will' and 'surrender.' You need will to bring your energy and mental power to bear on the world. But you also need to be able to surrender enough to see the opportunities in life naturally."

The pose is terrific for exploring these emotions and any others that might come up, Faulds says—particularly difficult ones, the kind that can hold you back from life's full expression. "The strength you tap into in Warrior I can also bring up anger, frustration, and hostility," he notes. "In the pose, we can let those energies build—we can let ourselves feel them fully. We learn to ride the waves of emotion and sensation, so that the pose becomes a safe space for our feelings to play out."

Kripalu Instruction by Richard Faulds

Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). With your hands on your hips, exhale and take a big step forward with the right foot, keeping the feet hip-width apart. The left heel is off the mat. Bend the right knee, letting the hips sink toward the floor. Keep the right knee directly over the ankle (slide the left foot back, if necessary, to create a strong base posture). Square the hips to the front of the mat, moving the left hipbone forward and the right hipbone back. Press back through the lifted left heel to engage the leg muscles and straighten the leg. Inhale and sweep the arms out to the sides and overhead, shoulder-width apart and palms facing in. Let the hips sink toward the floor as you lift the sternum, extending through the crown and pressing the fingertips toward the ceiling. Gaze straight ahead.

"The yogi is really a warrior against his own ignorance," Rosen says.

Anusara Goddess Powered

In Anusara Yoga, the pose is inseparable from the legend that inspired it; tease the two apart, and it's simply not yoga, says Anusara founder John Friend. "I saw some guys in the park doing lunges with their arms up, and they were just building their butts. When you are doing Virabhadrasana I, you are building the butt and legs, but you're also expressing your spirit through your body in a triumphant way. I want students to have the context so that the pose is coming from the inside out," he says.

Friend points to five main actions in the pose—each of which corresponds to one of Anusara Yoga's five Universal Principles of Alignment. "The first of these is Opening to Grace—you have to remember the Universal," he says. "Virabhadra is strong only because he comes from God. Remembering this, the inner body grows lustrous, and the outer body can simply drape down onto this inner light."

Once you're in the posture, the next principle is Muscular Energy. "You are always hugging in toward the middle—squeezing into the source of your power," he says. This translates into a scissoring action in the legs.

Third, Inner Spiral: "The back leg turns inward so that the thighbone moves back and the hips widen," Friend says. "This will allow the back hip to turn more readily to the front." And the fourth principle, Outer Spiral: "The Outer Spiral is emphasized on the front thigh to bring the legs closer together and draw the tailbone forward," he says. "It balances the effects of the Inner Spiral."

Finally, Organic Energy. "Create a Focal Point in the core of the pelvis—picture a small orb of light at the area where the tailbone meets the sacrum," Friend instructs. "From that place, everything extends out and shines like the sun."

The key to the pose is the first principle, Friend says. "When you brighten up on the inside and relax on the outside, you don't have to work so hard," he concludes. "The pose should be a full expression of one's intention, which might be to honor the universal creative power—the Shakti. After all, Virabhadra was avenging a girl. When you think about it that way, it's really a celebration of the goddess."

Anusara Instruction by John Friend

With warrior power, place the feet 4 to 5 feet apart. Stretch your arms to the sides. Pause to fill your inner body with courageous brightness. Lift your chest, turn your right (front) foot out 90 degrees, and swivel on your back heel to point the toes slightly inward. Heels are aligned. With the left leg rooted, turn the hips toward the front of the mat. With Muscular Energy, draw both legs in toward the midline, and plug the arm bones into the shoulder sockets as you lift the arms to the sky. Draw the shoulder blades down the back and curl them in toward the heart, creating space between the shoulder blades and the waistline.

Lift victoriously through the chest. Bend your right leg to a 90-degree angle, knee aligned over the ankle. Spiral the left thigh in and draw the outer right hip back and down. Counterbalance by spiraling the right thigh slightly outward. Widen your hips with an Inner Spiral, and then scoop your tailbone with an Outer Spiral. Imagine an orb of luminous power where the sacrum meets the tailbone. This is the source of your Organic Energy—from here, root down and extend up triumphantly toward the top of the head as you curl your throat slightly back (but don't tuck your chin). Keeping a natural curve in the neck, lengthen and look up, remembering the Divine source of the warrior power.

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