When you become more experienced in your yoga practice, it's easy to lose sight of what is known in Zen Buddhism as "beginner's mind." Instead of being open to learning, you may find yourself striving for perfection or trying to find the one best way to do poses. It's common to resist change and to fear losing what you've built over years of practice, but it's more fulfilling to keep your mind open to new ways of learning. Yoga is a journey that offers continual opportunities for growth. By challenging yourself with different approaches, you stay present and creative. You also avoid the trap of doing yoga on automatic pilot, which dulls the mind.
To bring a sense of freshness back to your practice, try taking a new approach to Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III). It's a pose that challenges your body with both backward- and forward-bending elements. It also builds power and grounding in the legs while offering chances for lightness and play. So you can experience all the nuances of Warrior III, the sequence given here will prepare you with poses and variations that are designed to build strength. They may also open your mind to new ways of practicing.
If you think that props are only for beginners, think again. By experimenting with variations, you refine your awareness and find the safest alignment for your body. This will help you take your practice to a much deeper level, moving from simply following instructions to doing yoga by tapping into your internal intelligence.
As you approach this sequence, let go of moving automatically and instead be curious about your mind and body. What can the variations teach you? How can you move to a deeper level of embodiment, shifting away from what you have been told to what you intuitively know?
Remember to focus on your breathing, developing a smooth, quiet, soft breath. There is no magic number of breaths to use; instead, hone your awareness. If you notice that you're learning from the pose or that it challenges you in ways that you tend to avoid, stay there and investigate. The most important thing is that your movements are not routine or forced.
Virasana (Hero Pose)
Virasana is a calming pose that prepares the legs and feet for the backbending element of Warrior III. In this version, you'll work on aligning the torso for Virabhadrasana III and opening the shoulders, groins, and quads.
Begin on your hands and knees. Reach your thumbs deep into the space that is behind your knee joint and, as you sit between your feet, use your hands to move the flesh of your calves toward your heels, making space behind the knees. If you have any knee pain in this pose, practice the first tenet of yoga, ahimsa (nonharming), and sit on a block or folded blanket. Pain is not a sign of opening; it is the body warning you to back off!
Press down evenly through both sitting bones and point your feet straight back. Use your hands to spread all of your toes and press the tops of the feet down. Draw the outer ankles in and extend the big toes straight back so that the inner and outer ankles are lengthening evenly.
Now, press the tops of your thighs toward the floor and release the inner thighs down. From this rooting down, elongate the entire spine. Keep your chin level and draw the shoulder blades down and into the back. Lift and open your chest. Spread your collarbones to bring lightness across the chest and heart. Close your eyes. Take a few moments to steady the breath and calm the mind.
When you feel centered, open your eyes. Take a block between your hands so that it creates the widest possible distance between both hands. Extend your arms to shoulder height. Press your hands into the block. Engage the muscles in your upper arms while softening the trapezius muscles down away from the neck.
Keep the outer arms engaged as you inhale and extend the arms overhead. Pause at any point that you find it difficult to maintain the tone you've created in your upper arms. Ideally, the arms come alongside the ears, but if that causes your front ribs to jut forward, then take the arms slightly forward for now. Root the arm bones into the shoulder sockets. Extend your arms from your waist and continue this line of energy to the fingertips. Continually soften your front ribs and lift the back ribs; keep the front and back of the body elongating evenly.
Transition slowly from Virasana into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) to release the knees. Then use Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) to open the hamstrings for Virabhadrasana III. Continue warming up, by either alternating between standing poses and Down Dog or doing Sun Salutations.
Salabhasana (Locust Pose)
Practicing Salabhasana builds the upper-back strength you need for Virabhadrasana III. Plus, you use a similar action in the legs and sacrum in both poses.
Lie on your belly. Place a block along the inner edges of your feet from your inner heel to your big toe. Play with the width of the block: If your low back is stiff, use the widest dimension.
Rest your forehead on the floor and reach your arms forward. Extend the arms straight and place your hands shoulder-width apart. Close your eyes and let your breath become a focal point for your mind. Make the breath smooth and steady. Keep your feet on the floor for now, to establish proper leg alignment. Move the outer ankles in toward the block as you press the inner heels away from the block. With the toes extended and spread, press the tops of the feet down and lift the tops of your thighs and knees up. Lengthen your lower back by moving the buttock flesh toward the feet. Extend the ankles as you did in Virasana.
To keep the sacrum wide, resist gripping in the buttocks. Draw the outer legs down to the floor while reaching the inner thighs to the ceiling. Visualize the backs of your legs widening. If this is hard to access, press your thumbs onto the center of the buttocks and strongly move the buttock flesh away from your lumbar area. Press the center of the buttocks toward your heels as you lift the thighs (keep the block on the floor).
Now, press your palms down and move the shoulder blades deeper into the body. Curl your upper back open and reach out with the sternum. Slowly begin to lift the head. Rise to your fingertips and lengthen through the arms and sides of the body. Continue to move your trapezius muscles away from your ears. Hold for a few breaths before resting.
Once you can work your legs without compressing the lower back, lift your arms off the floor, extending them forward. Notice the strength needed in the upper back. If your elbows bend, keep the hands shoulder-width apart.
Investigate the pose. Play with lifting one leg at a time, from the inner leg. Lifting both legs with the block will reveal the exact moment when you start to grip.
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)
Use the pose Virabhadrasana I to help connect you to the grounded and strong spirit of a warrior! Notice how it warms up the entire body and strengthens the front thigh. The pose shares key movements with Virabhadrasana III: You train the back leg to rotate forward properly, and the arms extend, lengthening the spine. Start with your feet about four or five feet apart, parallel to each other. Bring your arms out to your sides and take a few breaths to compose yourself.
Drop your shoulders away from your ears and reach the arms apart. Press down with your feet to lift the inner thighs. Lift the tops of the thighs and move them toward the back of the legs. Next, release the buttock flesh down.
With an inhalation, reach the arms overhead. If you can keep the elbows straight, put the palms of the hands together; otherwise, place them shoulder-width apart. Consider using a block between your hands to refine your shoulder alignment as you did in Virasana.
Extend the arms up as you soften the trapezius muscles away from the ears. Keep the front ribs soft; don't let them jut forward. Extend the back ribs up away from your buttocks to create space for the lower back. Keep the sternum lifted!
Then, turn the left foot to the left, and turn the right foot in 30 degrees. Align your heels with each other. Keeping both legs straight for now, bring the right torso and hip forward to be even with the left. Pause here. Practice the actions in the legs, torso, and arms again before moving into the full pose.
The back leg in Virabhadrasana I shares the same actions as the legs in Salabhasana. Press the top of the right thigh toward the back of the leg to stabilize the outer left foot. Rotate the entire right leg and hip forward. Wrap the right buttock forward to level the sacrum.
Next, lift the frontal pelvic bones off the front leg to keep the pelvis from tipping forward. Carry this line of energy to the back ribs and all the way up through the sternum and up the arms.
Keeping this upward lift in the torso, exhale and bend your left knee, tracking it with the second toe. Get the thigh parallel to the floor with the knee over the ankle. Resist leaning the torso forward: Peel it off the front leg. As you firm the hamstring of the bent leg, be courageous and bend deeply; connect with a sense of strength and conviction.
After a few breaths, carefully straighten the front leg. Pause to regroup by bringing the feet to parallel before taking the second side.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III), variations
These wall variations awaken your consciousness, helping you to bring more integrity to specific actions and parts of the body. Normally it's very hard to feel something in space, like a leg or an arm lifted for Virabhadrasana III. By using the wall as your teacher, you can develop new physiological intelligence in your lifted limbs. Play, and see these variations as a furthering of the wonders of yoga.
Start with your back to a wall, standing about a leg's length away. Place your right foot on the wall at about hip height, with the toes pointing down. Align your left heel directly under the left sitting bone, with the toes pointing straight forward. Place the hands on two blocks directly under your shoulders. Extend the spine until it is parallel to the floor.
Ground deeply down into the big-toe mound, the outer edge of the left foot, and the inner heel. Then lift the inner and outer ankles to enliven the leg. Align your knee and second toe. Lift and firmly engage all four sides of your left thigh. If you hyperextend your knees, move the front of the shin forward to align the lower and upper legs.
Rotate the right buttock and outer thigh down until the sacrum is level. Lift the inner thigh up to the ceiling and engage the top of your thigh. To create stability, firm the sides of your thighs.
Let the shoulders melt away from the ears and extend your sternum forward. Draw the shoulder blades into the body and spread open across your collarbones. Connect with the Salabhasana actions in this pose. Lengthen through the torso and extend the right buttock toward the wall to lengthen the lumbar.
When your standing leg can maintain these actions, begin to play with lifting one arm at a time. Notice that you have a tendency to sink into the standing leg; instead, keep the outer hip firm. Let your breastbone shine forward as you look down at your fingertips.
The next variation teaches you to properly lift the leg while using the wall to support your torso. Facing the wall, place your hands at hip level. Walk your feet back until your body forms a right angle, with the hips directly over the feet, arms straight. Separate your feet hip-width apart, with the heels directly under each sitting bone. Notice that your legs are in Uttanasana, while your torso is in Virabhadrasana III. You are building the components of the final pose.
Separate the hands shoulder-distance apart and plant your knuckles evenly into the wall, pointing the middle finger toward the ceiling. Firm the outer upper arms and elongate the sides of your body and hips away from the wall. Keep your ears in line with your upper arms. As you reach the sternum forward, take the shoulder blades into the body.
Keep the feet parallel and lift the inner thighs from the inner knees up toward the pelvis. Strongly engage the tops of the thighs to protect the hamstrings. Take the tops of the thighs away from the wall to elongate the sides of the body and spine. For stability, firm the sides of the hips to your midline.
Keep your weight even in both hands and lift the right leg a few inches. Flex the foot to connect with the back of the leg. Now reach the leg up from your inner thigh. Don't let the leg spin out as you bring it parallel to the floor; use the actions from the first variation.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
Having spent time honing your skills at the wall, it's time to head to the center of the room. Knowing when to leave the wall—and when to return—is the art of practice. Take an honest look here and see whether you are ready. Can you firm your quad while balancing? Can you control any tendencies toward hyperextension? Can you keep the hips square while lifting up? If you are wobbly, continue using props until you build more strength.
Start in Virabhadrasana I with the left foot forward. Keep the arms fully extended and reach your torso forward. Shift your weight onto the left leg. Steady the foot; keep the big-toe mound and inner heel rooted. Slowly lift the right leg while firming up the right quad. Stack the sitting bone over the heel. Bring the arms and torso parallel to the ground.
Extend equally through the torso and back leg. Lengthen the arms forward as you move your trapezius muscles away from your ears. Repeat the leg and ankle actions here that you've developed through this sequence by maintaining length, openness, and strength. Keep the breath smooth, not jagged.
Stay mindful of the transition as you come out of the pose. The sign of an advanced practice is not the ability to perform a complicated pose, but rather the ability to transition mindfully between poses. Transitions are the jewels in yoga that often go unnoticed. Take time to appreciate them!
Focus on extending through the back leg. Carefully bend your left knee without buckling and align it with the second toe. Hold this position for a moment to build strength and control.
Gracefully step back into Virabhadrasana I. Hold for one breath. Then, bring the feet to parallel and pause before going on to the other side.