One cold, sunny April morning at a retreat for writers and artists in Vermont, I was poking around in a popular book on cosmology. I had just finished reading a chapter on the life of stars when I noticed I was getting hungry, so I pulled on a sweater and headed across campus to the dining room, pondering star behavior and looking for signs of spring.
If I understood the book correctly, it was saying that every healthy star pulsates. Stars are dominated first by one and then the other of two opposing energies: the inward pull of gravity and the outward push of radiant heat that's created by thermonuclear fusion. Gravity pulls the star in toward its center, increasing the density of the core; as a result, the star's heat increases. And as it gets hotter, thermonuclear fusion increases. All the little particles start flying around faster and slamming into one another at higher velocities. This releases yet more heat, which expands the star's core, thinning it out. Consequently, fusion slows down, the core cools off slightly, gravity gets the upper hand, and the star begins to contract again.
"Oh, I love this stuff," I was thinking. As I was getting more and more jazzed about stars, I happened to run into a young painter I occasionally sat with at breakfast. "How's it going?" I asked.
"I didn't sleep at all last night," he said, somewhat dejectedly. "I've been struggling. When I'm painting, I feel like I don't know enough and I should be studying, filling myself, learning more about painting. But when I do that—when I'm taking a course in art history or watching a master painter—well, then I feel guilty that I'm not creating. I get tired of being pulled back and forth. How do you ever know which you are supposed to be doing?"
"Oh, my God," I exclaimed, "you're acting just like a star!"
"Huh?" he said, looking at me blankly.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I've just been reading about stars. They act like you; they go back and forth between expanding and contracting. The only difference between you and the stars is that they seem to be perfectly in tune with the arrangement. I bet they don't feel guilty when they're contracting! They need to do both, and so do you. You can't just keep putting out energy without recharging. You'll burn yourself out."
Finding the balance the young painter was seeking is a challenge most of us face in nearly every aspect of our lives. "How can I know," we ask ourselves, "when I need to push out and when I need to pull back in, when to expend energy and when to recharge?" That's not an easy question to answer. And with all the pressures of work, family, and friends, it's easy to spend too much time expending energy and not enough time regathering our resources.
Yoga practice has been crucial in helping many of us balance between expansion and contraction. Every posture demands both. In a very tangible way, finding stability in any asana requires us to develop an exquisite internal feedback device; we must become so present to our circumstances, moment by moment, that we can sense exactly where we need to draw our energy in and where we need to radiate it out. And as we develop this awareness on the physical level in asana practice, we also find ourselves applying it to everything else in our lives.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) teaches us precisely how to balance between gathering our energy in and extending it out. The pose asks us to stand grounded on one leg, rooted down into the earth, yet at the same time to lift the other leg and stretch horizontally from the tips of our toes to our fingertips—like a radiant star expanding into space. But if we expand outward too much, we lose our power and balance. To maintain these, we need to focus on contracting, on pulling in, on connecting with gravity: We energize our breath and our core, drawing the pelvic floor in and up to create Mula Bandha (Root Lock), drawing the lower abdomen (about two inches below the navel) in and up to create Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock), and drawing the heads of the thighbones in toward each other.
On the other hand, if we contract too much and hang on too tightly, we lose expansion and tend to collapse in on ourselves—and again lose our balance. Instead, we must shift our concentration back and forth between expansion and contraction, working to stay present with each of these opposing forces and to bring them into perfect balance.
To develop the strength and steadiness needed for Virabhadrasana III, we will work with four preliminary postures: Salabhasana (Locust Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), a transitional posture that will help you go from Virabhadrasana I to Virabhadrasana III, and Virabhadrasana III with the assistance of a wall. If you are familiar with Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath), I recommend that you use it throughout your practice. This style of breathing—keeping the mouth closed and creating an audible aspiration at the back of the throat—is a powerful way to warm the body from the inside out. Also, by giving you a sound to focus on, Ujjayi Pranayama can help keep your attention in the present.
Put Your Back into It
To raise and hold one leg and the arms at an equal height in Virabhadrasana III, the back muscles and the muscles in the backs of the legs need to be strong and capable of sustained hard work. The first posture we are going to practice, Salabhasana, will help develop this strength and endurance.
To come into the posture, lie facedown on a mat, place your arms along your sides, palms facing up, and rest your chin on the mat. Bring the inner edges of your legs and feet together, then draw your tailbone gently but firmly toward your feet and toward the floor; this action lengthens your lower back and helps protect it when you lift into the pose. To create power and stability at your center, engage the perineal muscles, lifting your pelvic floor upward (Mula Bandha), and draw the lower part of your abdomen in and up (Uddiyana Bandha). These two yogic locks act very much like gravity in a star; they pull prana (vital energy) into your center and create heat.
On an inhalation, slowly raise your legs, chest, shoulders, and head into the air, keeping the back of your neck long. Move your shoulders down, away from your ears, drawing the shoulder blades down your back. Bring their lower tips into the body, using this action to help you lift the chest. Pressing the backs of your hands and arms strongly down into the floor, lift the top of your head toward the ceiling as you gaze downward at the tip of your nose. Work to lengthen the spine. Without losing the contraction at your core and overarching your lower back, try to bring your feet almost as high as your head. Keep the legs strong, sending energy all the way down to the toes and being careful not to bend the knees.
You may find breathing a little difficult in this position. With your belly pressed into the ground, your diaphragm doesn't have as much room to move on your inhalations as when you're sitting or standing. But the resistance from the floor and from the bandhas makes this pose an excellent way to train the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs that aid in respiration), so breathe fully and deeply on both your inhalations and exhalations. (Learn how to create more freedom in the diaphragm in "Take a Deep Breath,") Take five breaths in this position, then lower down to the floor. Repeat the pose several times. See if you can allow each inhalation to lift you a little higher, then hold the height you have gained as you exhale.
Now let's explore Virabhadrasana I. It's more difficult than Salabhasana—and more complex, because it is asymmetrical—but it also involves many of the same actions.
To come into Virabhadrasana I, step your feet about four feet apart, turning your right foot out 90 degrees. Turn your left foot in about 30 to 45 degrees, aligning the left heel with the right foot. As much as you can, square your hips—drawing your right hip back and your left hip forward—so that you face the same direction as your right foot. Make sure your hipbones are level with each other. Awareness of the position of your hipbones relative to each other will be critical for balance as well as good form when you move on to Virabhadrasana III, so developing the habit of being mindful about what's going on with your hips will help you down the road.
This is a good position in which to contact the contracting element of your star power, just as you did in Salabhasana. Lift your pelvic floor, engaging Mula Bandha, while drawing the lower part of your belly slightly in, activating Uddiyana Bandha. Also, as in Salabhasana, protect your lower back by drawing your tailbone gently but firmly down.
Now, focusing on the expansive action, extend out strongly through your left leg. Ground firmly through the heel and ball of the foot while lifting the arch. Keeping your torso perpendicular to the floor and making sure your right knee tracks directly toward your right foot, bend your right knee to 90 degrees (or as close to that as possible); at the same time, sweep your arms up over your head, bringing your palms together, and gaze up at your thumbs. Be mindful not to overly compress your neck; to avoid this, lengthen the back of the neck even as you lift the head to look up.
There's no doubt about it: Virabhadrasana is difficult and tricky, and achieving the full pose with proper alignment does not come easily for most of us. People with tight shoulders may find it hard to lift the arms straight up overhead; it's easy in this situation to overcompensate by leaning the torso back, causing too much bending and compression in the lower back. If your shoulders are tight, keep your hands parallel to each other and shoulder width apart instead of bringing your palms together.
People who have tight hips and groins may not be able to rotate the back-leg hip forward so the hips are square and level; they also may not be able to bend the front leg to 90 degrees or keep the back foot on the floor without collapsing its arch. If you find yourself facing these difficulties, you can use several strategies. Some days, try to maintain all the points of alignment as best you can. Other days, you might want to turn the back foot so it points straight forward and come up on the ball of the foot and the toes; this will help you square the hips and bend the front knee more deeply. And sometimes, you might want to focus on keeping the back foot down and lifting the arch, even if that means you can't square the hips.
Even though Virabhadrasana I is difficult, all of its challenges are precisely what make it such a valuable and educational asana. There are many details that you need to pay attention to—and so the pose helps you stay in the present moment and become aware of your strengths and weaknesses. As you work in Vira-bhadrasana I, it may help you to invoke Virabhadra, the mythological figure for whom the pose is named. A huge demon warrior, as tall as the sky and as bright as three suns, Virabhadra has thousands of arms equipped with various weapons. Symbolically, he is the ruthless and dispassionate slayer of our inner enemies, and every weapon he carries provides a means to destroy the obstacles to self-realization—like ignorance, delusion, doubt, laziness, and backsliding—all of which prevent us from gaining solid ground and knowing our true Self. When we're tempted to shy away from the difficulty of the posture, Virabhadra bellows at us, "Be present! Pay attention! Wake up!"
Once you've come into Virabhadrasana I, hold the pose for at least five breaths. Then inhale, straightening your right leg, and reverse your feet—still looking up if possible—as you exhale and descend into the posture on the left side. Hold for at least five breaths, then straighten your left leg, turn both feet forward, and lower your arms to your sides.
Whether you are dancing, skiing, skating, surfing, or doing yoga, you need concentration, strength, and skill to move successfully from standing with both feet firmly planted on the ground, as in Virabhadrasana I, to floating freely, balanced on one leg, as in Virabhadrasana III. Eventually, this movement will become an effortless flow, but it can be easier to learn if you pause halfway between the two postures to gather your strength and focus. At first, you may also want to use a wall to help you balance. By helping you stabilize, a wall can make it easier to focus on building the strength you began cultivating in Salabhasana, and on developing an awareness of the position of your hips and shoulders.
Once you have practiced Virabhadrasana I on both sides, move to a wall. Stand just far enough away from it so that when you bend forward 90 degrees at the hips and stretch your arms overhead, you can place your palms flat on the wall at the same height as your hips. Check to see that your hips are directly over your ankles, so your legs are exactly perpendicular to the ground. Then return to standing upright.
Leaving your right foot where it is, step your left foot back into position for Virabhadrasana I, then bend your right knee and take the pose again. From here, you'll move through the transitional position and then into Virabhadrasana III at the wall before repeating all three positions to the second side.
To come into the transitional position from Virabhadrasana I, exhale as you bend at the hips to bring your torso toward your right thigh, squaring and leveling your hips. Keep your legs stable, bending forward until your lower ribs are almost resting on your thigh and your arms are at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. Make sure your breath is full and even and that the bandhas are fully engaged. Hold this position for five to 20 breaths, building strength and stability.
To move into Virabhadrasana III at the wall, shift your weight forward until almost all of it is on your right foot: Come up on your left toes, bend your right knee so it moves forward above your right toes, and bring your arms and torso almost parallel to the ground.
On an inhalation, begin to radiate outward while maintaining your core contraction. Straighten the right leg by sending prana from your center all the way down through your foot, and bring your torso parallel to the floor. Simultaneously, send prana out through your left leg as you raise it parallel to the floor, flexing your foot so that you lead with the heel and your toes point directly down. Separating your hands, bring your palms to the wall at the same height as your hips.
Many people tend to hyperextend the knee of the standing leg in Virabhadrasana III, pushing the joint back behind the ideal plumb line of hip over knee over ankle. You may need to look at yourself in a mirror while doing the pose to detect this tendency; your knee may feel straight to you but still be hyperextended. To counteract this tendency, lift your quadriceps muscles firmly while simultaneously making an effort to push your shinbone forward without overcompensating and bending the knee.
Other tendencies in Virabhadrasana III are to roll your torso slightly over to the right; to drop the right shoulder, arm, and hand lower than the left; to shorten the right side of the torso; and to raise the left hip, rolling the left leg out. Instead, you should work to internally rotate the left thigh, keeping the kneecap and the left hipbone—and the whole torso too—directly facing the floor. Firmly drawing the right outer hip and thigh away from the wall will also help you maintain symmetry through the hips, torso, and arms. Check to make sure your wrists, arms, shoulders, torso, hips, and lifted leg are all at the same level as well.
Without losing the core contraction, extend out in all directions. Push your hands into the wall, extend out through the heels of both legs, and draw your spine long. Although you'll eventually want to gaze at your thumbs when you do Virabhadrasana III in the center of the room, gaze at the floor for now, keeping your head between your arms. In this alignment, it's easier to lengthen through the arms, shoulders, and upper back—and to avoid overarching the lower back. Hold this position for five to 10 breaths; then, with control, lower your foot to the floor, coming back down through the transitional position and up into Virabhadrasana I again.
Straighten the right leg, then position yourself to repeat the whole sequence on the other side. Over time, you can try to lessen your dependence on the wall for balance; when you become more secure, you might try bringing your fingertips instead of your palms to the wall. Eventually, your aim will be to separate yourself from the wall completely.
The Cosmic Rhythm
When you work on Virabhadrasana III in the middle of the room, the sequence is the same as at the wall. Three elements will aid you in making a successful transition to Virabhadrasana III and in holding your balance once you get there: Ujjayi Pranayama, the bandhas, and a focused drishti (gaze). The breath fuels the fiery nature of the pose, the bandhas keep you centered and energized, and the drishti contributes to your balance and stability.
Come into a strong, stable Virabhadrasana I in the center of the room, checking to see that your gaze is directed at your thumbs (or at the space between them if your hands are shoulder width apart). Then exhale to bend at the hips and extend your torso out over your right leg; breathing smoothly and deeply, holding your gaze on your thumbs, and using the bandhas, lift radiantly into Virabhadrasana III.
As you shift your weight to do this, send prana strongly down through your right leg, connecting with gravity, and let that solidity supercharge your lift into the pose. Then send prana equally strongly out through the horizontal plane created by your torso, arms, and raised left leg. Making sure you're not hyperextending your right knee, hold Virabhadrasana III for as many deep, even breaths as you can without strain. To come out of the posture, bend the standing leg and lower yourself back into Virabhadrasana I. Straighten your right leg, turn the feet to the left, and repeat the pose on the left side.
As you practice and become stronger in Virabhadrasana III, you learn to tune in to perfect harmony, finding the balance between contracting (rooting down through your standing leg for steadiness) and expanding (radiating out through the crown of your head, your tailbone, the tips of your toes, and your fingertips). You find yourself pulsating: expanding, contracting, expanding again, over and over. Everything falls into place as you drop into the organic, eternal rhythm of this pulsation, and suddenly it hits you: You really are a star.