At first glance, Virasana (Hero Pose) looks simple. You don't have to balance on your head or bend your spine backward or support all your weight with your hands. Yet the classical seated posture can be enormously challenging the first, say, 12,000 times you practice it. An informal survey of my students confirmed this. They commonly reported feeling that their thighs were on fire, that their knees would explode, or that their ankles were going to break off. Since you don't come to yoga to increase your physical and mental discomfort, how can you make this pose more accessible?
The answer is not simply to avoid it. While Virasana's benefits aren't immediately obvious, there are many. The pose increases flexibility in the knees and ankles, teaches internal rotation in the thighs, reduces tension in the legs, and is said to aid digestion and soothe abdominal discomfort. It is also one of the classical seated postures for meditation and breath awareness. When your body is properly supported, you can sit in Virasana for several minutes at a time, becoming aware of the natural curves of your spine, the contours of your chest, the movement of your breath, and other internal sensations. In essence, it allows you to practice mindfulness, which is at the heart of yoga.
Give Yourself Props
For this version of Virasana, you'll use a blanket and a block to avoid aggravating your knees. The majority of new practitioners need this setup to do the pose safely—many, in fact, will need to use more than one blanket and block. Even if you can sit on the floor in the classical position, try it once with the props and see if you can work on refining your overall alignment. Then try the pose again without the props.
Fold a blanket in quarters and place it in the middle of your sticky mat with the neat edge facing the wall behind you. Place a block behind the neat edge of the blanket. (You'll rest your sitting bones on the longest side of the block.) The blanket will relieve pressure on your ankles and the block will raise your hips so your knees don't have to fold as deeply.
Find Some Leg Room
Kneel in front of the block, with your shins on the blanket and the tops of your feet on the mat. Your toes should point back and the soles of your feet will face the ceiling. Touch your inner knees together and separate your heels so they're just wider than your hips. Slowly sit on the block.
Do a quick scan of your legs. How do your feet, ankles, shins, knees, and thighs feel? If there's too much pressure on your ankles, grab another blanket—or two. The same goes for your knees. If you feel any sharp, searing, or localized pain as you sit on the block, first try separating your knees so that they're in line with your frontal hipbones (your thighs will be parallel to the blanket). Then add more props to lift your hips higher—a blanket or phone book should do the trick.
Once your setup feels supportive, focus on alignment. Start by bringing awareness to your feet. Look closely at the position of each foot. Before making any adjustments, simply observe how the feet are different from each other. Notice how one foot may turn in more than the other, how one ankle may have more sensation, or how one heel may list further from the hip than the other. After you've observed your body's instinctual alignment, try to make your feet symmetrical. See that your feet are in line with your shins. Hug your outer ankles in and press your heels firmly against your hips. Now place a finger under each foot and draw the skin out to the side so it feels smooth.
Move your awareness further up your legs to your knees. When you adjust the pose properly for your body, Virasana keeps the knees healthy and mobile. But there are pitfalls: namely, twisting the knees (a big no-no) or overstretching the ligaments. If you feel any sharp, localized pain in your knees, sit higher until the discomfort stops. That said, a certain amount of sensation is normal, especially if your body is not accustomed to the pose.
Cup your knees with your hands and draw the skin underneath your knees toward you. This should help decrease any pressure you might feel. Hone your awareness by noticing how one knee feels slightly different from the other.
Now take your attention to the tension and resistance in the front of your thighs. The legs are powerful, and in a fold this deep they can feel as if they want to uncoil, like springs. Breathe smoothly as you feel your legs' tenacity, recognizing how important it is to do poses like this to help relax and revitalize them.
Park Your Pelvis in Neutral
Move your attention further up the body, to the pelvis. Your pelvis provides the perfect foundation for a long and supported spine—when it's in its proper alignment.
To find the ideal placement, imagine that your entire pelvic area is a bowl nearly filled with water. Place your hands on your hips and slowly rock the bowl forward, toward your thighs. Then rock it back toward the wall behind you. Imagine that the water sloshes toward the front rim of your pelvic bowl as you shift it forward, then rushes toward the back rim as you tilt back.
Stop the rocking movement and bring your pelvis to the center, so that the imaginary water touches the walls evenly. Finally, tilt your pelvis forward just slightly until the water barely touches the front rim. This is what a neutral pelvis feels like. The hips tilt forward slightly, and the lower back moves into its natural shallow curve, making the imaginary water slightly higher in the front.
(Spinal) Curves Ahead
When you move into an unfamiliar posture, you might notice your body's tendency to grip in certain areas, especially the belly. Focus on allowing your belly to soften and receive several smooth, full breaths. Let it expand on the inhalation and relax on the exhalation.
Now that you've settled into Virasana, you can begin to develop healthy posture by becoming aware of your spine's natural curves. After the pelvic bowl exercise above, your lower back should arch into a gentle curve. But to be sure, place one hand in the small of your back and feel for yourself—is it arching in, slumping back, or flat? Depending on what you find, adjust your spine accordingly, until you feel a mild sway in your lower back.
Unlike your lower back, your middle and upper back should curve gently backward. To create this shape, move your entire rib cage toward the back of your body. It's a subtle movement—you should feel as if your middle and upper back touch the back of your shirt more than its front. You don't want to slump or hunch your shoulders up toward the ears, so move slowly and deliberately. Finally, imagine that your chest is full of helium and let it float up as your collarbones expand out away from each other.
Support your chest by drawing your arm bones slightly up into your shoulder joints and then back. Again, you don't want to end up with your shoulders shrugged up by your ears, but moving your arms this way will create the space your chest needs to rise. Rest your palms on your thighs. Breathe smoothly and feel your breath fill your lungs all the way to the top.
Finish the pose by balancing your head directly above your pelvis. Lengthen the back of your neck so that the base of your skull rises gently and your chin drops just below parallel to the floor. Release any tension in your eyes, ears, and throat. Let your tongue feel heavy as your upper palate rises up toward the crown of your head. Stay in this meditative posture for as long as you feel relaxed and comfortable.
When you're ready to come out, rock forward on your knees and place your hands on the floor in front of you. Slowly stretch your legs back behind you and come into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) as a counterpose.
As you reenter your regular life, take note: Are your lungs full? Are you taking long, smooth strides? Do you feel strong yet light and buoyant? Is your mind quiet and your mood equanimous? If so, congratulations. With one simple pose, you've caught a glimpse of what it feels like to be a yogic hero.