The standing pose Virabhadrasana II is standard practice in most yoga classes. But few yogis know the tale of its genesis. In Hindu lore, the powerful priest Daksha threw a huge sacrifice and invited everyone—except his youngest daughter Sati and her good-for-nothing yogi husband Shiva, whom Daksha despised (even if Shiva was supreme ruler of the universe). Sati was livid. In one version of the story, she stormed over to the sacrificial fire and threw herself in to teach her father a lesson; in another, her ire was so intense that she spontaneously combusted. Shiva was devastated by his beloved's immolation and went berserk. When he yanked out a tuft of his hair and beat it into the ground, up popped a nightmarish creature with "a thousand heads, a thousand feet, a thousand eyes, a thousand hands, with fangs terrible to behold." It was armed to the teeth and invincible. Meet Virabhadra, whose name means "blessed hero," though typically it's rendered into English simply as "warrior." Shiva dispatched Virabhadra and an army of demons to pay Daksha a visit. Happily, Shiva's wife gets brought back to life, and Daksha's whupping teaches him humility (he loses his head and winds up with a goat's as a replacement).
We recreate the image of Virabhadra in three incarnations of Virabhadrasana, designated by Roman numerals (I, II, III), in which we stand like mighty warriors. Our focus will be on II. Virabhadrasana II is an excellent way to stretch your groins and, even though both feet stay on the floor, improve your balance. You can also, to a lesser extent, strengthen your arms and open your chest. Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar points out in his book Light on Yoga that Vira II "tones the abdominals." It's also a nice way to strengthen your legs and make them shapely.
It's important in Vira II to bring awareness to the head of the femur of the front leg; it's the little ball on the end of the bone that plugs into the hip socket and swivels like a joystick. You also need to pay attention to the outer heel of the back foot, just under the outer ankle bone.
To work on proper front leg alignment, try a simple chair-supported exercise. If you're tall, you might need a blanket; if you're short, grab a block. Set the chair on your sticky mat, near the front edge, with the back of the chair facing the right edge. Face the front edge of your mat and sit on the chair with your knees over your heels, shins perpendicular to the floor. Ideally your thighs will be parallel to the floor. If you are tall and your knees are higher than your hips, use a blanket to raise your buttocks until your thighs are parallel to the floor. If your feet don't reach the floor (typical for shorter students), put the lift beneath your right foot.
Swing your left leg around the seat, straighten the left knee as much as possible, and step the ball of your left foot onto the floor near the back edge of the mat into a lunge. Rotate your torso away from the chair toward the left, pivot on the ball of your left foot, and press your left heel to the floor so your foot is angled slightly toward the front edge of the mat. Align the middle of the right heel with the middle of the left foot's inner arch and adjust your inner right thigh more or less perpendicular to the front edge of your mat.
Be a Warrior
In Vira II, you take the stance of a strong warrior. You balance your weight between both legs, and your torso rises up evenly from your hips. On the chair, avoid leaning forward or back. Burrow the base of your right palm into the hip crease between your front thigh and pelvis and push down against the head of your thighbone. Push into the crease, not farther down the thigh. Ideally you'll feel the back of your thigh press firmly against the seat and, in response, your spine effortlessly lengthen upward. Draw your right hip point away from your thigh, lengthen your tailbone down, and shift your shoulders so they line up over your hips. After a minute or so, release your hand yet stay here, sitting heavily on your thigh. Bend your left knee, swing the leg back to where it started, turn the chair 180 degrees, and repeat on the other side.
In the full pose, many beginners depend on their muscles to sustain the position and quiver uncontrollably after a few seconds. Then things go downhill. Try to recreate your chair-supported experience, so that some of the support is shifted to your bones, and your muscles can release. Then you can sustain the posture almost indefinitely, needing to come out only for meals and to attend yoga class.
Like other split-leg standing poses, Virabhadrasana II is anchored and stabilized by rooting the outer back heel into the ground. Many beginners have tight groins, so bending the front knee buckles the back knee, which pulls the outer back heel off the floor. Think: What would happen to a tree deprived of its roots? Before you bend your front knee, "dig" your outer back heel into the floor. As you bend your front (right) knee, have an imaginary friend resist that movement by pulling on a strap on your left groin. Your left leg will move physically through space closer to the floor; but energetically it opposes the movement and keeps your outer back heel rooted.
Stand sideways in the middle of your sticky mat, facing a long edge, and step your feet apart. Ideally, your feet are wide enough apart so that when you bend the front knee and position it over the heel, the front thigh is parallel to the floor. With your hands on your hips, turn your back (left) foot to the right 30 degrees, your right foot to the right 90 degrees. Align your front heel and your back arch.
Don't push the left hip back, away from the long edge of your mat. Many teachers have you square your pelvis toward the wall your chest is facing; I teach the pose slightly differently to create more width and ease in the lower back. As you bend your front knee, roll the back hip forward a fair amount and rotate the front knee out, toward the pinky-toe side. Once the knee is thus aligned, you can take the back hip back a bit, but be sure your front knee doesn't buckle in toward the big-toe side of your foot.
Inhale, consciously grounding your back heel; on an exhalation, bend your front knee over your heel. Aim the inner knee toward the pinky-toe side of the foot to avoid swiveling your knee inward as you bend it. Now sit your right femur head on the imaginary chair. Then lift your right hip point away from your thigh, tuck your tailbone, and position your shoulders over your pelvis. Align the inner right thigh with the long edge of the mat.
To get your thigh parallel to the floor in the full pose, hang a sandbag on a yoga strap from your front hip crease. Want to go further? Inhale and raise your arms out to the sides, palms down. Press into the back heel and reach actively through the back arm, as if your left arm is trying to pull your front knee straight. You can gaze over the front arm, but if you have neck issues, simply look straight forward. Hold for 30 seconds to a minute, inhale and straighten your front knee, release your arms, and turn your feet forward. Never come out of this posture by shifting your weight forward onto the front leg. After a few breaths, repeat on the left.
This pose looks like the mighty warrior Virabhadra emerging fearlessly from the earth and should be a big part of your practice. It increases flexibility and builds strength, physical endurance, and willpower—which will serve you well throughout your practice and your life.
Richard Rosen lives and teaches in California.