Over two millennia ago, one of the most essential teachings of yoga was given on a battlefield, of all places. As recounted in the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, the consummate warrior, becomes paralyzed with doubt and fear just as he is about to be called to action. Luckily for him, his chariot driver happens to be none other than the god Krishna, who proceeds to reveal to Arjuna the teachings of yoga to liberate him from his confusion.
In my favorite translation of the Gita, by the late scholar/teacher Eknath Easwaran, Krishna defines yoga as "wisdom in action"—yogah karmasu kausalam (II.50). He guides Arjuna to reflect upon the source of his actions and find his internal center, where he is free from the fluctuations of the mind.
Many centuries later Mahatma Gandhi would take these teachings of the Gita as guiding principles for his life.
Gandhi saw the battlefield as a metaphor for our internal conflicts and Arjuna as the archetypal warrior within—one who sees through illusions to the truth and is able to act with courage and unwavering focus. Perhaps as a beginning yoga student, you have already encountered a glimpse of this warrior spirit in the standing pose Virabhadrasana II (or Vira II for short). In the deep lunge and open arms of this Warrior Pose variation, there is a challenging intensity—a marked contrast to the images of yoga as a passive practice intended for relaxation.
You may ask, "Why is there a Warrior Pose, when yoga is a practice of nonviolence?"
As a strong pose, Virabhadrasana II can teach modern yogis a lot about the dynamics of bringing wisdom into the actions of our everyday lives. It is a powerful pose, no doubt, but as you explore the pose's alignment and inner attitude, the heart of the peaceful warrior begins to reveal itself.
As we go about our daily lives, we often speak of feeling "off-centered" or of needing to "get centered." Being "centered" is a feeling of being balanced and at ease on all levels—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
It is the clear space of awareness from which the wise action within any moment can be found.
To find your center in Virabhadrasana II—the place where your energy is distributed evenly, without bias—start by grounding yourself within Tadasana (Mountain Pose). The training of a spiritual warrior begins here as you let go of any external distractions and bring your awareness to your core.
When you feel your mind settle within the relaxed steadiness of Tadasana, then prepare to begin Virabhadrasana II. Consciously step your feet apart in a wide stance (4 to 5 feet), with your heels aligned parallel to one another. Pivot your left foot out to a 90-degree angle and pivot your right foot in to a 45-degree angle. Plant your feet like roots, connecting through all of the corners of your feet while lifting through the arches.
To focus on the leg work of Virabhadrasana II first, keep your arms relaxed at your sides. Slowly bend your left knee until it comes directly over your ankle. Now explore the feeling of your weight. Is all of your weight in your front leg? Lunge deeper into your left leg and then shift your weight into your back leg to feel the extremes, and then try to find the balance point.
Let your left hip sink to draw you deeper into the lunge, but keep your right leg firm, inner thigh lifting, and outer edge of your right foot reaching into the ground. As your legs develop stamina and your hips open, you can begin to explore coming into a right angle with your front leg as if you are balancing something on your thigh.
Once you find the place where your weight is evenly distributed through your legs and hips, bring your awareness to your torso. Are you collapsing into your lower back? Find your vertical center by turning your tailbone toward the earth. Without tension, lift your lower belly, the seat of your power, towards the spine. This action will awaken your center, so you can begin to extend out of your lower back and spread your chest open. Now balance your rib cage directly over your pelvis. Is your torso turning towards the left leg? Draw your right side and the top of your right thigh back to feel yourself opening out from the center.
Keep scanning your body to feel where you are losing awareness and balance. Change sides and explore Virabhadrasana II to find that even flow of energy—north, south, east, and west—throughout the pose.
Face Your Fears
As a metaphor for living, yoga can help us see how unnecessary tension within our actions shifts us off-center. To maintain Warrior Pose, we often harden our eyes, hold our breath, or shrug our shoulders. Try Virabhadrasana II again on the left side, setting up your foundation from your center. Slowly raise your arms up to shoulder height, keeping your shoulder blades pressing into and down your back. Now, turn your gaze (drishti) to the middle finger of your left hand.
Like a Zen archer spotting a bull's-eye, who practices just holding a bow for two years before ever releasing an arrow, find balance within your focus by becoming inwardly detached.
Let the backs of your eyes look inside while you stay totally present. Feel the power of your energy radiating freely from your center. Find the balance between working to your full potential and completely relaxing, mirroring the effortless stillness of an eagle hovering over a current of wind.
As you explore this dance between being active and receptive, you can contemplate Krishna's paradoxical teaching, "One who can see action within inaction and inaction within action is the wisest among all beings."
As you look out from this still point and open your inner ears, you may hear your internal warrior teacher giving you insights to bring you into balance not only in this moment, but in your life as a whole. Like Arjuna as Krishna whispered over his shoulder, you may be given confidence to face your fears, courage to move forward, compassion to embrace another, and wisdom to surrender to the one who holds the reins.