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In the beginning, yoga poses sometimes seem to be all about body parts. Postures are like puzzles, and figuring out how to position the arms, legs, hips, and shoulders is enough of a challenge to keep us focused and engaged. A sense of satisfaction arises simply from discovering how all of these parts fit together.
As our practice evolves, though, yoga takes on a richer flavor. Feelings of integration develop as we begin to sense deeper connections among our poses, as well as in various aspects of our lives. We feel less like a machine made up of fragmented body parts and more like a wholesome, authentic, and expressive creature. We begin to move and breathe with a satisfying sense of harmony and accord. And this invites grace and beauty to reveal themselves in even the simplest of our daily tasks.
One of the most magnificent of all yoga postures, Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) provides a perfect opportunity to explore this rewarding sense of integration and unity within. Both earthy and exhilarating, this asana cultivates balance, agility, and coordination. It also invites deep concentration, encouraging the scattered pieces of our selves to become transformed into a tranquil vessel for the heartfelt expression of life. Who wouldn’t say yes to the chance to feel harmonious and at ease in their skin at least once every day?
Before we explore the rich and expansive qualities of Virabhadrasana I, we need to focus on a few essentials. Form is important, after all, and careful attention to alignment will lay the foundation for a buoyant vitality to flow freely through us.
Explore Your Upper Body
Let’s consider the top half of Virabhadrasana I first. Stand with your feet parallel, wide enough apart so that when you stretch out your arms at shoulder height, your ankles are beneath your wrists. Place your hands on your hips, pausing to massage the bony points at the top front of your pelvis. If necessary, adjust the pelvis so these hip points are level—one shouldn’t be higher than the other or closer to the wall in front of you. These bony protrusions will become very important landmarks later in our exploration, so get to know them well. As you gently release your tailbone downward, invite a sense of enthusiasm to trickle upward from deep inside your belly.
As you extend the arms overhead, breathe steadily and allow the heart to float upward, creating a sense of lightness and liveliness in your core. Feel the roots of the arms originate in the belly, so that you’re reaching upward not just with your fingers but with the entire length of your upper body. Note the graceful symmetry and extension from the hips all the way up through the fingertips. Remain here for a few breaths and then exhale as you settle your arms back down to your sides. Do you feel a little longer in your spine and lighter in your heart than you did a few moments ago?
Lay Your Foundation
Now let’s try the same exploration with the legs in a more challenging, asymmetrical stance. With your hands on your waist and your legs still wide, begin revolving your upper body toward the left. At some point along the way, you’ll notice that the position of your legs impedes your progress. When this happens, turn the left foot outward 90 degrees and the right foot inward 60 degrees so you can fully spin your torso around to face left.
Rise up onto the toes of your right foot and readjust the pelvis so that the hip points face evenly toward the wall beyond your left toes. Encourage the belly to directly face this wall instead of sprawling lazily back toward the right. At the same time, aim to keep the hips level, so that the waistband of your pants isn’t slanting down to one side or the other. Maintain this evenness in the pelvis as you slowly release the back heel toward the ground.
Managing both of these actions—leveling the hips and grounding the back heel—will likely feel like a tug of war at first. In trying to maintain symmetry in the hips, you may find that the heel wants to rise off the ground. When you attempt to release the heel to the earth, the pelvis will want to slip around toward the right. Be patient and persistent as you explore the possibility of saying yes to both the leveling and the grounding. Invite your mind and body to embrace these opposing actions as gracefully as possible.
From the strength of the legs, extend the arms enthusiastically overhead. Let the arms be long and buoyant, hands shoulder distance apart and palms facing each other. Pause here for a few breaths, releasing your tailbone toward the back heel while inviting your heart to lift and grow light. Do you sense any wrinkles or kinks distorting an even, graceful arc in the spine? If so, nudge the hip points upward toward the heart while inviting the deep belly to slide gently inward to support the front of the spine. Readjust as best as you can in order to encourage the two hip points to maintain symmetry, with your belly facing evenly forward. At the same time, unclench your lower back and release your tailbone downward. Let the back body be broad and unwrinkled, and nestle the front body into its support. Keep both heels fully grounded and the fingertips uplifted.
Take the Full Pose
Now we need to add just one more piece of the puzzle to complete Virabhadrasana I. With the belly, heart, and head still looking forward beyond the left toes, bend your front leg to a 90-degree angle, bringing the left thigh parallel to the floor. If as you do this your left knee ends up over the toes instead of the ankle, widen your stance a few inches. If you have difficulty bending your knee to a full 90 degrees, don’t worry—this is a deep action that takes some practice to negotiate with ease. Bend as close to 90 degrees as you can while keeping the lift through your upper body and pelvis and grounding your back heel into the floor.
With a long, swanlike feeling in the neck, gaze upward slightly at an angle of about 45 degrees. To help maintain integrity in the spine, imagine that your eyes are in your collarbones instead of your head and look upward from there. Be light and expansive in the heart, reaching toward the sky.
At the same time, be firm in the legs, keeping the back leg straight and well rooted, while settling with power and presence into the front leg. Resist the tendency to lean forward or backward; instead, align the shoulders directly over the hips so that you stand firmly in the present moment. After several breaths, come out of the pose.
As you repeat Virabhadrasana I on the second side, invite your mind to move beyond the sum of your body parts to infuse the pose with deeper fullness and integrity. After you’ve mindfully and methodically positioned yourself in a well-aligned Warrior I, encourage your awareness to fully seep into every cell of your body, from the heels right on up through the fingertips. Encourage your warrior to be elegant and expressive rather than mechanical and controlled.
Trace an imaginary line from deep in your belly all the way down through each leg and enjoy the sense of presence and steadiness this cultivates. Trace another line from that same place deep in the belly upward through the fingertips and soak up the possibility this evokes. Extend your energy outward in all directions, filling your whole body with abundance and vitality.
Without sacrificing even an ounce of your inner vibrancy and strength, soften the contours of your skin so there’s room for the breath to both support and enliven the pose. On an inhalation, pull the breath deep into your body as if you have lungs in your heels. On an exhalation, invite your spine to extend upward as your breath sweeps out through the tips of your fingers.
Now invite Virabhadrasana I to be an expression of something greater than yourself. Let it be an opportunity for grace and harmony to reveal themselves through your body. Grow as spacious as possible, absorbing the beauty and exhilaration of the moment.
Enjoy the magnificent strength and presence this posture evokes. The broad stance of your legs grounds you, providing feelings of earthiness and embodiment. The upward sweep of your spine invites you to reach with inspiration toward the sky. You are both grounded and uplifted, living firmly in the present moment while reaching gracefully toward the beauty and transformation that lies ahead.
Claudia Cummins lives, writes, and teaches yoga in Mansfield, Ohio.