warrior pose I: Virabhadrasana I Vira = hero; Bhadra = gentle, blessed; Asana = pose
Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) is a vigorous standing pose that demands focus and determination to meet its challenges. The full expression of the pose takes some serious multitasking. It asks you to do several actions at once that seem to pull you in opposite directions: you must lift up while grounding down and press forward while reaching backwards.
Although it can sometimes feel like one battle after another, mastering this foundational pose offers great rewards. Your thigh muscles get a workout. Your feet and ankles are stretched and strengthened and your core muscles are toned. Your arms are strengthened as they lift overhead and your chest will open and expand your lungs, giving a great feeling of vigour. Opening your hips and chest and strengthening both your legs and arms prepare you for all kinds of backbends and inversions.
Since the pose invites many different actions, it’s helpful to choose one to focus on each time you practise it. For many students, one of the greatest challenges is maintaining the deep bend in the front knee while reaching the torso upward without compressing the lower back. The key to this is the position of the pelvis. Unless you are naturally very open in the hip flexor muscles (these run from the front thigh across the pelvic area and allow you to take long, powerful strides), bending your front knee towards a right angle tends to tilt the top of the pelvis forward, compressing the lower back. Instead, work to bring the pelvis towards a more upright or neutral position by lifting the front hip points. You can feel where these are at either side of your low belly if you wrap your hands around your waist. It’s more important to work towards this placement of the pelvis, allowing your lower back to lengthen, than it is to have a perfect right-angle bend in your knee.
A warrior’s strength: According to legend, Virabhadra was a fierce warrior who grew out of a lock of the enraged Lord Shiva’s hair and conquered his enemies. Tap into your own inner power as you face the challenges of this demanding pose.
Explore the connection between the two actions: notice that the more you bend the knee, the harder it is to move the pelvis towards upright. Try engaging a slight lift of your lower abdominal muscles and notice how that helps elongate your lower back. This personal inquiry reveals the flexibility of your hip joints and hip flexor muscles, as well as the strength of your abdominals. Some days you’ll have more ease than others, and as you warm up, you may experience a greater range as well. While you may not fully arrive at a right-angle bend in your front leg, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment in having identified your work and sticking to it. You’ll have the deep satisfaction of committing to the challenge, no matter what the outcome may be.
Practising Warrior I will show you where you’re strong, where you’re tight, and where you’re weak. Perhaps most importantly, it will teach you to accept whatever obstacles your body presents. Over time, you’ll create the stability, awareness and skill to move into a deeper expression of this powerful pose.
Annie Carpenter is a US- based yoga teacher and founder of the SmartFLOW Yoga Teacher Training Program (anniecarpenter.com).
Step 1 Stretch your front thigh
- From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward between your hands, and lower your back knee to the floor or a blanket.
- Line up your front heel with your back heel, or place feet hip-width apart for better balance.
- Plant your fingertips on the ground and shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your left thigh.
- Stack your front knee over the heel.
- Press into your front heel and work the front thigh, drawing your femur into the hip socket.
REFINE Place your hands on your front knee, lifting your torso upright. Press your hands into your thigh to help lift your front hip points, observing how the feeling of stretch shifts up from the middle of your thigh to the front of your hip. Activate your abdominals to further help you lift your front hip points up and lengthen your tailbone down. Your weight will shift back slightly onto your back leg.
FINISH Again, shift your weight forward, over the bent leg. Can you shift forward and keep your front thighbone pulling back? Keep the knee stacked over the heel. Seek a balance between shifting forward into the stretch and lifting your abdominals to bring your pelvis towards an upright position. Finally, inhale deeply and reach your arms overhead, lifting your chest up. Take a few breaths here and practise on the second side.
Step 2 Engage your legs and lengthen your spine
- Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) facing the front edge of your mat. Step your left foot back, about 1-1.5 metres behind you.
- Align your feet front heel to back heel or keep your feet about hip-width apart if that feels more stable.
- Point your left foot toes toward the left front corner of the mat.
- Turn your back outer thigh and hip forward, working towards squaring the hips to the front.
REFINE With your hands on your hips, firm all the muscles of your legs. Press evenly down through all four corners of your front foot and pull the leg muscles up into your hip as if you were drawing tights up your legs. Try to seal the outer edge of your back foot down into the mat, working to lift the inner arch of your foot. Continue that work up the back leg, engaging your inner shin and firming and lifting your inner knee as if you were zippering up all the way to the top inseam of your back leg. Next, roll the entire inseam of your leg back towards the wall behind you to find internal rotation. This should help make space in your lower back so the tailbone and sacrum can stretch down. Lift your front hips up using your hands as a guide. Drop your tailbone and sense the lift in your abdominals and the deepening stretch in your back leg and hip.
FINISH You’ll feel a nice stretch in the thigh and the front of the pelvis of the back leg. Use your hands to help your pelvis draw more upright, just as you did in the previous step. Gaze straight out in front of you and steady your breath so it’s long and smooth. Practise on the second side.
FINAL POSE Warrior pose I
- Begin in Tadasana facing the front of your mat. Step your left foot back, about 1-1.5 metres behind you.
- Keep your front foot pointing straight ahead and your back foot pointing to the front left corner of your mat.
- Firm and straighten your legs. Firmly anchor the back foot and roll the back thigh inward, creating space to drop your tailbone.
- Lift your front hip points up to bring the pelvis toward an upright position.
- Begin to bend your front knee towards a right angle.
REFINE Press your front heel down into your mat and feel as if you’re pulling the thigh back into its socket. Bend the front leg about halfway towards a 90-degree angle and pause to recommit to the back leg. Ground the outer edge of the back foot, rolling the inseam of the thigh towards the wall behind you and try to lift the front hip points again. Then, on an exhalation, bend your front knee as deeply as you can comfortably, moving towards a right angle. Place your hands on your hips and feel if your pelvis is tipping forward. Work to lift it more upright, noticing if you lose some of the deep bend in the knee. Explore how deeply you can bend the front knee while still keeping a lifted and upright pelvis.
FINISH As you find your expression of Warrior I, inhale deeply and reach your arms straight up to the sky, lengthening the lower back and the sides of your waist. Press into the solid roots of both your feet and breathe into your heart, finding a sense of peace amidst effort.
Try these tips to optimise your practice of Warrior Pose I
If you feel unbalanced, create a more stable base by placing your front foot a few centimetres out from your body’s midline.
Back foot lifting
Place a wedge under your heel to help you press down or press your heel against a wall; you’ll feel more grounded.
Tender back knee
If your back knee feels strained, engage your thigh muscles to lift the knee cap, keeping the back leg fully straightened.
Lower back pain
Try this variation: bend slightly forward from the hips, lengthening your torso on a diagonal. Work your abdominals for support.
elements of practice
At times, the efforts called for in a difficult pose like Warrior I may seem impossible. You may even feel like moving on to another pose you like better. Instead, like Arjuna, the hesitant warrior from the Bhagavad Gita, learn to make efforts without being overly attached to achieving perfection in the form of the pose. In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “Abandon all attachment to the results of action and obtain supreme peace”. It is in choosing to accept your practice the way it is right now that you move from fear to freedom. Commit to the journey of yoga rather than trying to force your pose to look a specific way.