When I went to my first yoga class back in college, I had no idea what yoga even was. I’d really only heard of it, and I thought it was a bunch of stretching and meditating. I had no clue about the spiritual side of the practice, nor did I realize that it requires incredible strength, focus, and discipline. Still, I had seen poses on the internet and movies that I associated with yoga, and when the teacher of that first class asked us to move into something she called Warrior I, I thought to myself, “Here it is! This is YOGA!”
It’s true. The Warrior poses are often the ones we see depicted on TV as the quintessential yoga posture and for good reason! To me, the Warrior postures are the physical embodiment of what it means to truly practice yoga. They incorporate strength, focus, balance, flexibility, openness, and even a degree of softness. Although they might not look as hardcore as some other advanced poses, they are in reality quite challenging and require constant mind and body awareness.
These poses exude the sort of graceful tenacity that I’ve come to associate with the yoga practice I love so much.
And, it just so happens that Virabhadrasana I (the Sanskrit name for Warrior I) is the next new pose in our exploration of Surya Namaskara B. But, before we get down to the nitty-gritty of how to execute the posture, I’d like to give you a little background on where the Sanskrit name (and, by extension, the English name) of this pose comes from.
In the Hindu mythology, Virabadhra was an incarnation of Shiva, the god of destruction and transformation. The story varies by specific tradition, but the gist of it is that Shiva and Sati were madly in love and, naturally, got married. However, Sati’s father, Dakshas (who was also the son of Brahma), opposed the marriage and so disowned his daughter, who consequently committed suicide by meditating so hard she burst into flame. In order to get revenge on his father-in-law, Shiva created the warrior Virabhadra by ripping one of his dreadlocks from his head and hurling it to the ground.
HOLY HELL, SHIVA.
The details of how Virabhadra decapitates Dakshas are pretty gruesome, but the story comes to its glorious conclusion after Shiva’s anger starts to cool down and the reality of what he’s done begins to sink in. Shiva calls Virabhadra back into his body, and then he resurrects his father-in-law by giving him the head of a goat. Surprisingly, Dakshas isn’t pissed at his son-in-law when he comes back to his awareness; he’s just thankful to be alive again, and he has a renewed respect for Shiva. Still grieving, however, Shiva goes off to the mountains to meditate, where he stays for thousands of years.
It’s pretty dramatic, right? You might be thinking, “Okay, Emily. I’m not really in the habit of ripping my hair out and summoning warrior gods to murder my relatives,” and thank G-d for that. I’d be fairly disconcerted if you found you could identify on a literal level with this story.
The point is, though, that no matter how crazy and irrelevant this story seems to your life, we’ve all experienced rage. We’ve all experienced grief. We’ve all had a moment where we, overcome by emotion, turn into someone else and only later come to our senses and realize what hurtful things we said or did in the heat of the moment. Hopefully you never killed anyone in those moments, but you know exactly what I’m talking about. When we practice Virabhadrasana, we are connecting with the warrior side ourselves, but in these moments of focus and strength on the mat we can learn to control our emotions with grace, dignity, and patience.
Let’s take a look at how to practice Warrior I!
Warrior I: Alignment and Technique
Because we’re looking at this pose within the framework of Surya Namaskara B, let’s take just a minute to recap what we’ve learned so far and discuss exactly how this pose fits into the sequence.
Remember, Surya B starts in Samastitihi, and then on the inhale we bend the knees deeply and sweep the arms overhead for Utkatasana. An exhale takes us into a forward fold, an inhale brings us up to a flat back (still folding forward), and the next exhale links with Chaturanga Dandasana. From there, we pass through Cobra (inhale) and Downward Dog (exhale). If you need to brush-up on your alignment for any of the previous poses, feel free to click the links and jog your memory.
From our first Down Dog of Surya B, we will immediately step the right foot forward between the hands. At the same time, the left foot will spin down to about a 45-degree angle. This means that your left foot should neither be pointing towards the front of your mat nor have its outside edge parallel with the back of your mat; instead, you want it somewhere in between. Also, if you have a hard time stepping your right foot all the way forward, no worries! Take as many steps or wiggles as you need to get it there. Your feet should be about 3.5 – 4 feet apart, depending on your individual anatomy.
Yoga teachers vary in how they teach feet alignment in Warrior I. I tend to guide my students into heel-to-heel alignment (as in, your left heel lines up with your right, even though they are far apart), but know that if this doesn’t work for your body you can play around with your stance to find what works for you.
Once your feet are in place, align your hips so that they are square with the front edge of your mat. It might feel a little weird in your back leg, but work to keep the pinky-side edge of your left foot firmly planted on the mat. At the same time, bend deeply into your front (right) knee. Your arms will sweep up alongside the ears, palms coming together, with elbows straight and your shoulders engaged. If it feels right in your neck, bring your eyes up to gaze at your thumbs, dropping your head back effortlessly.
Reaching strongly through the arms and tipping the chin up will result in a slight backbend (which is fine), so make sure to keep lifting the ribcage and maintaining strength in the core so as not to dump your weight into the lower back.
When practiced as part of Surya Namaskara B, Virabhadrasana I is held for only an inhale (it’s really quick!), and then is immediately followed by planting the hands around the right foot and stepping back on the exhale to Chaturanga Dandasana. After flowing once again through Cobra and Down Dog, the pose is repeated on the left side, and another Vinyasa (Chaturanga – Cobra – Down Dog) follows it. On this third Down Dog, we hold in stillness and strength for five rounds of breath. You may then hop or step to the front of your mat on the next inhale, straight into a half forward fold (just like in Surya A). Exhale, full forward fold. Then, grounding down in both feet and finding the stability in your legs, bend the knees deeply, sweep the arms overhead, and inhale into Chair Pose. Exhale and straighten the legs, ending in Samastitihi.
You made it through Surya Namaskara B!
Of course, you can also practice Warrior I on its own whenever you need to connect with your inner strength and focus your mind. If you’d like to practice it separate from the Sun Salutation sequence, I recommend holding the posture for anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to get the full benefit. You may rest in Tadasana between sides.
Although I can’t pinpoint exactly why, I have found that this pose really makes me feel emotionally strong. It’s one that has helped a lot when I start feeling depression symptoms creeping up, and its still focus eases my anxious mind.
It may seem like a contradiction to think about channeling a violent warrior during your yoga practice. After all, aren’t yogis supposed to be all about peace and equanimity and non-violence? Isn’t there that whole thing about ahimsa?
However, this pose is drawing our attention to our inner battles. It’s reminding us that sometimes we have to find the strength of a warrior to fight off things like ego, anger, ignorance, and self-doubt. Virabhadrasana is really about finding the stillness to see ourselves clearly, to accept what we find, and to move through it with strength and grace.
Call on your inner warrior this week, and see what stuff you can sift through. See what strength and determination you can find within yourself.
Namaste, fellow yogis!
P.S. Photo credit goes to my talented man, Sam, who you might’ve seen in previous posts. If you want to check out more of his work, head to his Facebook profile.