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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

For Beginners: Warrior I

June 21, 2010
In the beginning, yoga sometimes seems to be all about body parts. Postures are like puzzles, and figuring out how to position the arms, legs, hips and shoulders is challenge enough to keep us focused and engaged. A satisfying sense of exhilaration arises simply from stretching the body in new and different ways.

As one’s practice evolves, yoga takes on a richer flavor. Feelings of integration develop as we begin to sense a deeper connection among 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, or warrior pose one, offers 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 be transformed into a radiant and tranquil vessel for the heartfelt expression of life. Who wouldn’t say yes to an opportunity to feel harmonious and at ease in one’s skin at least once every day?

Before we explore the rich and expansive qualities of Virabhadrasana, we do need to focus on a few essentials. Form is important, after all, and careful attention to alignment will lay the foundation for buoyant vitality to flow freely through us.

We’ll consider the top half of Virabhadrasana first. Stand with your feet wide enough apart so that when you stretch out your arms at shoulder height your ankles are directly beneath your wrists. Place your hands on your hips, pausing to gently massage the bony points at the top front of your pelvis. If necessary, adjust the pelvis so these hip points are even - one shouldn’t be higher than the other or closer to the wall in front of you. These bony protrusions will become important landmarks later in our exploration, so get to know them well now.

Invite a sense of enthusiasm to trickle upward from the deep belly as you gently release your tailbone in the opposite direction toward the earth. Imagine your spine is filled with champagne bubbles, and let that effervescence kindle feelings of ease and exhilaration within. Inhale as you joyfully stretch the arms overhead, hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing one another.

Breathe steadily as you invite the heart to gaze upward, fueling a sense of liveliness in your core. Let the arms feel rooted in the belly so you reach upward not just with your fingers but 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 a few moments ago?

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 leg outward 90 degrees and the right leg inward 60 degrees so you can spin your torso more fully to face the left wall.

Rise up onto the toes of your back foot and readjust the pelvis so that the hip points face toward the wall beyond your left toes. Encourage the belly to look toward this wall instead of sprawling lazily back toward the right. At the same time keep the hips level and even so that your waistband isn’t slanting in one direction or the other. Maintain this evenness in the pelvis as you slowly release the back heel toward the ground.

Managing both of these actions – steadying the hips and grounding the back heel - will likely feel like a tug of war at first. In order to maintain symmetry in the hips, the heel will want to rise off the ground. In order 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 of these movements - or at least saying maybe. Invite your mind and body to embrace these opposing actions as gracefully as possible.

(If you have a looser body or if your sacro-iliac joints tend to go out of whack, then don't overdo this exploration. Instead, let the pelvis release a bit as you settle into this pose, allowing the right hip to slip back toward the back leg. This will prevent your sacro-iliac joints from bearing the brunt of the action and possibly slipping out of alignment.)

Now return to your earlier exploration of the effervescent upper body, extending the arms enthusiastically overhead. Let the arms be long and buoyant, hands shoulder-distance apart and palms facing one another. Pause here for a few breaths, releasing your tailbone toward the back heel while inviting your heart to grow light. Trace a smooth line from the deep belly up through the fingertips as if those champagne bubbles in your spine could float all the way up to the sky.

Do you sense any wrinkles or kinks distorting an even, graceful arc in the spine? If so, nudge the hips points upward toward the heart while inviting the deep belly to slide gently inward to support the front spine. 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 welcoming support. As you do this, keep the heels fully grounded and the fingertips uplifted.

Now let’s check in again with the bottom half of the pose. During your exploration of the upper body have you lost the evenness in your pelvis? Readjust as best you can to encourage the hips to stay steady and even, as they gently support the upper body's lift.

We now 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 that 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, on the other hand, you have difficulty bending your knee a full 90 degrees, don’t worry - this is a deep action that takes some practice to negotiate with ease. Bend as fully as you can without moving beyond a squared angle in the front knee while maintaining integrity through your upper body and grounding your back heel into the floor.

While preserving a long, swan-like feeling in the neck, gently gaze upward. To help maintain integrity in the spine, imagine 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 with enthusiasm.

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, and instead align the shoulders directly over the hips so that you stand firmly in the present moment. After several breaths, reverse your movements to release out of the pose.

As you repeat Virabhadrasana on the second side, invite your mind to move beyond body parts to infuse the pose with deeper fullness and integrity. After you’ve mindfully and methodically positioned yourself in a well-aligned warrior, encourage your awareness seep into every cell of your body, from the heels right up to through the fingertips. Encourage your warrior to be graceful, expressive and elegant, rather than mechanical and controlled.

Trace an imaginary line from your deep belly all the way down through each leg and enjoy the sense of presence and steadiness this cultivates. Trace another line from the deep belly upward through the fingertips and soak up the inspiration and possibility this evokes. Extend your sense of self outward in all directions, filling your skin completely 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 support and enliven the pose. As you inhale, pull the breath deep into your body as if you had lungs in your heels. As you exhale, invite your spine to bubble upward as your breath sweeps out through your fingers.

Now invite Virabhadrasana 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 and majestic as possible, absorbing the beauty and exhilaration of the moment.

Enjoy the magnificent strength and presence this lovely posture evokes. The broad stance of your legs offers feelings of steady earthiness and embodiment. The upward sweep of your spine invites you to reach with inspiration and enthusiasm toward the sky. You are both grounded and uplifted, living firmly in the present moment while reaching gracefully toward the beauty and transformation that still lies ahead.


This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (September 2003)