The Key To Proper Alignment In Virabhadrasana I
Virabhadrasana I, or Warrior I Pose, is an asymmetrical, lunging pose which emphasizes mobility and stability of the hips and shoulders.
The Warrior Pose is named after the fearsome warrior Virabha, who Siva created and commanded to destroy Lord Daksha, whose actions had caused the death of Siva’s consort. Virabha is recounted in Indian mythology as a fearsome superbeing. His tall body reached the high heavens. He was dark as the clouds, with three burning eyes and fiery hair. He wore a garland of skulls and carried terrible weapons.
Functions of the Pose
Lengthening the front of the body
This pose particularly focuses on lengthening and balancing the ilio-psoas muscle complex (the hip flexors) of the back leg. These muscles are shortened in sitting, and also in activities like running or walking, all of which draw the legs closer to the torso.
Strengthening the body
The strengthening aspect of this pose encourages tone in the hamstrings, gluteal muscles, hip adductor and abductor’s muscles, as well as the core, chest, and shoulders.
Mobilizing hips and shoulders
Warrior I brings the hips into full extension on the back leg and flexion in the front. The classical pose also brings shoulders into full flexion. These positions help improve mobility and health of the joints, especially for bodies that spend the majority of time in a seated position.
Finding the Pose
Stand with feet together and take a step forward with the right foot. The right foot will point directly forward. Turn your left foot out at a comfortable angle. While keeping the hips in a neutral position (preventing an excessive forward or backward tilt), begin to bend the front knee. The line of the top of the thigh (from hip bone to knee) should cross the center of the foot. Occasionally the knee will have a tendency to fall in or out, which can strain the ligaments of the knee joint. Then, extend the arms overhead.
Tips and Modifications
Classical yoga texts define a specific distance or placement of the feet, but keep in mind that the distance is described from that particular (likely advanced) practitioner’s perspective. For most students, the feet will be about hip-width distance apart from side-to-side, and the length of a stride from front to back. The stance should be short enough that the pelvis remains neutral and wide enough that the student experiences no twisting in the back knee.
If shortness in the calf of the back leg prevents the student from bringing the heel down, a shorter stance is recommended. Over time, as the student gains strength and flexibility, the stance may become more narrow and longer.
In addition, the placement of the arms will depend on the individual student. The classical pose utilizes full arm flexion, adduction, and internal rotation of the shoulder, which requires a good deal of length in the latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, rotator cuff muscles (especially the supraspinatus and infraspinatus) and the levator scapulae. These muscles are commonly stiff and chronically shortened. There are various options for arm positions, and students and teachers should be encouraged to find one which is comfortable. This usually means bringing the hands wider than shoulder width and allowing the elbows to be softly bent.
Virabhadrasana can be a good opportunity to work on their posture, by mobilizing the shoulders by bringing some movement into the upper body. Keeping the legs steady, the student can bring the elbows out to the side, bent at 90 degrees with the palms facing forward. On an inhale, the student draws the shoulder blades together to expand the chest, and during an exhale, the student will bring the forearms toward the midline, continuing back and forth several repetitions. This helps reduce tightness in the neck and upper back.
Chairs can also be useful props in virabhadrasana, especially for students who have difficulty with balance or weight-bearing postures. When sitting on a chair for virabhadrasana, pay close attention to the hips. Sitting renders the hips relatively immobile, and this lack of movement could lead to more stress in the spine if the hips are not in a neutral position.
The spinal extensors and abdominal muscles lengthen the torso upward. The psoas major contracts to prevent hyperextension, especially as the arms lift overhead). The serratus anterior, middle and anterior deltoid, pectoralis major and biceps brachii bring the arms overhead with adduction and inward rotation. The hamstrings, gluteal muscles (maximus, medius, and minimus) and external hip rotators maintain the lunging position and balance of the pelvis. The muscles of the lower leg, especially the peroneals, alternately strengthen to support the ankle and lengthen.
- Strengthens the entire body in a way that encourages a balance between mobility and tone for the front and back lines of the body.
- Standing poses provide an opportunity to improve foot mechanics, using pada bandha.
- Improves core awareness and balance.
- Energizes and builds stamina.
In all standing poses, safe alignment of the knee is crucial to protect that joint, but this is especially important in poses which emphasize mobility over the hip while the feet are grounded. Tightness in the hip will transmit torque to the knee, which can injure the ligaments of the knee. The knees of both legs should be in alignment with the feet, meaning that if one were to draw a line from hip to knee, that line would continue over the middle of the foot and to the second or third toe.
Students whose knees have a tendency to hyperextend should begin in a smaller version of virabhadrasana and allow the pose to grow more dramatic as long as no sensation of pulling is present in the knee.
Likewise, for students who are hypermobile in the lower back, effort should be made to lengthen the spine and strengthen the pelvic floor, hip adductors, psoas major and transverse abdominus to protect the curve of the low back. For students with osteoporosis or other disorder which makes falling very risky, standing poses should be practiced near a wall or with a sturdy chair or other pieces of furniture that will prevent a fall. Standing poses can also be adapted to seated postures to ensure student safety.
Virabhadrasana I is typically practiced near the beginning of an asana-based class, and often included in a sun salutation vinyasa series, as in Sun Salutation B. When coming from downward-facing dog pose, students should be encouraged to step forward and press into their back foot as they lift from a low lunge to warrior.
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