Virabadrasana, or warrior posture, is one of the most intensely rewarding asanas.
Rather than call Warrior One a basic or easy posture—because it is neither—let’s call it a fundamental posture. It is, more precisely, an ancient, powerful one.
To begin exploring the great power of virabhadrasana, I will tell a story that my teacher told me some years ago concerning its name and mythic beginnings.
Long long ago, on a remote hilltop in balmy India, lived a great being whose name was Shiva. Shiva was a renunciate—he lived in the woods and spent all of his time doing different practices to create power inside.
Shiva practiced intense tapas—the generation of friction and heat.
Tapas can indicate many different forms of friction, but for our purposes, it consists of holding one posture for a very long time, thus generating internal heat.
In the time of our story, Shiva had been meditating using breath retention on the mountain top with one arm over his head for one year. He was in a deep state of yogic bliss.
Holding a posture for an extended amount of time generates a lot of intensity inside. The more intensity one is able to generate without losing the will to hold the posture, the more powerful one feels.
So, the ancient way, though it may seem archaic, has its basis in a felt truth.
In any case, the ancient yogis who followed Shiva were intensely devoted to their practice.
They lived in the woods and let their clothing deteriorate to rags—they practiced extreme austerities and accepted any food offered to them. They were not interested in the pleasures of worldly things—rather, they quested for purity of spiritual discipline and power.
Discipline was their motto, and Shiva was the most disciplined of them all.
Now, Shiva had a wife named Sati and on this particular day, she was sitting in their garden downhill from Shiva’s meditation grove. She happened to look up at the beautiful clouds in the sky and saw a flying chariot above her heading to her father’s house.
“That’s odd,” she thought. And then she saw another chariot, full of her friends, laughing as though they were on their way to a great party.
Which, in fact, they were.
“Were are you going?” she called up to them.
They seemed a little embarrassed as they called back to her, “Your father has invited us to a very beautiful party. Or didn’t you receive the invite?”
And they flew on. Sati was very confused and insulted not to have been invited.
Shiva, meanwhile, was blissfully unaware. The wind rustled his matted hair and he felt the depth of the universe, and was unhindered by his clothes being in rags.
Four more chariots flew over, headed to the party.
Sati made up her mind and called up to Shiva, “I am going to my father’s house.”
Shiva continued his meditation.
Sati arrived at her father’s house and found every single one of their friends had been invited but she and Shiva. She was disturbed at this and asked her father why.
Her father said, “Oh, that Shiva is a mess. He is too dirty to come out in public. He is all in rags and I couldn’t invite him.”
At this point all the guests became a bit nervous and gathered their coats to leave.
Sati was infuriated. She said, “You insult my husband and you insult me. You insult what he stands for.”
Right then and there, she sat down and began a powerful breath-work practice. The intensity of her breath was such that she burst into flames and began to burn herself alive in the fire of her devotion.
Now, way across the heavens, the great god Shiva felt a distortion in the field of existence. Stretching his mind to the place of the distortion, he saw his love burning to ashes. His deep wrath began to boil up inside. He called upon all of his power.
He at last moved his arm, which had so long been held aloft and with the great strength of his practice, he pulled his own ragged hair out by the roots and threw it to the ground. From his hair burst forth a great monster—it grew as huge as the very sky.
It had arms like thunderbolts, each holding a weapon, and it gnashed its teeth like mountains collapsing.
“Virabhadrasana,” Shiva roared to the monster, “Go and revenge my Sati,” and the being took one deep step across the heavens to the house of Sati’s father.
That creature is Virabadrasana, his great step is the warrior posture: all of the power of Shiva’s great devotion encapsulated in one asana.
So, how can we have diluted our understanding of this posture to such an extent that we call it an “easy” or “basic” one?
Because the power of the posture is hidden.
The keys to the posture are proper alignment and intensity. The intensity is generated through breathwork and by holding it long enough to witness the significance of what is happening inside.
Now let’s explore the posture.
Begin in tadasana—another much under-appreciated posture—mountain pose.
Stand with feet hip-width apart, ankles engaged, knees engaged, belly engaged, hands shooting down toward the ground. Isometrically strengthen all of the body until the muscles shake. Deepen the breath while keeping every muscle taught and engaged.
Lift your right foot slowly off the ground and find your balance. Take a soft but large step forward with your right foot. Hips remain aligned front and center. The back heel can be lifted, creating a straight line from heel to hip flexor. This makes it easier to align the hips forward, and it turns the posture into more of a balancing pose: the intensity rises.
Straighten the back leg so much so that the lifting of the knee creates a lift in the pelvis upward to the sternum and chest.
Tuck the pelvis. This is very important to protect the lower back. You do not want to arch the lower back here, because it crunches the lower vertebrae together.
The front knee bends, sinking down just above the ankle.
The arms reach back and down. Breathe here. Feel the pelvis sink toward the ground, the chin tuck slightly, the back of the neck elongate. Isometrically pull your feel toward each other: feel the legs become strong and engaged.
Then, opening the chest to the sky, slowly raise the arms with three deep breaths. Let the breath guide your movements. Continue to reach back, chest opening toward the sky. Deepen your breath. Close your eyes and witness what is happening in your body.
If the back heel is against a wall, the hands reach to touch the same wall. Chin is slightly lifted. Try kapala bati (also called breath of fire) in the posture and feel the intensity increase. Notice what great power emerges inside you.
When practicing this way, the body is flooded with a tide of intensity, and so it is important to practice witnessing and containing. This means developing an ability to notice what is happening in the body without reacting to it. In this way, the warrior practices peace by creating a strong container for all of the intensity inside. The mythic figure Virabhadrasana finds full expression inside, the body itself serving as a container for the warrior.
The ancient renunciate yogis said that every hour of asana practice should be followed by four hours of meditation. Bringing breath-work and meditative attention into yoga practice brings us closer to the ancient way.
And maybe someday we can be present to the moment when wrathful emotions transform to blissful experience, like water into mist.
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Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock