08 Apr Into Battle…Virabadrasana
You may remember from a previous article that in Astanga Yoga the first things we learn are often the most important. If I told you that Virabadrasana was one of the first postures you ever learned you might think I was mistaken. But that’s because It’s a stealth asana, hidden in the muddle of transitions that make up Surya Namaskar B. Do you remember how difficult it was to get through those seventeen vinyasas without a prompt? Or how exhausting they felt?
According to Sharath Jois in Mysore, the sun salutes of Astanga Yoga are quite a modern concept. In their current form they were added to the practice early in the twentieth century. They serve to warm the body for a longer practice but there is so much more to them than this. They are like the overture to a fantastic piece of music, filled with refrains from every part of the score. Like many great overtures, the sun salutes are a complete work in themselves, which is why sometimes they are all you need.
The Virabadrasana ‘refrain’ in our sun salutes is lifted from a sequence of vinyasas that marks the end of the standing asanas. It’s one of those tricky sections of the practice that people tend to rush. It’s tiring (especially after the one legged balances). What’s more, the order of the vinyasas causes confusion for a lot of students. The transitions can take centre – stage because the asanas don’t feel complicated or exciting by comparison. This is a shame because there is much to be gained by taking Virabadrasna slowly. If you’ve ever practiced with Sharath you may have noticed that he spends quite a lot of time and energy making sure people understand the ‘warrior sequence’ and the three postures within it. In his 2016 book, ‘Ageless’, he lists Utkatasana and Virabadrasana amongst ten essential or ‘core’ poses. These ten asanas form a restorative practice which can be used when the more rigorous primary series is not appropriate.
Those of you who have joined me for “Out of Hours Yoga” classes will recognize this ‘mini series’. If you’re curious and want to give it a try , contact me to find out more.
Before we look at aspects of Virabadrasana let’s examine the name. In English, Virabadrasana is invariably referred to as ‘the warrior pose’ but that’s an oversimplification. Virabadra is not your average warrior (if there is such a thing). He is an avatar of Shiva. Virabadra was created when Shiva threw a lock of his hair to the ground in a grief – stricken rage following the death of his wife, Sati. Virabadra’s image is ferocious. He is often depicted with three eyes, ten arms and a garland of skulls. The literal translation of Virabadra is’ Auspicious Hero’ (sometimes ‘auspicious’ gets swapped for ‘brave’). While we are doing names its also worth noting that Utkatasana means ‘fearsome’ or ‘powerful’. So, if your legs haven’t told you so already, it’s clear that these sibling asanas make a formidable pair.
They come with a long list of physical benefits. Most of these are associated with strengthening the legs and invigorating the spine. They also help to create space between the ribcage and the pelvis. When we do this it’s easier to access the naval and root locks which act as aides to Mula and Uddyana Bandha.
In a therapeutic context this sequence is prescribed to lessen and prevent knee – pain, especially when it is caused by standing or sitting for long periods. To access these dual aspects of the poses you need to make sure that Utkatasana is not just a ‘deep squat’ and that Virabadrasana is not just a ‘lunge’.
Let’s look at Utkatasana first. It often gets referred to as ‘chair pose’, which implies that you need to sink down into it, with the hands extended outwards or even touching the floor. This sort of squat is a great core strengthener and it’s worth trying it out of sequence but in the primary series Utkatasana is taken during an inhalation and the focus is on reaching upwards, not forwards. The knees don’t need to bend all that much to make the thighs work hard. The hands should travel upwards from the waist so that they reach high above the head. Once they are up, focus on the torso. Pull up the perineum. Draw the navel in and lift the ribcage (as if you were trying to lengthen your belly button). Finally, raise the chin as much you can (without pain) so that you can look at the base of your thumbs. If you don’t feel fully safe with your head back, don’t forget that you can make a powerful connection by raising the eyes (a little like looking up towards your own eyebrows). Straighten the arms as much as possible but make sure that you are drawing your shoulders down and away from your earlobes. A quick word about the hands. Some yoga teachers tell everyone to keep the hands apart for both Utktasana and Virabdrasana. If there is restricted movement or pain in the shoulders this can make both postures more accessible. This has led to a commonly held belief that everyone should do it to prevent shoulder pain. Personally I think that if injury is not present, it’s better to let the palms connect. The palms touch as in prayer or greeting. Fingers and thumbs are not interlaced or crossed over. these flourishes can make your hands look like they are pretending to be a gun. We may be talking about warriors but in a yoga space weapons are best left at the door!
To get the most out of Virabadrasana you need to make sure that your feet are in the right position.
Let’s imagine we are coming into the posture in sequence. That means starting in the downward dog position. First, bring the arch of the left foot to the centre point between your legs, at the back of the mat. the foot turns out at about forty-five degrees. Then step the right leg forward to the centre point between your hands. This should ensure that your feet are the right distance apart for your own body (remember that one size rarely fits all with this practice).
With both feet lined up this way you are able to square the hips as much as you can, without pain. Once that is done, return your attention to the feet and legs. At this point a lot of people worry about whether they are lunging correctly i.e. too much or not far enough. If we focus on the feet, we usually end up lunging just right. Back foot first: push into the heel of the left foot and feel the metatarsal arch lift. Now send the right knee outward, towards the outside of the right foot (if you can’t see your foot pull the left hip back a little). This movement will reveal your big toe. Sending the knee a little way outward engages the right thigh and lifts the arch of the right foot. It’s a small but powerful movement. If you’re not sure how much movement you need to use, there is an opportunity to rehearse it a little way back in the standing sequence. In the first side of Parsvakonasana A you can use the right leg to nudge the right arm. This is actually a really great thing to do in Parsvakonasana because it increases a feeling of ‘opening up’ in the front of the body (people often forget that there’s a lot going on above the waist at that point).
The same is true in Virabadrasana. To strengthen and tone the upper body we need to draw the rib cage up and away from the sit bones, as in Utkatasana. Then we enhance the movement with the same lift of the chin. Raise the chin as much as you can without pain. Ideally you will feel able to look right up above you, at the base of the thumbs. As with Utkatasana (and all asana) the dristi in Virabadrasana is a key part of the pose. Be sure to go through this checklist again once you transition to the left side. It might mean taking way more than five breaths but this can be very beneficial (especially if you have knee pain). In fact, when I was new to the practice and was cooking for long hours, my teacher suggested that I double the breath count in both parts of Virabadrasana.
Talking of both parts, you may have noticed that some teachers refer to ‘Warrior 1 and 2’ or ‘Virabadrasana A and B’. In the vinyasa count the shift from one to the other is only announced by the number (nava). The hands change their position on an inhalation. Whether you think of this as ‘Warrior B’ or ‘Virabadrasana 2’, it is worth going through another checklist. First and foremost, make sure that your torso does not travel forward with the left hand. Draw the left side of the ribcage back to ensure that you are standing really tall above the waist. Now push into the right heel and send the left knee outwards to maintain that lift in the arches and engage the quads. As you do this you’ll enjoy a satisfying stretch across the front of the hips and along the inner thighs. This is part of that knee therapy I mentioned so – if you struggle with half lotus postures – it’s a real tonic. Stay a while! Make sure that your arms are energized but not tense. Pull the shoulders away from the ears and then imagine the two hands are travelling away from one another. Ensure that your chin has dropped back into a neutral position and mark your dristi. Where are you looking? Into the centre of the left hand. I look for the knuckle of my middle finger but you could use the fingernail or the centre of the wrist.
In ‘Ageless’, Sharath talks about using the two dristi of Utktasana and Virabdrasna to increase confidence and strengthen resolve. We tend to refer to dristi only as an aid to concentration. The more you practice sequences like the Primary series (or any of the others) the more you might notice moments when you can naturally guide your thoughts or feelings. Dristis can work as a guide. Some asanas bring up emotions (for example feeling anxious around backbends or emotional when bending forwards). I am definitely more ‘worrier’ than ‘warrior’ and so I often address anxiety when I’m directing my gaze into the hands during Virabdrasana. I started doing this because the drisiti of looking into my left hand during Virabadrasna 2 kept making me think of the phrase ‘staring down’. As in ‘psyching – out’ your opponent! My greatest opponent is fretfulness. So, I mentally gather up all my fears and place them onto the back of my hand. If many fears are piling up onto the hand I have to hold it really steady so that they wont fall off! Then, as I stare them down, I say,
“ I see you, fear. You have your place in my life but you’re just a feeling. Your presence is welcome but you do not own me”.
Some days it’s more effective than others!
Obviously those words are personal but you could useyour own…or a phrase from an inspirational text. This verse from The Bagavad Gita is a good one:
Pratyavāyo na vidyate
Svalpam apyasya dharmasaya
Trāyarte mahato bhāyat
(on this path there is no loss or disappointment. Even a little progress on this path of yoga will free you from great fear).
Last but not least, it is worth talking briefly about the transitions in and out of the warrior sequence. Because we learn Surya Namaskar B first and because the movements are so similar, the small differences in the vinyasa can fox us. The main thing to remember is that we have not simply returned to the sun salutes. So, to exit Utkatasana we simply take the hands to the floor on the fifth exhalation. On the next inhalation we pull the thighs towards the chest and the heels towards the sitbones. Think of a ‘tuck and jump’ movement to start with and it might evolve into a tuck and float. To exit Virabadrasna, a similar action is performed but with just the right thigh against the chest. The left leg remains in an extended position. These two lifts are difficult (but fun) to explore and they can help us with aspects of ‘jumping back and through’ between seated poses. But it is really important to remember that they are totally optional and that it’s totally fine to step or hop between the asanas. In fact, to begin with, I think its more beneficial to focus on gaining strength and stability in the postures rather than focusing on the transitions. This is particularly true if you are blessed with upper body strength (which can allow you to ‘ape’ the lifts as though they were the beginnings of a handstand). As with all transitions, the most important thing to learn is how to steady the breath and match it to the correct vinyasa. ‘Correct’ sounds bossy, and perhaps a better word is ‘prescribed’. The longer I do this practice the more I find that the prescribed vinyasa are not always the most obvious, but they are definitely the most helpful.
More about the legend of Virabadra here
further Information about Sharath’s book Ageless