Many yoga asanas (poses) are named for plants and animals and deepen our relationship to the physical world. While balancing in tree and gently swaying with one leg as my trunk, I feel connected to nature on a physical, emotional and mental level. And raising up off of my stomach in cobra, I feel connected to my inner, reptilian self as I use my back muscles to peer at the world from an entirely different perspective. Other poses are named for characters from ancient myths. Their stories help us understand human emotions and teach us lessons of morality. I often wondered why yoga – with its emphasis on balance, well-being and serenity – includes warrior poses. I understand we must be strong to manifest transformation. My teachers instructed me to lead with my heart in Warrior I, gaze at the horizon in Warrior II and soar in Warrior III. Yet, I still wondered how these standing postures of strength were integrated into modern American yoga.

The story of Virabhadra

Research led me to the story of Lord Shiva, his beloved wife, Sati, and her father, Daksha. Lord Shiva was a yogi with long matted hair who did not adhere to social norms whereas Daksha thrived on rules and regulations. Shiva was an unconventional choice for a husband and Daksha did not approve of his daughter’s marriage.

Daksha invited all of the heavenly beings to a yajna (a ritual sacrifice) except Shiva and Sati. Naturally, the couple was insulted when they discovered they had not been invited. Shati decided to attend her father’s festivities anyway, but Shiva refused. At the yajna, Sati and Daksha argued about Shiva in front of the guests. The father’s attacks and the daughter’s defense of Lord Shiva only served to entertain the guests. Sati was humiliated and saddened. She proclaimed in front of the crowd that she would cut off all familial ties with Daksha. Sati grew quiet, began to meditate and eventually fell into a mystic trance. She increased her inner fire until her body burst into flames.

When the news of Sati’s death reached Lord Shiva, he was shocked and saddened at first, then enraged. He tore locks of hair from his head and created the warrior Virabhadra (hero friend). Virabhadra had a thousand arms, three burning eyes and fiery hair. He wore a garland of skulls and carried terrifying weapons. Shiva commanded Virabhadra to go to the yajna and destroy Daksha along with his guests. The yoga pose known as Virabhadrasana I embodies the warrior emerging onto the earth from deep underground holding two swords. In Virabhadrasana II, he puts his opponent in his sights, then with precise movements, cuts off Daksha’s head in Virabhadrasana III.

After Virabhadra destroys Daksha, he is absorbed back into Shiva, transforming Shiva into Hare, the ravisher. When Shiva sees the destruction wrought by the warrior, he is filled with sorrow. His sorrow then turns into compassion. Shiva finds Daksha’s headless body and brings him back to life with the head of a goat. Overwhelmed by this generous gesture, Daksha calls Shiva, Shankar: the kind and benevolent one. Daksha bows in awe and humility to Shiva Shankar. The other gods and goddesses follow his lead and honor Shiva.

Warrior poses and modern yoga

Although the story of Virabhadra is ancient, the warrior poses we practice today are most likely modern additions. Most of the standing postures were added to yoga in the 1930s by T. Krishnamacharya. Their intention was to build strength, stamina and focus. Some believe he drew from gymnastics and martial arts when he designed his sequences, including Sun Salutations and the warrior poses. Krishnamacharya’s students, including BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar continued to include the warrior poses in their own yoga styles. Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, studied with Desikachar and Krishnamacharya. In a 2008 Yoga Journal article, Kraftsow explained that the modern adaptions of Warrior I are based on an ancient Indian martial arts stance. “In a martial situation, you’d be able to advance or retreat without using excess energy,” he said. “The pose should be long but allow you to step forward or back easily. The center of gravity is low, so you’re stable and grounded on your feet. The chest is open in a symbol of courage, and you gaze directly forward across the battlefield.”

Even if the warrior poses are not ancient, they embody the philosophy of yoga. Some scholars believe Virabhadra symbolizes the destruction of ahamkara (ego) and avidya (self-ignorance) and ultimately, dukkha (suffering). By practicing the warrior poses, we cultivate the mind of the spiritual warrior – unattached to outcomes while maintaining focus and self-awareness.

Body is the bow, asana is the arrow, and the soul is the target.BKS Iyengar

A most complex pose

Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) is full of opposites – extension and compression, twist and backbend, internal and external rotation, and strength and flexibility. The pose has quite a few variations and can be done statically or as part of a vinyasa flow.

According to Kraftsow, “Variations include the width and length of the stance, the arm and head positions, the depth of the bend in the front knee, the relative rotation of the back leg and the relationship between the hips and shoulders.”

Benefits of the pose

Warrior I is complex and has quite a few variations, so it affects many parts of the body. And since it is an asymmetrical pose, it should be followed in a sequence by a symmetrical pose, such as a wide forward bend to stabilize the sacrum.

One note of caution: practitioners with high blood pressure may want to avoid this pose.

Following are a few of the benefits of the posture:

  • Energizes the entire body
  • Improves stability, balance and focus
  • Strengthens back muscles
  • Strengthens leg muscles and tones the ankles and knees
  • Stretches the groin and psoas, tones and opens the hips
  • Creates stability in the hip joints
  • Stretches the chest, shoulders, neck and abdomen
  • Relieves stiffness in the shoulders, neck and back
  • Facilitates deep breathing
  • Improves digestion and tones the abdominal muscles

The Ayurvedic approach

Warrior I decreases both Vata and Kapha energy and increases Pitta energy. To balance Vata, the pose should be done using long holds with a focus on groundedness and stillness. To balance Kapha, practitioners should stay in long holds with repetition. For Pitta, holds should be shorter with long easy breathing.

[Photo by Amber Karnes – CC BY]

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