VĪRABHADRĀSANA I (veer-ah-bah-DRAHS-anna)
vīra = a brave or eminent person, hero, chief
bhadra = blessed, auspicious, fortunate, prosperous, happy; good, gracious, friendly, kind; excellent, fair, beautiful, lovely, pleasant, dear; skillful in; great
VIRABHADRA’S POSE, FIRST VARIATION aka Warrior Pose I
There are three related Virabhadrasana poses (VB hereafter), numbered 1, 2, and 3 (or I, II, and III if you like your numbers Romanized). VB 3 is easily the most challenging family member, in fact one of the more challenging standing poses. BKS Iyengar, in his Light on Yoga (LoY hereafter), which was first published in 1966, rates the difficulty of all its included poses on a scale from 1 to 60, one being the simplest, 60 the most challenging. There’s only one pose, by the way, among the 198 described and illustrated in the book, that’s rated 60, a back bend whose Sanskrit name translated to English is something like Principal Three-Limb Intense Stretch Pose (triang mukha uttanasana). Sort of dances off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Returning to our VB family, VB 3 is rated as a five, VB 1 as a three, and VB 2 as a one (all on the 60 scale). These numbers might be easier to appreciate on an equivalent 100-point scale, which gives us a five for VB 1, one for VB 2, and a little over eight for VB 3. I think it would be fair to say then that these numbers (and many others in the book) are pretty unrealistic for Western students, especially for VB 3, which is way too close to the low end of the scale.
I suspect the reason for these low-balled numbers was that Mr. Iyengar was still, in 1966, relatively unfamiliar with the capacities of the average Western student. He’d been coming to the West by then for about 12 years, the US for 10, though I’m not sure how many trips he made overall, so I could be wrong. But one possible explanation is that he was fixing the asanas’ rating based on is own experience, which of course was far more extensive than any average Western student. Someone once told me–and I don’t remember who, and I can’t guarantee it’s truth–that when someone asked Mr. Iyengar if he could in retrospect change anything about LoY, what would it be, and he mentioned the number ratings.
Vīrabhadrāsana is popularly known as the Warrior Pose, though it doesn’t seem to me that the character of Vīrabhadra is either a warrior or great hero. There are several different versions of his story, which mostly involve the deity Śiva, his spouse Satī (meaning virtuous, faithful), and Satī’s father Daksha (meaning able, intelligent), a son of Brahma and one of the fathers of the human race.
As characters, Daksha and Śiva are at opposite ends of the behavioral spectrum. The former could be considered among the cultural elite, while the latter is a long-haired, pot-smoking counter-culture type, although of course he can be anything he wants to because he is, after all, god. Predictably they don’t get along, and in the various stories about them, one is always offending the other.
So it happens that Daksha organizes a great sacrifice and invites all the sages and gods except one – guess who? Śiva couldn’t care less, but Satī feels insulted that her husband was left out and crashes the party to pick a bone with her father. Daksha though has his own bone to pick with his daughter about her husband, and publically humiliates Satī. She then decides to teach him an important lesson, and jumps into the sacrificial fire where she’s immediately burnt to a crisp.
Now Śiva loves his wife dearly, and so goes crazy when he finds out what happened. Boiling with anger and craving revenge, he creates the monster Vīrabhadra, intending to sic him on Daksha and his sacrifice. Vīrabhadra is pictured in various ways, some fairly tame, others over-the-top extreme. In a latter description, he’s given a thousand heads and eyes, is armed to the teeth, smeared with ashes, and burns like hell fire. In the course of disrupting the sacrifice, he pulls out the Sun god’s teeth, cuts off the Fire god’s hands and tongue, crushes the Moon god with one of his toes, and chases off the king of the eagles. After all this there’s often a relatively happy ending. Satī is reborn as Parvati and is re-united with her husband, and Daksha relents and apologizes to Śiva, who then magnanimously forgives and forgets.
I once was told–and again I’m blank about who it was–that the shape of the pose represents Virabhadra rising up from the earth at his creation. It’s always seemed to me that the numbering of VB 1 and VB 2 should be reversed, since I’ve been taught from day 1 that the pose under examination here flows naturally into VB 3. Be that as it may …
1. I like to brace my back heel in standing poses against a wall, and for VB 1 I might also elevate that back heel on a foam wedge or sandbag. This helps me get the needed rotation of the pelvis while at the same time protecting my lower back. So first bring the right foot forward, turned out 90 degrees, and the left foot back, turned in maybe 60 degrees. Depending on your height and flexibility, have anywhere from 3 to 4 feet between your feet.
2. Bring your hands to your hips and rotate your pelvis to the right. As much as is possible for you, square the front of your pelvis with the front edge of the sticky mat. Typically when the pelvis turns in this way, the back knee buckles a bit, so as the left hip comes around, press firmly into the back heel.
3. Draw the front of the pelvis up, bring the pubic bone and navel close together, and lengthen the tail bone toward the floor. Have the top rim of the pelvis as parallel to the floor as possible.
4. Inhale and raise your arms perpendicular to the floor. You can keep the hands apart or bring the palms together (base of the palms touch first, then the palms, finally the fingers). The little fingers lead the way to the ceiling.
5. Quickly with an exhale, bend the front knee. Aim the inner knee to the little toe side of the foot. Position the right knee over the heel so the shin is perpendicular to the floor, and as much as is possible, bring the underside of the thigh parallel to the floor.
6. Lean back on the shoulder blades for an upper torso back bend. Be sure to lengthen the lower back, you don’t want a deep lumbar curve. To do this, lengthen the tail downward and lift the back ribs up faster than the front ribs.
7. As for your head, beginners should keep it neutral, looking straight ahead. More experienced students can look up at the thumbs, but only if they can extend the head back from the root of the neck.
8. Stay for 30 seconds to a minute. To come up, inhale, press the back heel firmly into the floor or its lift and reach up through the arms, straightening the right knee. Turn the feet forward, parallel to each other, and walk the feet together (if you’re using a wall; otherwise just reverse the position of the feet). Be sure not to shift forward onto the front foot. Release the arms with an exhale, or keep them extended upward for more challenge. Take a few breaths, the repeat on the second side for the same length of time as the first.
Stretches the chest and lungs, shoulders and neck, belly, and groins (psoas)
Strengthens the shoulders and arms, and the muscles of the back
Strengthens and stretches the thighs, calves, and ankles
High blood pressure
Students with shoulder problems should keep their raised arms parallel (or slightly wider than parallel) to each other. Students with neck problems should keep their head in a neutral position, and not extend the neck.
This pose can be performed with the arms in various positions. For example, go through steps 1 to 4 as described above, except with your hands resting on your hips. Then, once the forward knee is bent, swing your arms around behind your torso and clasp your hands. Stretch your hands away from the back torso and lift your chest. It’s acceptable to squeeze your scapulas together at first, but be sure, once the chest is lifted, to pull them away from the spine. To leave the pose, reach back with your hands and, with an inhale, “pull” yourself up, straightening the front knee.
Here’s a partnering exercise for this pose, but you need two partners and a thick pole (like a broomstick). As you perform the pose, have your partners stand, facing you, to either side of your torso. They should hold the ends of the pole and lift it above your head. Grasp the pole with your raised hands, then you and your partners push the pole up until your arms are fully extended. Imagine then, as all three of you push, that your torso and legs are “hanging” from the pole.