For years, I practiced Warrior I in the way I thought a warrior should be. I forced my body into the pose, I fought the resistance in my low back and shoulders. I held an image of victory and spent years trying to defeat the obstacles of my body and become a true warrior. As hard as I tried, I could not seem to find the place where the asana became easy or accessible.
I continued to teach and share Virabhadrasana I with my students, often referring to it as “one of the most difficult asanas.” Over time, I began to tire of the effort, of the constant battle to achieve the form, and slowly, I opened myself to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a warrior. I have carried the discoveries of this into my asana practice, and now I find the practice of Warrior I to be deeply empowering. Now, it’s a posture that expresses grace and possibility rather than fight and struggle.
When in the practice of Warrior I, the lower body is working strongly to maintain pelvic balance in order to safely extend the spine into a backbend and lift and externally rotate the arms. When practiced correctly, the shoulders are protracted and flexed—a relationship that requires a great deal of strength in the serratus anterior. This also requires flexibility and openness in the front of the chest and the pectoralis major and minor. Subtly, this relationship infers a willingness to be vulnerable in the space of the heart, and trust in the power that “has our back” to support and lift the spine and chest to their fullest capacity.
In the low back (and for the full length of the spine), the spinal extensors are contracting, allowing for strength and stability in the back to create a feeling of space instead of compression. The back hip is in extension, allowing for a length and lift in the spine. The front leg is in hip and knee flexion and adduction, activating all of the muscles of support. This requires concentric effort of contraction, which in weakness can be difficult to achieve without compromising the extension of the back leg and spine.
In our lower body, the pull of gravity enables the muscles in the legs to lengthen and contract simultaneously (eccentric contraction) in order to keep us upright, stable, and balanced. When we are able to surrender into the natural support and strength available in our bodies, the knee flexion and pelvic balance are a natural unfolding of the pose. When we hold an external goal in our experience as the point of the asana, we often overwork, overextend, and fatigue the structures of support, which causes us to compromise our safety and the true experience of the form.
Traditionally, Virabhadra was the “personification of righteous anger and the noble impulse to defend the innocent,” and is the fearsome form of the deity Shiva. Virabhadra arose from the hair of Shiva, defended Shiva’s honor, and retaliated for his grief. Feelings of anger and grief are universal. In our present society, encountering these feelings often leads to reaction and retaliation outwardly for the wrongs that have befallen us. Yet, in self-reflection and practice, we discover that the source of these feelings is almost always rooted within us.
So for me, in trying to achieve the outcome of the “ideal” Warrior I, I continually projected my efforts outward, which bypassed the true battle happening inside.
My Warrior I was progressively getting more difficult and bordered on the edge of painful. The more I would try to force my lower back to lengthen, my shoulder blades to protract, and my chest to broaden, the farther away from Virabhadrasana I I would get. I found myself turning my anger on myself, looking at my expression of the pose with disdain and criticism. There was no ease, and there was most definitely no victory. Warrior I had brought me face-to-face with my inner enemies, and I almost gave up completely.
There were times, however, I would discover some hidden grace in the form. I would feel lifted, buoyant, at once strong and open. It was these brief moments that kept me coming back to the pose. If Virabhadra was Shiva himself, if as the philosophy of Tantra states, we are all Shiva, then who was he defeating? Who is the enemy we must destroy? Once I turned my reflection inward, I discovered a box of shadows with which I was doing battle in the asana. Instead of looking inward, I had been looking outwardly at all of the pictures and examples of so-called perfection. I wanted to achieve a form and receive accolades for my success. I wanted to feel victorious in the eyes of the beholder and all costs to my inner wisdom and guidance.
The moments where the pose would feel right in my practice were the moments that I didn’t care to perform and simply followed the inner teacher into the spaces of need and support. The more I surrendered my achievement-oriented ego and allowed my innate wisdom to lead me into the form, the more I would discover the essence of the warrior within me.
“The essence of warrior traits are demonstrated by integrity with self and honesty with others”―Soke Behzad Ahmadi
So I stopped fighting to achieve and began showing up in integrity with myself. Instead of demanding things of the form, I would come to the form and listen. Rather than force an external knowing upon my body, I would follow the small impulses of correction. I would be receptive to the subtle signals of my breath and move in a way that allowed more prana to flow through the shape instead of hardening against the subtle power.
When I was grieving the inability to look like the cover of a magazine, I would turn toward that feeling and steady my pose. I recognized that my desire to achieve was the way I was bypassing the truth that maybe I would never look perfect in the pose. And my weapon of choice was anger—with myself and my inadequacies.
In the end, my experience with Virabhadrasana has transformed from the biggest defeat into the biggest victory. It has become the gateway for an honest understanding of what the practice of asana has to offer when we choose to receive it. Warrior I has put me back in touch with my tender heart and helped to defeat the inner enemy of self-judgment and criticism. The practice of Warrior I has moved me from a fighter to engager and from desiring to power over to pursuing power within. I hope that the practice of Virabhadrasana I can inspire the same growth and power in you.