vira = brave person, hero
bhadra = blessed, auspicious, prosperous, happy, etc.
Popularly known as Warrior Pose, 2nd variation (abbreviated below as V2)
Although he was certainly war-like, I’m not sure that “Warrior” describes Virabhadra accurately; rather, he was a monstrous emanation of the deity Shiva, the patron saint of Hatha Yoga, with a “thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet, wielding a thousand clubs … shining with dreadful splendour … clothed in tiger’s skin, dripping with blood…” Virabhadra was cooked up specifically to settle a score with Shiva’s father-in-law, a powerful prajapati, or “lord of creatures,” named Daksha (“skillful, intelligent”). I won’t go into the rather gruesome details of this story, suffice it to say that Virabhadra crashed a great sacrifice Daksha was leading and set about teaching him a lesson he’d never forget. One version of the story has him wreaking violence among the sacrifice’s participants, crushing this and dismembering that, until he finally chopped off Daksha’s head. When Shiva went to stick it back on it couldn’t be found, so he used a goat’s head instead. Lesson learned.
I don’t know this for sure, but V2 may be based on a pose called Pratyalidha-asana, which is a “particular attitude in shooting” a bow and arrow. I often wonder why this pose is counted as the second in the three-pose Virabhadra series. It seems to me that V2 should be numbered one, since it quite naturally flows into V1 (which then lifts up to V3).
In any case, it doesn’t appear that any of the Virabhadras are very old. The earliest attested description of V1 is found in Yoga Rahasya (“Secret of Yoga”). This book has an extremely interesting story. When it first appeared it was attributed to one Natha-muni, was once claimed that it was over a thousand years old, though it was finally determined that it was product of the 20th century
In my 38 years of practice, mostly in Iyengar Land, I’ve watched the words fly in some heated asana controversies. There was, for example, the great pelvis-in-a-twist fracas, one camp insisting the pelvis should stay neutral while the rest of the torso twists. An opposing camp countered, no, the pelvis should turn with the rest of the torso, keeping it neutral could lead to all sorts of lower back issues. This led to a clash over the pelvis’ position in the two-sided standing poses, i.e., Triangle and Half Moon, Side Angle and its twisted variation, and V2.
One camp (I won’t name any names) asserted that the pelvis should be “flattened” as if performing the pose between two panes of glass. I call this camp the form-over-function camp. The opposition here unequivocally states that the pelvis needs to turn with the rest of the torso, else in neutrality there’s a tremendous strain put on the back hip and front knee. These folks (I’m revealing here who I adhere to) are function-over-form.
PRELIMINARY: I’ve learned a number of very useful exercises in my years as a yoga student, but none more useful than the one I’ll describe here. You’ll need a yoga block (although a rolled-up sticky mat will do in a pinch) and an open wall (a foam block is preferable, a cork block will probably be OK, a wooden block will provide you with a challenging experience).
Position one side of the block against the very top back thighs, just under the creases of the buttocks, then brace the block against the wall. Step your heels out from the wall about the length of the block, say 9 or 10 inches. In an upright position push back with the topmost thighs against the block, you may feel yourself getting slightly taller. Take an exhale and, without losing any of the height you may have created, tip the torso about halfway, roughly parallel, to the floor. If you’re just learning this exercise you may find that the block slips down a bit and is no longer directly against your topmost back thighs. Should this happen, re-adjust the block, then come down into the forward bend about three-quarters of the way.
Now look to see if, in trying to press your thighs back against the block, you’re simply locking your knees. One very clear giveaway in that your knee caps are slightly turned inward. If this is the case, bend your knees until the caps face forward and press your hands against the calves to resist the knees. Spend a few minutes in the forward bend, getting a feel for what it’s like to “ground” the thigh bones (specifically the femur heads). Don’t be discouraged if at first you can’t figure out how to do this, keep trying regularly and eventually the “grounding” will come.
PRACTICE: Now for the pose. I like to do my standing poses with my back heel pressed to a wall, and I recommend you do this at least occasionally.
1. Separate your feet about 3½ to 4 feet, generally farther apart the taller you are. Brace your left heel against a wall and turn your foot slightly forward, your little toe should be off the wall. Turn your right foot out a full 90 degrees, so the big toe points straight at the front end of your mat.
2. Turn your pelvis slightly to the right, so the left hip is slightly closer to the long edge of the mat. Look at your right knee. Rotate the thigh outwardly (laterally) until the center of the knee cap is aligned with the point midway between the inner and outer ankle bones. Let the left hip come as far forward and it needs to in order to align the knee with the center of the ankle. Remember: in order to “ground” the back leg, press back on the top left thigh and allow the pelvis to turn right as much as it needs to.
3. When bending the front knee into V2, there’s a tendency to let the weight shift onto the ball of the front foot. To counter this destabilizing shift, bring half your attention to the back heel, the one against the wall. When you bend your front knee, be sure to PUSH BACK at the same time on the head of the left femur, which will drive the left heel into the wall. Think of the back leg moving toward the wall as the bending knee moves toward the front of the mat.
4. Now as for bending the front knee. It’s common, when bending, for the knee to “circle” down, that is, it rounds slightly to the inside of the foot before coming to rest directly over the heel. This isn’t a good idea over the long term. To protect the knee then, aim the INNER KNEE toward the LITTLE TOE side of the foot. Align the knee right over the heel (so the shin is perpendicular to the floor) and keep it there for the duration of the pose. If you have the flexibility bring the underside of the thigh parallel to the floor, so the knee is more or less at a right angle. Bend with an exhale.
5. After bending the front knee, it’s not uncommon for the torso to lean forward a bit. Ideally though you’d like the shoulders to be aligned over the pelvis. So allow the head of the right femur to drop toward the floor (you’re still “grounding” it) and lift the right hip point up and away. Imagine too that your tail bone is lengthening down into and through floor.
6. Now lift and outstretch the arms with an inhale. We often see the arms held too high or too low, so bring the arms parallel with the top line of the shoulders. Anatomically of course the arms are rooted in the shoulder sockets, but imagine instead they’re rooted in the mid back, between the scapulas. Reach out from this area actively through the fingertips.
7. Finally the head. Most students will naturally turn the head to look out over the front arm. This is acceptable as long as the chin dips down toward the top of the right shoulder. If your head tends to be tilted backward (or if you have any neck injuries), it would be best to avoid turning it for awhile; instead, just look straight forward. Stay in the pose for 1 to 2 minutes, breathing easily, then come up with a inhale, and reverse feet for the second side. NOTE: when moving away from the wall after performing the first side, be sure not to lunge forward onto the front leg; instead, turn the right foot forward parallel to the left, and when your weight is evenly balanced on both feet, walk your feet together.
Beginner’s tip: If you have difficulty supporting yourself in this pose, position a metal folding chair outside your forward leg, with the front edge of the chair seat facing you. As you bend the forward knee into the pose, slide the front edge of the chair seat under your thigh (taller students may need to build up the height of the chair seat with a thickly folded blanket). Then simply sit on the chair with front leg thigh.
Intermediate’s tip: To intensify the strength/lengthening of the arms, try this. Reach your arms out to the sides and the turn the palms up. Do this by sliding the shoulder blades down your back. Then without letting the blades lift, turn the palms down by rotating from the wrists.
Contraindications: Serious knee and/or back injury.