Many of the yoga poses we practice today are named for Indian mythical heroes and legends from long ago. The story of the warrior pose emerges from a Hindu tale told in the Puranas, texts composed between the 3rd and 10th centuries. The story is rife with symbolism and, like most myths, reflects an ancient battle between good and evil, between the higher self and the ego, between renunciation and civilization, and between consciousness and materialism.
While many variations exist, in the most well-known version, the god, Shiva, takes a wife, Sati. Her father, Daksha, does not approve of the union because of Shiva’s eclectic, renunciate ways. Shiva has a reputation of being a wanderer who has mystical visions, covers himself in ashes and cavorts with a group of yogis. Daksha excludes the couple from a large ritual sacrifice that includes every other deva and villager, but Sati goes to the gathering anyway and renounces her father by casting herself into the ritual fire to her death.
In his fury and grief, Shiva tears out a lock of hair and throws it to the ground, creating Virabhadra
, which, in Sanskrit, means “warrior-hero-friend,” and commands him to avenge Sati’s death. But after the deed is done, he feels remorse, so he absorbs Viabhadra back into his body and returns to the gathering, where he restores Daksha’s life by replacing his head with the head of a goat.
When Daksha’s heartbeat is restored, he also feels regret for his ways, and, from then on, he calls Shiva “the Benevolent One.”
The battle represents the need for the highest consciousness (Shiva) to defeat the ego (Daksha), but in its nuance, it also emphasizes a reconciliation between higher consciousness and will through Daksha’s restoration. In the conclusion, the two polarities live harmoniously in recognition of the necessary roles that each one plays. The story reminds us that the spiritual and material can coexist within us and within society at large, that sometimes we must take righteous action and access the warrior within to keep both ourselves and the world in balance and that compassion and humility are powerful unifying forces. Notably, the entire conflict comes to a head when Sati, representing the pure heart, brings the two polarities together.
When we embody Warrior poses in our practice, we have the opportunity to relive this epic battle and to identify with it.
Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
In Warrior I, the heart is straight forward with both arms elevated, and the gaze is upward. It represents the emergence of Virabhadra, as he rises from the earth with his sight set on Shiva, ready for battle with swords overhead. The strong, upright position reminds us to stand bravely for truth and righteousness.
To perform this asana: Stand in Tadasana, or Mountain pose, at the front of your mat. Take a big step back with your right leg. Your front left foot should face straight forward. Bend your front knee to 90 degrees. Turn your back foot outward about 45 degrees with the heel on the mat. (Note: If the angle of the foot causes discomfort in the knee or ankle, lift your heel and turn both feet toward the front of the mat.) With your pelvis and chest turned toward the front of the mat, raise both arms overhead and lift your gaze slightly. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears; keep your abdominal muscles engaged and keep your back leg strong. Hold for five breaths. Then step to the front of the mat and repeat on the other side.
Humble Warrior (Baddha Virabhadrasana)
Humble Warrior emerges from Warrior I. It is a pose of humility, as we drop the head below the heart, referencing Virabhadra’s obedience and service to Shiva and presencing our own need to surrender to divine consciousness.
To perform this asana: From Warrior I, drop your arms behind your back and clasp your hands to interlace your fingers. Keep a micro-bend in your elbows as you draw your shoulder blades closer together. Bow forward with your chest towards the inside of your front knee and your pelvis turned toward the front of the mat. Hold for five breaths. Then rise back to Warrior I and repeat with your opposite foot forward.
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
In Warrior II, the arms draw wide as if wielding swords, and the gaze is to the horizon. As we take this “ready” position, the open posture and balanced effort encourage us to embrace action, to follow through and to set our sights towards the battles that are worthy of our engagement.
To perform this asana: Face the long edge of your mat and step your feet wide apart. Turn the left foot toward the short edge of your mat, and turn your right foot slightly in. Bend your front knee to 90 degrees, keeping your knee directly above your ankle. Spread your arms wide and stretch through your fingertips. Engage your inner thighs and abdominal muscles as you turn your gaze toward your left hand. Drop your shoulders away from your ears and keep them centered directly above the pelvis.
Exalted Warrior (Viparita Virabhadrasana)
A variation of Warrior II, Exalted Warrior represents a victorious posture after the sword has struck down the enemy.
To perform this asana: From Warrior II with your left foot forward, lift your left arm above your head with the palm facing behind you. Drop your right hand to your right thigh and slide it down as far as it will go. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged to avoid compression in your low back.
Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)
This Warrior pose represents the beheading of Daksha. Balancing on one leg with arms stretched forward, the gaze falls to the earth, we are reminded of how delicate and precarious our footing can be in battle and in uncertainty.
To perform this asana: Standing in Mountain pose, bring your hands to your heart in Anjali Mudra, or prayer hands. Shift your weight to your left foot and hinge at your hips, stretching your right leg behind you with the toes and knee pointed straight toward the earth. Hold a steady gaze slightly forward on the floor. Engage your abdominal muscles and stretch your arms forward until your whole body is parallel to the earth. Hold for five breaths, then return to Mountain pose and switch legs.
Over time and with the consistent practice of these five poses, you may find yourself accessing a strength and resolve you didn’t even know you had as you summon your inner warrior to action.
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Sheila Ewers, ERYT500, YACEP, owns Blue Lotus Yoga in Johns Creek. A former professor of writing and literature, she leads group and private lessons, yoga philosophy workshops, yoga teacher training and retreats. Contact Sheila at [email protected]