……..Virabhadrāsana has been called “easily one of the most iconic and recognizable postures in yoga……. (Wikipedia)
The front foot is firmly placed , the back foot is set behind and the pelvis is facing forward. This may be why the pose is generally listed as a beginner pose. Benefits such as strengthening of the legs and feet are desirable; others such as “helps to build focus,….. improves power and stabilty ……cultivates our inner warrior..” may appeal to many at a time of uncertainty and worry.
However, there are so many contraindications listed on so many sites. Warnings about high blood pressure; heart problems; shoulder impingement; neck problems, knee problems; ankle problems to name a few. It is, infact quite complex due to the different planes of movement. The body is working to balance forward and backwards, It involves spinal extension, hip and knee flexion. There is upward rotation of the arms and commonly (still) external hip rotation. Combine this with the demands of balance and it is understandable why so many instructions are given:
…. activate the shoulder blades, contract the quads to protect the knee, lift the chest, engage the gluts……
As well as information overload for beginners this can result in bracing at key points in the body. Bracing tends to impair balance rather than improve it.
Warrior pose is a standing back bend in which the extension pattern can be distributed evenly through the spine. This is movement we do everytime we look up and reach up – you may once have seen many people reaching up to top shelves in supermarkets. Thus it can be helpful to include in home practice. Pete Blackaby cites the purpose as To develop compliance in extension throughout the whole body This is difficult enough since the thoracic spine does not naturally extend very easily, thus if you are asked to hold your arms aloft over a wide base, the force – the load- will fall into vulnerable areas. These areas will generally brace in response – the nervous system is crying “help”.
I would encourage beginners to ask themselves:
Where is the centre of gravity?
Where should it be?
The most helpful way in which a novice student can answer these questions is by noticing when and where tension creeps in and how their breath is affected by this tension. The most useful tip is how to modify.
The illustration at the top of this post is an idealised representation . When replicating this many students will shift the centre of gravity up high in the neck and shoulders. With the centre of mass being so high, extension in the thoracic spine, which is not natural to the thoracic, is impaired still further. The diaphragm is “dragged up” with the braced chest and for beginners it must be so difficult to pull the diaphragm down for good inhalation. The body is also coping with a wide load. This begs another question – why do online images commonly show the idealized/advanced postures rather than modified versions?
As soon as we put one foot infront of the other the psoas pulls on the back leg causing the lumbar spine to move towards extension. If we practice Warrior 1 with such a wide stance this pull is intensified. Add the rotation of the back leg, above and the gluts have to grip in order to stabilize the pelvis. Gripping compresses the the sacro-iliac joint area and this often creeps up to the lumbar spine. Remember that , for most beginners, the shoulders and neck are already holding tension and as muscles fatique, tension increases even more.
With beginners to yoga in mind. It is helpful for beginners to strip the pose back and focus upon movement patterns. However, I believe that it is useful for all of us to return to basics at times. to review and to put ourselves in the footsteps of a beginner.
TIPS for beginners and for home practice –
- Stand with feet forward facing and head forward then look up. Can you do this without the chin leading the movement and simply wagging up and down. Try to sense that if you can relax the chin and lift the breastbone; that the thoracic spine could move behind the breastbone (a tiny movement at first but an important one). Sense the bones -The backward movement of the skull being balanced by the rising sternum.
- Notice whether the shoulders want to do the movment for you (jump up to the ears) and whether the ribs jut up and tug on the back of the waist
- Don’t worry about lifting the arms.
- Try to establish do-your-best footprints
- Take a normal step forward and try to make the footprints as even as possible. Repeat the movement. You may notice that as you look up and the upper spine begins to move that the pelvis rocks forward as well. This is crucial.
- Don’t move into another pose before repeating this on the other side.
- Practice this extension pattern down on one knee , front foot placed square. This takes the hamstrings out of the equation and keeps the pelvis balanced.
- Repeat on the other side before practising any other pose.
- If you think that your thoracic spine is not moving well then practice this extension pattern on all fours (beginners) and in face up dog (more confident practitioners) – see videos on http://www.intelligentyoga.co.uk
The British Wheel of Yoga does offer this modified version of Warrior 1 with the arms lowered but I would encourage students to reduce the stance so as to make the footprints as even as possible and to avoid external rotation of the back hip. Warrior 1 can be such a balanced pose in which we tap into our roots – the process of which reminds of how much we can learn from simplicity. Then, if we are lucky our breath becomes plenteous; nourishing. A huge bonus at present.
More about the feet in a ground up approach to Warrior 1 in the next blog plus some suggestions for follow-on movement.