Iyengar's difficulty rating: 3* out of 60*
Look at that pose! From where I stand, this image of Iyengar in Warrior 1 is among the most striking photographs in Light On Yoga. It's also one of my favorite postures to practice. And yet, for many students it seems to be a painful, inaccessible mystery: it hurts their low backs, it tweaks their hips or knees, and it seems impossible to go deep... might as well just do a lunge with the back heel up, right?
I used to feel the same way. Then I made one little change that blew this pose wide open for me: I stopped listening to teachers telling me to “square the hips.”
To square the hips in Virabhadrasana 1, most students (including myself) try to bring the hip point of the back leg forward and inward. This action tends to cut off the stretch and energy flow through the back leg, like a kink in a garden hose. That action may also torque the knee by forcing the thigh to internally rotate while the shin externally rotates to keep the heel on the ground. What to do? Most students simply shorten their stance. This might make the hips easier to square and solve the torque problem, but in my experience, it may irritate the low back and diminish some of the strengthening and energetic benefits of the posture.
Iyengar doesn't say anything about square hips. He does say to “stretch out the (back) leg and tighten at the knee.” When I begin focusing on this stretching action and stop obsessing over perfectly square hips, Warrior 1 blossoms.
When I teach the pose nowadays, I encourage my classes to keep the pelvis roughly square, yet emphasize stretching out and externally rotating the back femur in its socket. Given these instructions, students report all sorts of breakthroughs: no more back and knee pain, lovely opening in the psoas and hip flexors, deeper access to breath through the chest, and much more.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating getting all sloppy and loose in Warrior 1. I've simply stopped caring whether my hips are truly square... and started focusing on creating a powerful, steady arc that moves from an open position (in the outside edge of my back foot) to a forward-facing position (in my upper chest).
Some teachers and yoga therapists might be squawking right now. “But your SI joints!” they're saying.
I'm not a prescriptive sort of instructor. I suggest certain alignment principles not because I think I'm objectively "right," but rather because I believe these cues may give you access to new sensations, ideas and sources of strength and ease. I've found overwhelming success with this form in my own practice and teaching. For me – right now – practicing Warrior 1 this way is “better.” But if you think this version of Virabhadrasana 1 doesn't suit you or your students, more power to you. Experiment and find your own answers! That's all I'm doing.
And that's what this is really about. I'm not interested in “rules” in yoga. My experience tells me that the only constant in my life is change, and that's why I'm interested in discernment. I'm interested in figuring out what works – what empowers – what transmits.
How to improve your Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose):
- Take a long stance, then stretch out through your back leg and activate your quadriceps like you mean it! Explore this action in postures like Virabhadrasana (Warrior 2 Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), and Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Flank Stretch or Pyramid Pose)
- Open your quadriceps and hip flexors with postures like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose)
- Strengthen your back body – from glutes to upper spine – with postures like Makarasana (Monster Pose), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3 Pose)
- Expand your chest and open your upper spine with postures like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog Pose), Paryankasana (Couch Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose).
Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose) prepares you for:
- Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) and many other backbends
- Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Flank Stretch or Pyramid Pose), Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits), and many other forward folds
- Pretty much every arm balance and twist
- Okay, this pose prepares you for nearly everything.