In the west, most of us begin our journey as yoga practitioners through the physical practice of the asana. The Yoga Sutras, the oldest known collection of writings we have about yoga, has very little to say about asana practice. However, what it does say is profoundly important. “Asana should be steady and comfortable.”
Many of the yoga poses we practice were probably developed in the early 20th century. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is often referred to as the “father of modern yoga.” His students included B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar. We can attribute much of the physicality of our practice to him.
The fact that most yoga asanas are relatively new does not diminish their importance in the least. Any yoga practice can be as sacred or mundane as we intend it to be. One way that we can more embody the essence of our yoga practice through the asanas is by connecting with the mythology for which they are named. The following story about the three warrior poses, or Virabhadrasana sequence is adapted from Sharon Gannon’s re-telling.
The story of Virabhadra.
Shiva’s first wife was a woman named Sati. Shiva loved Sati very, very much, and Sati was just as devoted to her husband. The couple lived together happily in Bhoga, a city of pleasure Shiva created just for the happy couple. And the couple was happy… well, for the most part.
Sati’s father, Daksha, the worldly creator, disapproved of this union. He thought Shiva was far too wild to marry his daughter. He disowned Sati for marrying Shiva. Sati was saddened by this. She never completely gave up hope that her father would change his mind and embrace her family.
One day, Daksha held a grand banquet. Everyone in heaven and on earth was invited. Well, everyone except for Sati and Shiva. Devastated, Sati decided to attend the party anyways. Shiva did not go with her. He thought it was silly to attend a party where they were not wanted.
When Sati got to the party, she confronted her father. “Father, you have invited everyone in heaven and on earth to this party. Why did you not invite my husband and me?”
“Your husband,” Daksha scoffed. “Is more beast than civilized. When you come to your senses and leave that wild creature, I will welcome you home.”
The guests gasped, shocked that Daksha had the nerve to hurl such an insult. Sati was outraged. She became very still. Her anger began as an ember deep in her belly. As her inner fire flamed, Sati was enveloped in flames. “Since this body came from you,” she hissed. “You can have it back!” With that, Sati’s entire body combusted.
When Shiva heard of Sati’s death, he was consumed with rage. He tore his hair out and used it to create the deadliest of warriors. He named this warrior Virabhadra, which means “warrior friend”.
Virabhadra snuck into unsuspecting Daksha’s party. Upon seeing his enemy, the warrior held his sword high over his head with both hands. His eyes narrowed as he focused all of his attention on destroying his opponent. In one swift move, Virabhadra decapitated Daksha.
This sad story does not end in violence. Rather, it ends in regret and an act of mercy. Shiva’s rage eventually subsided and all he was left with was a profound sense of grief. Virabhadra was absorbed back into his being. Shiva realized that revenge would never bring back his beloved Sati. He took the head of a goat, set it upon Daksha’s shoulders, and brought his father-in-law back to life.
In their grief, Shiva and Daksha embraced. Daksha thanked Shiva for his kindness and gave Shiva the name Shankar, the Benevolent One. Shiva nodded. He cradled the body of his deceased wife. He would spend the next millennia sadly wandering the cosmos.
Practicing the standing Warrior Poses.
It helps to know how to practice these three poses individually before practicing them in a vinyasa sequence.
- Stand in mountain pose at the front of your yoga mat. Take a big step back with your right leg.
- Bend your left knee. Your knee should be stacked directly over or slightly behind your left heel. Your right leg is straight.
- Your hips and chest face the front of your yoga mat.
- Stretch your arms up toward the sky. Bring your hands together but do not cross your fingers or thumbs. Bring your hands forward slightly so you can still see the tops of your thumbs.
- Your drishti is the tops of your thumbs. Breathe.
- From Virabhadrasana I, turn your hips and chest to face the long edge of your mat. (In this case, it will be the right side.)
- Extend your arms out at shoulder height. Your arms and fingers should be very straight, but do not lock your elbows, wrists, or knuckles.
- Turn your head and gaze over your left hand.
- Your drishti is beyond your left finger tips. Breathe.
- From Virabhadrasana II, bring your hands together at your heart (like praying hands). Turn to face the front of your mat again.
- Focus your eyes on a point on the ground about three feet in front of you.
- Transition your weight over your left leg.
- Find your balance and lift your right leg.
- Keep pressing your hands and fingers together. Extend your arms forward.
- Keep your right leg, trunk, and arms very straight. Balance. Breathe.
- To come out of the pose, bring your right foot forward to meet your left foot and return to mountain pose.
Now you are ready to practice these three poses in a vinyasa sequence.
- Inhale to Virabhadrasana I. Step your right leg back, bend your left knee, extend prayer hands forward and up. This is all done on one inhalation!
- Exhale to Virabhadrasana II. Turn your trunk towards the long edge of your mat. Gaze over your left finger tips.
- Inhale and turn towards the front of your mat. Transfer weight into your left leg in preparation for Virabhadrasana III.
- Exhale to lift right leg and balance in Virabhadrasana III. Breathe here.
- When you are ready to come out of the pose, return to mountain pose on an exhale.
Don’t forget to practice the entire sequence on the other side of your body!
Gannon, Sharon. “Warrior Poses.” Jivamuktiyoga.com, https://jivamuktiyoga.com/fotm/warrior-poses/. Accessed 6 May 2019.
Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body. Oxford University Press, 2010.