If you’ve ever taken a Vinyasa Flow class or tried Ashtanga Vinyasa, you’ve moved through Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I) pose a lot. Or perhaps you sip from another cup of yoga such as Iyengar or basic Hatha in which you often hold Warrior I longer than the five breath maximum prescribed in Ashtanga. It’s a very common asana, and a very common one for getting hurt. As with any of the 840,000 asanas, we meet and greet Warrior I starting from our immediate condition. There are surely some folks out there– the yogic 1% – who can do pretty much anything physically and only wonder how it might possibly cause strain or injury to someone because they’re condition allows such ease in all human movement and positioning. Then there’s the rest of us.
Why is Warrior I potentially fraught with risk of injury?
Let’s first look at the basic set-up of this asana. With the heel of the back foot turned to the midline around 60-degrees or so and pada bandha awake in both feet, the idea is to internally rotate that thigh in order to revolve that hip forward toward alignment with the other hip (hips even and level), with the knee of the front leg bent towards 90-degrees of flexion (knee over heel, thigh eventually level with the floor) while keeping the pelvis level. That’s the foundation. From there we elongate the spine while either gazing forward or overhead to the thumbtips.
So what’s the issue? There are a few. First, with the back foot turned in and rooted to the floor, when we then attempt to rotate that back hip forward we introduce a twisting effect into that knee. Not good. (Bear in mind that the knee is a very special hinge joint that has only about 5-degrees of rotational potential, and only then when flexed beyond 90-degees.) Second, the more we bend the front knee, the more we increase that twist.
Meanwhile, with the back leg in extension, we’re asking our hip flexors to relax and lengthen in order for the back hip to come forward. However, the ilio-psoas and rectus femoris aren’t always so giving. When tight, those muscles cause the pelvis to rotate forward (anterior rotation), all the more so the more deeply we try to bend the front knee. This would be just fine were we not also trying to position the spine and torso vertically from the pelvis.
These anatomical relationships result in a terribly asymmetrical pelvic foundation for the spine, causing excessive lordotic movement (and thus pressure on the intervertebral disks in the lumbar segment) along with at least a slight twist in the lumber and the slight (or greater) backbend – not good for the low back.
Here’s another approach:
In transitioning from Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) to Warrior I, there are two basic techniques. In traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, the left heel is turned in about halfway and rooted down before stepping the right foot forward. I do not recommend this as it does not allow one to first properly establish the foundation of the pose and to only then ease into the fuller lunge and upward position of the spine. In many Vinyasa Flow classes, the right leg is first extended back and up while inhaling, then when exhaling, the foot is drawn forward and placed next to the right hand. This allows instructing Ashta Chandrasana (Eight Pont Crescent Moon Moon Pose – Crescent Pose) rather than Virabhadrasana I as a way of introducing high lunge poses and offering the space in which to gently awaken the hip flexors and groin while ensuring that students understand the important alignment principle of knee-over-heel. In further preparation for either the first Ashta Chandrasana or Virabhadrasana I, ask students to come high onto their fingertips, draw their shoulder blades down their back, and extend the sternum forward to draw more length through the spine and create more space around the neck.
In either Ashta Chandrasana or Virabhadrasana I, ask students to straighten their front leg all the way while drawing their torso all the way up into a vertical position, place their hands on their hips, and bring the pelvis to a place of neutrality while pressing the back leg straight and strong. If starting with Ashta Chandrasana, next cue students to draw their back heel in and down to the floor to establish the foundation there for Virabhadrasana I: cultivate pada bandha, rotate the back hip forward, the inner thigh of the back leg rotating back and the pelvis level. With the hands still on the hips, ask students to try to maintain as much pelvic neutrality as they can—space between their hip and front thigh—while slowing bending their front leg and consciously guiding their knee toward the little-toe side of the foot. It is very important to ensure that the front knee does not travel out beyond the heel; allowing the knee to go farther forward places excessive pressure on the ACL. If a student feels pressure in the back knee or lower back when bending the front knee into Virabhadrasana I, guide that person to back out of the lunge or explore bending the knee less deeply. Keeping the back heel lifted straight up in the Ashta Chandrasana positioning will also reduce or eliminate the pressure in the back knee and lower back.
In either asana, once students are up in the lunge position, ask them to release their arms down by their sides, turn their palms out to feel the external rotation of their arms at the shoulder joint, and then reach their arms out and up overhead while keeping the shoulder blades rooted down and in against their back ribs. Cue the class to look down for a moment and draw their lower front ribs slightly in, then try to maintain that positioning while bringing the gaze forward and the arms back. This will help students to develop neutral extension of the spine with greater shoulder flexion, which is intrinsically beneficial and helpful in creating the body intelligence for asanas such as Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand). Encourage students who can keep their arms straight to draw their palms together overhead, and if it is okay with the neck, to gaze up to the tips of their thumbs.
To deepen the experience of Virabhadrasana I, emphasize the steady grounding of the feet, internal rotation of the back leg while pressing the shin firmly back to further ground the back heel, pada bandha in both feet, mula bandha, and steady energetic lifting through the spine, through the heart center, and out through the fingertips. Suggest lifting the lower rim of the ribs up and away from the upper rims of the hips to create more space and ease in the lower back. The breath should be steady and even, the eyes soft, the heart open. Virabhadrasana I is an excellent asana in which to teach multiple lines of energy, the relationship between roots and extension, and the balance of sthira and sukham.
In the transition from Virabhadrasana I to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose), encourage students to keep the movement simple, fluid, and connected to their breath. You will observe many students, especially advancing beginners, keeping one foot off the floor all the way into and even through Chaturanga Dandasana. This undermines the stable foundation of Chaturanga Dandasana; the integrity of Four-Limbed Staff Pose is lost to an asymmetrical three-limb variation that compromises the balanced movement into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose). Done repetitively, this can destabilize the sacroiliac joint and lead to potentially chronic lower-back problems.