No yoga posture expresses the meaning of the word repose (temporary rest from activity, excitement, or exertion) better than supta virasana. Even its name—reclining hero pose—evokes the image of a noble warrior recovering strength during a quiet interlude between battles.
Supta virasana is a near perfect counterpose to all the warrior postures
In fact, supta virasana is a near perfect counterpose to all the warrior postures (virabhadrasana I, II, and III). Energetically, these poses have a strong element of moving forward and upward, whereas supta virasana is, literally, laid back. Anatomically, the warrior positions demand that you intensely contract the muscles in the front of your thigh and shin while boldly lifting your trunk and head; supta virasana gently but persistently coaxes those same leg muscles to release to their maximum length, while it passively supports your head and upper body.
The unique position of the body in supta virasana gives the pose an additional restorative quality that a resting warrior would find both comforting and useful: when aligned just right, supta virasana aids digestion, making it one of the few poses that you can practice safely after a meal.
When aligned just right, supta virasana aids digestion, making it one of the few poses that you can practice safely after a meal.
When aligned just right—ah, there’s the rub. Supta virasana is essentially a linear pose, long and narrow, not wide or deep like virabhadrasana, but most people need help to achieve this form. The rare person who is flexible enough to enter the pose completely without props (and without cheating) first bends the knees completely so the buttocks rest firmly on the floor between the feet. And then, keeping the thighs strictly parallel to one another, lies back, tilting the hips, trunk, and head as a single unit so they all rest on the floor. In the final position, the thighbones, pelvis, spine, and head all line up with one another in the same way they line up in tadasana (mountain pose). The arms reach overhead (along the floor), continuing the line of the body, and they stretch as far away from the knees as possible, elongating the entire pose from kneecaps to fingertips.
Although a number of factors—such as limited flexibility of the knee or ankle joint—can make it difficult for people to achieve the long, narrow, flat position of the reclining hero, the most common limitation is tightness in the rectus femoris, better known as one of the four quadriceps muscles that run along the front of the thigh. The lower ends of all the “quads” attach to the kneecap, which, in turn, attaches to the front of the upper shinbone just below the knee. But, while the upper ends of three quads attach to the front of the thighbone, the rectus femoris skips the thighbone and attaches to the front of the pelvis just above the hip joint.
In the final position, the thighbones, pelvis, spine, and head all line up with one another in the same way they line up in tadasana
When you bend your knees to go into supta virasana, your shins pull your kneecaps down toward the floor, drawing the lower ends of all the quads far away from the thighbone. Just bending the knees gives a nice stretch to the quadriceps muscles that attach to the thighs, but, in order to elongate the rectus femoris muscles, you have to tilt the top of your pelvis—the part above the hip joint—back away from your knees (while drawing your sitting bones forward toward your knees). If the muscles can relax and lengthen sufficiently, you can tilt your pelvis back a full 90 degrees—from its vertical position when you’re sitting down to its horizontal position when you’re lying down—but if they can’t stretch that far, the taut muscles stop the pelvis after it tilts only partway back.
What happens after the pelvis can’t tilt back anymore depends on how you handle the situation. Most people practice supta virasana without sufficient awareness of what the final alignment of the pose should be. They go into it, without props, bound and determined to lay their torso back and down and place their shoulders and head on the floor. Unfortunately, they typically do this by arching their lower back, which puts strain on the lumbar vertebrae and destroys the straight line of the pose. Meanwhile, unless they take pains to prevent it, the strong tension on the rectus femoris draws the knees apart, creating a diagonal stretch rather than a straight one. This not only reduces the amount of stretch on the rectus femoris muscle, it also indirectly reduces the amount of stretch on the trunk, making this common misaligned version of supta virasana less effective than the straight-line pose. Rather than the long, narrow, low supta virasana optimized for stretch, rest, and digestion, you get a broad, overarched, uncomfortable approximation of the pose that often creates more stress than it relieves.
A few simple props let less limber practitioners enjoy nearly all the benefits of the fully horizontal pose.
Fortunately, a few simple props let less limber practitioners enjoy nearly all the benefits of the fully horizontal pose. Here’s how to become a relaxed supine hero with alignment and grace, regardless of your level of flexibility.
The basic formula for propping supta virasana is simple: elevate the shins and pelvis just enough to relieve stress on the ankles and knees, and then lift the upper back and head high enough to create an inclined line of the body from knees to hips to shoulders to ears. This configuration limits the rectus femoris stretch to a manageable level and allows the spine to stay long and the knees to hold their alignment.
If inflexibility in your ankles prevents you from kneeling with your feet pointing straight back, prop your shins first to relieve your ankles. Set up a stack of two to four blankets and drape your ankles over the edge, pointing your feet in the same line as the shins. Your feet should be only far enough apart to barely admit the width of your outer thighbones (greater trochanters) when you sit down.
Next, prop your pelvis to ease any knee discomfort. If sitting between your feet with your pelvis on the floor puts any strain at all on your knees, then elevate your pelvis on folded blankets or a yoga block, using just enough height to relieve the strain. Keep your thighbones parallel, but the knees themselves should not touch one another.
Now set up a stack of blankets to rest the upper back and shoulders on when you lie back. Long, narrow blankets along the line of the spine work well, but it’s also fine to fold blankets to a shorter shape. Even if the blankets are long, they do not have to support the lower back; if they touch the lower back at all they shouldn’t force it to arch excessively. You may need to experiment with the number of blankets (folding and unfolding them) to find the optimal height for this prop. It’s usually best to start out too high and then remove props one by one. Put one or more folded blankets on top of the back support for use as a head support.
Keeping the thighs parallel, press the tops of your shins toward the floor, tilt the top of your pelvis back, and lie down on the props. Lengthen your lower back by setting the back of your lower rib cage on the props as far away from the knees as you can. Adjust your head support so your forehead is slightly higher than your chin. Reach your arms overhead, in line with your body, and stretch them as far away from your knees as you can, feeling your belly elongate and the sides of your waist lengthen. Breathe easily and rest comfortably until it is time to return to action.
If you still struggle with finding ease in this pose, adjust your props in one or more of the following ways:
- If your thighs separate and you cannot restore them to the parallel position, use higher props under your back and head.
- If your lower back arches more than it does when you are standing—or if it feels compressed or pinched—then tilt the pelvis more, moving your sitting bones toward your knees. If that doesn’t restore the back to a comfortable normal curve, then raise the props.
- If you can keep your body in a comfortable neutral line from knees to ears but you don’t feel an engaging stretch in your thighs, first tilt the top of your pelvis back and your sitting bones forward more firmly. If that doesn’t work, then lower the props bit by bit until you feel a moderate but manageable challenge to your flexibility.
Roger Cole, PhD, a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, teaches at Yoga Del Mar near San Diego. He specializes in anatomy and physiology of yoga and relaxation and has taught yoga as a healing art to the medical community.