Though virabhadrasana I (warrior I) is a fairly common pose, it can sometimes seem confusing, frustrating, or just plain mysterious—even for experienced yogis. After all, there’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple asana, and if your main vira I experience is via sun salutes, you may only be used to staying in the shape for a breath or two, making it difficult to really get familiar with it. Not to mention that just getting there can be a challenge. (How do you step your foot all the way between your hands anyway?) And if you are staying for a long hold, there’s so much to think about! You might wonder if your stance is too long or too short. Why your back heel keeps coming up. Why bending your front knee to a “perfect 90-degree angle” doesn’t actually seem possible here, or why attempting to “square your hips” hurts your back knee. And wait, is this supposed to be a backbend or not?
There’s a lot going on in this deceptively simple asana.
The truth is—like with any warrior pose—there’s no “one-size-fits-all” way to practice, teach, or cue warrior I, but you might find that some of the transitions, alignment tips, and explorations explained below will help you (or your students) feel a little more comfortable and confident the next time vira I shows up in class.
Stepping Back Though stepping forward into warrior I is a fairly common transition (Oh hi, sun salute B!), it can actually be pretty challenging, especially if your hips feel tight. In general, stepping back into the the pose from tadasana (mountain pose) is a little more accessible (though it can be a bit of a balance challenge), so this is a good place to start if you’re just beginning to explore warrior I (or just not so into the whole vinyasa thing). But how far do you step back? How wide apart should your feet be?
Begin in tadasana—feet about “hips-width” or two-fists-distance apart is a pretty good starting place. Keeping the feet hips-width apart, step your left foot back about a legs-length; perhaps not a perfect estimation, but it’s a fairly good gauge initially. From here, adjust so you feel stable, with your left foot planted on the floor and your left toes pointing toward the upper left corner of your mat. If keeping your left foot planted without turning it out a lot more (like warrior II) proves a challenge, your stance is likely too long; step your back foot a little closer to the top of your mat so that it can stay grounded. If you feel like you’re balancing on a tightrope or about to topple over, widen your stance by walking your left foot a little more to the left, until your foundation feels more reliable (but do keep your left toes pointing toward the upper left corner of your mat). Then bend your front knee for warrior I.
Stepping Forward from Downdog Stepping forward into warrior I can seem a little bit trickier, but if you frequent vinyasa classes, it’s a transition you’ll come across often. Here are some tips to make it less frustrating:
From downward facing dog, lift up onto the balls of your feet, and lift your right leg up into three-legged dog. (These actions aren’t absolutely necessary, and often you might hear a teacher cue you to simply step through without lifting your leg, or even to spin your back foot flat for vira I before you step your other foot forward, but starting from three-legged dog can make the step to warrior I more accessible when you're first learning it.) Keep your hips lifted, and lightly step to lunge to prepare for warrior I.
Before you spin your back foot to the floor (same thing here: back toes to upper left corner of the mat), make sure that your front foot is planted solidly on the ground (heel included!) and your front knee is stacked right over your front heel—not going past it. If you didn’t step far enough forward, either bring your right hand to your right calf, pick up your foot and step it forward, or scoot your left foot back until your right heel is planted and your right knee is stacked directly over it. Keep that alignment, and adjust your back foot so that you can ground it down and lift your torso to rise up into vira I.
If you have difficulty stepping your front foot far enough forward, and often find you have to take several steps (there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but it can feel a bit cumbersome sometimes), here’s another little trick that you might find useful:
Inhale, lift your right leg up; exhale, pick up your right hand and lightly step through. (This one works best if you don’t think about it too hard; just go for it!) You might find that the extra bit of momentum you get from picking up the hand helps you to take a longer, lighter step. Maybe you got to your lunge in one step, or maybe you only needed to take one extra step instead of two to get there!
(YI teacher Nikki Estrada has some pretty sweet tips for stepping forward too. You can check out her tutorial here.)
Entering the Pose from Supported Warrior III This transition is a little easier than stepping forward, and (bonus!) it’s a fabulous way to gauge your stance, and to answer the age-old question: “How much should I turn out my back foot?"
Come into a supported warrior III with your fingertips on a set of yoga blocks at their highest height in front of you, spine long, right foot on the floor, and left leg extended behind you with your left heel at hip-height (no higher) and your left toes pointing down toward the floor. Engage between your two front hip-points (envision cinching a drawstring) and keep them facing down toward the floor. Maintaining that, turn out your left leg—just to the point that you can keep your hips from rolling open—and then bring it back to the starting position with toes facing the floor. Turn your left leg and foot out and in like this a few times (you’ll likely feel the left side of your butt “working” a little bit as you do this), then turn the left leg and foot out and keep it there—just before you get to the point where your hips roll open. Bend your right knee, step your left foot back into warrior I, and lift your torso to rise up. Voila! A nice stable stance (and if not, adjust your back foot until it truly is stable for you).
What’s Going on with the Back Leg Keep your back leg active! Imagine that your back (left) foot is glued to the floor, but you’re trying to spin it open to the left. Your foot won’t actually go anywhere, but you’ll feel some activation in your external rotators on that side (i.e., the left side of your butt). Keep that, and at the same time, lift your left inner thigh up toward the sky, creating a balance of internal and external rotation.
You Don’t Have to Square Your Hips Wrenching the back hip forward in an attempt to “square up” your warrior I can torque the back knee (ouch, right?). Instead, keep your back leg active (resisting the left foot to the left while keeping the left inner thigh lifted) and turn from your belly to bring your torso to face the short edge of your mat. Wrap the left side (back-leg side) of your belly toward the right (front-leg side) of your belly—the lower belly, middle belly, and upper belly. Don’t worry if you’re not “perfectly” square to the front.
What’s Going on with the Front Leg? Though you might often hear the cue “bend your front knee to 90 degrees” in warrior I, that’s not really realistic for most of us—the angle will likely be more obtuse than, say, a warrior II or high lunge. If holding warrior I pose feels super “easy,” you might consider a longer stance so that you can bend your front knee a little deeper (just make sure your stance is still stable!).
Though you might often hear the cue “bend your front knee to 90 degrees” in warrior I, that’s not really realistic for most of us.
Keep your front knee stacked over your heel and pointing straight ahead. In lieu of the oft-cued “knee-to-second-toe” alignment, err on the side of moving your right knee toward the pinky-toe side of your right foot while keeping the ball of your right big toe rooted. (See Amber Burke’s “Keeping the Doctor Away: Ten Doses of Yoga Alignment for Preventative Physical Therapy” to explore this in more detail.)
Arms and Shoulders You might find it useful to work with your hands at your hips initially so that you can keep your focus on the actions in the legs and belly; however, if you’d like, you can extend your arms up, reaching them up from the sides, or straight forward and up through center. Instead of “pulling your shoulders down,” lift your shoulder blades and rib cage along with your arms. (You can look to that same article that I mentioned above for more info on the biomechanics of this as well.) Broaden your upper shoulder blades; draw the bottom tips of your shoulder blades in, and reach up through soft fingers.
Making It a Backbend (and What to Do with Your Head) At some point, you might be presented with the option to explore more of a backbend in warrior I. Like with any backbend, you’ll want to avoid collapsing in the lower back, and to let your chest (not your chin!) lead the way. If your low ribs are jutting forward, draw them back. Broaden your collarbones, lift your sternum and move the back of your head back to follow, keeping the back of your neck long as you open your throat. Imagine that you’re backbending over something. Stretch your legs apart from each other like you’re stretching your mat in two. Keep your low belly active as you continue to lift your chest, move the back of your head back and reach out through your soft, energized fingertips. Lead with your chest (not your chin) to come back upright (the head is last) before you release warrior I pose.