When I was a new student of Iyengar yoga, the mystery as to why virasana (hero pose) was requisite eluded me. Although I had been told of its many purported benefits—from stretching the hips, psoas, quads, and feet; improving circulation and relieving fatigue in the legs; and strengthening the arches of the feet and correcting posture; to improving digestion and alleviating symptoms of menopause—it just caused frustration in me. The internal rotation of the thighs that it required simply didn’t feel natural. It has taken a lot of time and a lot of experimentation with props for virasana and me to finally become friends (though we are still not besties).
In virasana the knees are close together, the heels are outside the hips, and you sit between the feet (whereas in vajrasana [thunderbolt], you sit on your heels). If your hips, like mine, externally rotate more easily than they internally rotate, virasana may be challenging.
I remember watching my classmates comfortably folding forward in hero pose with their seat still on the floor and thinking to myself, They probably spent hours sitting between their feet as kids, watching cartoons—and it’s very likely they did. For me, who always sat in (externally rotated) lotus or half-lotus as a child staring at the TV, folding forward in virasana was laughable. Perhaps for those who favored the W seat as children (similar to virasana, but with knees a little wider and feet turned out), poses like lotus may in turn seem pretty laughable.
Variation in hip structure is real, and individual hip structure (among other factors) determines whether some of us tend more toward inward rotation (making poses like virasana easier) and others more toward outward rotation (making poses like lotus or firelog easier).
Why Practice Virasana?
Thanks to the psoas stretch it provides, especially in its reclining variation, virasana can have a positive postural impact, and some people may find it to be a much more sustainable seat for meditation and pranayama than a cross-legged pose. But what about those of us for whom virasana is simply not comfortable or easeful? Is there still some benefit to be had from it? And if so, how can we adapt this pose to make it work for our bodies?
I would argue that for most of us, virasana is a pose that’s worth practicing. After all, in addition to the psoas, the quadriceps and feet receive a nice stretch when loaded appropriately, and the spine is almost invariably more upright in virasana than in sukhasana (easy pose), which facilitates lumbar strengthening as well. But what do we do when getting into the pose in the first place is either uncomfortable or just plain impossible?
First we have to figure out the right sitting depth (how high or low, whether we need lots of support or just a little) and what will benefit our individual joints. In the process, we may discover that our ideal virasana doesn’t much look like the traditional pose.
One way to garner some of the benefits of virasana is to use a kneeling-back chair. These chairs tilt the weight toward the front of the pelvis and lift weight off the coccyx (tailbone) and piriformis muscle and help strengthen the muscles surrounding the lumbar spine. I love sitting in a kneeling-back chair when I do desk work.
But, of course, kneeling-back chairs are a bit of an investment, and most yoga studios don’t stock them. Keeping that in mind, I’d like to offer a few more of my favorite ways to adapt virasana for my students and myself.
Let’s start by reviewing the traditional version of the pose: To practice virasana, come to a high kneeling position and bring your knees together. Spread your feet away from each other so that you can sit between them, making sure that all of your toenails are pressing into the floor and your toes are pointing behind you. Your spine should be upright, and you should have no discomfort in your knees or hips.
I find that the oft-suggested “sit on a block” works for about a third of my students. But for those who have had a knee injury or surgery, it may not work at all. In such cases, I often recommend using a seiza bench, which can relieve the pressure of knee compression. If a seiza bench is not available, I suggest placing a block lengthwise on its low to mid setting between the feet, and a bolster (or folded blanket) under the hips and thighs and atop the block. The bolster will help to angle the pelvis forward, and can also provide some relief for the knees in this position.
For students whose ankles and feet are unhappy with kneeling, a rolled blanket under the ankles can sometimes be a welcome relief. You may need to place a block between your feet here as well (for more height) so that the ankles don’t hyperextend when you add the rolled blanket.
For those with big, beautiful, muscular calves, coming into vajrasana for a minute or two with a rolled sticky mat behind the knees may create a bit of space and allow you to then come into virasana more easefully. (Note: It’s wise to check with your doctor about this type of stretch if you’ve had arthroscopic or replacement surgery.)
Supta virasana (hero pose in a reclined position) is one of the best “anti-sitting” poses for those who spend a lot of time at a desk, but be kind and mindful: The psoas is a big muscle and it’s not going to be happy if you force it to release. Warm up, do some gentle lunges, and then try some subtler supported versions of supta virasana first.
Here’s my new favorite way to ease into reclining hero. Place a bolster lengthwise and at an angle between the legs of a reclined chair. Sit on a block or higher support if needed and lean back onto the bolster. You can allow your arms to fall open to the sides and rest your hands on props as needed or rest your hands on your legs.
Eventually, when your body is ready, you can lower the back support, gradually moving to an inclined bolster supported by a yoga block or two. Drawing the pelvis toward a more posterior (backward) tilt can help alleviate back discomfort.
Because it provides a rather intense backbend, care needs to be taken with supta virasana. So what was I thinking when, at one point, I actually adopted from a well-known teacher the technique of standing on the thighs of students in this pose?(!) While the assist did alleviate discomfort in my students’ lumbar spines, I feel incredibly fortunate not to have done knee or hip damage with such a stunt, let alone lose my balance and fall on top of the hapless heroes! For a safer option that can offer similar relief, try placing sandbags over the tops of your thighs.
The moral of the story: Take time to warm up, use ample props, and move gradually if you want to befriend rather than be conquered by hero pose.