Stand Strong in Your True Self: The Mythology and Practice of Reverse Warrior
My first introduction to yoga came in the form of a book: the Bhagavad Gita. Years before I began practicing asana, I brought this classic text with me everywhere—and not in pocket-sized form. It simply remained in the backseat of my car as a beloved passenger. The idea that I could park, reach back, open to a random page, and read on (and on) comforted me during long or short commutes to just about anywhere.
At the time, I hadn't yet immersed myself into a complete yoga lifestyle (of meditation, asana, and self-study). So I had to get creative about how I could surround myself with yoga—a philosophy I was beginning to discover and love. And I was particularly inspired by the Gita's protagonist, Arjuna, who is led onto the battlefield by Krishna to fight the good fight.
Eventually I moved to an ashram, began studying yoga philosophy in-depth with seasoned teachers, and discovered that there are countless references to warriors in classic yoga texts. From Arjuna to the warrior goddess Durga to Hanuman (the monkey superhero) to Virabhadra (a warrior I will soon discuss at length!), warriors take many forms. And yet each form could be said to represent the same thing: the “higher self” (atman) battling to destroy harmful or violent aspects of the human ego. And this metaphor inspires us yoga practitioners to be warriors in our own right.
We can practice this warriorship first through self-inquiry, which involves contemplating: “Who am I?” My first teacher, Mooji, likens self-inquiry to both “a sword and a mirror” because it helps us discover exactly who we are not and sever untrue aspects of self. As we inquire, we will likely see that we are not the harmful thoughts we think about ourselves, we are not the mistakes we have made, and we are not constructed from the negative opinions of others.
We can also embody this concept of “warriorship” each time we step onto our yoga mats through an asana inspired by the fierce warrior Virabhadra: reverse warrior, or viparita virabhadrasana (a pose I’ve grown to love and practice often). This posture stretches and strengthens the upper and lower body; it helps us open through the chest, shoulders, and hips, provides a great lateral (side-body) stretch, and strengthens the legs, especially the quads.
Standing poses like this one are also said to help practitioners discover courage, perseverance, and self-empowerment to boot—reserves any warrior would need!
Strength From the Ground Up in Warrior II
To come into reverse warrior, first set your foundation in warrior II. Begin in a wide stance, facing the long edge of your mat. Extend your arms out to a “T” position and adjust your stance so your wrist creases are directly over your ankles. Turn your back (left) foot parallel with the short edge of the mat or turn it in slightly (a helpful placement if you have a tendency to turn it out). Line up your feet so that the heel of the front (right) foot is in line with the arch of the back (left) foot. Bend your front knee so that your thigh is parallel to the floor (or close to it), and stack your knee over your ankle (widen your stance if your knee extends past your ankle). Press into your back heel and press the top of your back thigh back in order to keep this leg straight and strong and avoid making your front thigh do all of the hard work in the pose.
It's common for the front knee to drop in, so if that happens, angle your front knee toward the pinky-toe side of your foot while keeping the ball of the big toe grounded on the floor. If you feel “stuck,” unable to reposition the leg, try lifting your front heel (coming onto the ball of your right foot) and then moving your knee toward the pinky-toe side of your foot (still keeping the ball of the big toe grounded). Keep your knee pointing in that direction as you lower the heel back down.
Now float your arms up and out to the side, level with your shoulders, with your palms facing down. Turn your head to look out past your right fingers and relax the tops of your shoulders.
Reversing Your Warrior
We've created a strong foundation in the legs, and you'll want to maintain this as you transition into viparita virabhadrasana. First, focus on the upper body and the key actions involved in the spine—axial extension (lengthening your spine) and lateral flexion (side bending)—so that you can reverse your warrior. Inhaling, lengthen up through the crown of your head. Maintain that length as you exhale. On your next inhalation, spin your front (right) palm to face up. Exhale and release your back (left) hand to the back of your back leg, either above or below the knee, as you reach up and over into the side bend—your right arm will naturally lengthen overhead. Spin the pinky side of your front (right) hand down toward the ground, creating more spaciousness through your neck and shoulders. Do you feel a deep stretch through the right side of your torso, from the waist up through the fingertips? Look down toward your back foot, straight ahead, or if it feels comfortable for your neck, turn your gaze toward the lifted arm or fingertips.
Remember that “deeper” does not equal “better.” If you feel as though you are collapsing your left side body, draw your back (left) hand higher up your leg.
Just as you were in warrior II, be mindful of your front knee. If you feel it dropping inward, re-angle the knee toward the pinky-toe side of the foot. Also be mindful of the positioning of both legs in general. There is a tendency to start to straighten the front leg once we begin to side-bend in this pose; it's also common for the back knee to bend and/or for the back thigh to push forward. To counter these tendencies, press the top of the back thigh back to keep the back leg straight, strong, and active, and keep the front knee bending.
The Mythology of Viparita Virabhadrasana: Who Was Virabhadra?
The story of Virabhadra is a classic warrior tale in that it reflects the struggle between truth (atman or “higher self”) and the ego. In this tale, Lord Shiva takes a wife—Sati—but her father, Daksha, does not approve of Shiva's bizarre, renunciate ways. (Shiva spends time in cemeteries and wears a snake around his neck, after all.)
To demonstrate his disapproval, Daksha throws a party and does not invite the newlyweds. Sati becomes enraged and goes to the party alone to defend her love of Shiva, but her father cannot surrender his opinion of Shiva; his distaste for their coupling remains.
In retaliation, Sati decides to sever her relationship with her father and her family in general. She even decides to leave her body (which is a yogic way to say “die”). She announces this to her father, leaves the party, goes deep into meditation, and builds an inner fire (agni) that is so strong she eventually spontaneously combusts.
Grief-stricken, Shiva tears his hair out, and from that hair he manifests Virabhadra to slay Sati's stubborn-minded father. Virabhadra quickly fulfills his purpose; he arrives at the party and decapitates Daksha. But after the deed is done, Shiva feels sorrow and regret. So he absorbs Virabhadra back into his body, goes to the party (that by now is most definitely over), and restores life to Daksha.
When Daksha's heartbeat returns, his perspective has shifted; he, too, feels regret for his ways. From then on, he calls Shiva “Shiva Shankar,” the kind and benevolent one. In the end, Sati also comes back to life by re-incarnating as Parvati (another goddess and wife of Shiva).
The Story as Metaphor
When Virabhadra kills Daksha, one could say the warrior represents an aspect of the higher self that manifests to slay the human ego, represented by Daksha. Then, when Shiva brings Daksha back to life, he reminds us that inner work isn't as simple as destroying the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Instead, if we extend compassion toward the stubborn, harmful sides of ourself, we can invite them to soften and relinquish control. Through our warriorship, we can befriend, rather than admonish, our egos. We can accept ourselves, even the aspects we wish to discard—every part.
The Pose as Metaphor
Reverse warrior teaches us to stand strong on our mats, just as we strive to stand strong in the highest, most benevolent truth of who we are. And as we gaze upward, as if toward our potential, we also reach back for support; we are thus encouraged to call upon the tools we need to navigate the inner realms of ego—whether those tools take the form of meditation, self-inquiry, a regular hatha practice, a “passenger book,” or the words of a master teacher.