The Mythology Behind Virasana (Hero’s Pose)
The verb vir in Sanskrit means "to subdue, to overpower, to tear open, to display heroism." Its related noun, virya, means "power, strength, energy, bravery, virility or 'manliness.'" The dictionary tells us that vir comes from a proto-Indo-European root, with cognates in such seemingly diverse languages as Old Irish, Latin, Gothic, Hindi, and of course English.
Hanuman, the monkey superhero of Indian legend, is widely known as “Vir Hanuman” (Hero Hanuman). He is said to have two primary attributes. In relation to Lord Rama, he is both dasa (servant) and vira (hero). Some images of Hanuman emphasize his “vira” aspect: He leaps, he flies to the sun, he carries mountains, he performs impossible feats of strength and energy. But one of his most characteristic poses, one which shows his “dasa” side, is actually known to yoga students as virasana, hero's pose.
For Hanuman, Rama is not only the king, but God. Hanuman's virasana puts his power, strength, and energy—his virya—in context.
In this position, Hanuman kneels humbly before Lord Rama's throne. Sometimes he has one foot on the floor in front of him, sometimes he sits between his feet. In both cases, he demonstrates an attitude of devotion and service to a higher power. For Hanuman, Rama is not only the king, but God. Hanuman's virasana puts his power, strength, and energy—his virya—in context.
Kneel on the floor with your feet about 18 inches apart. Then sit between (not on) your feet. (If your seat doesn't touch the floor, place a yoga block between your feet to sit on, keeping your thigh bones parallel.) Release your inner thighs toward the floor. This is a subtle movement; don't exaggerate it to the point of disturbing your knees, which should still point straight ahead.
Place your feet just outside your hips, with your inner heels “kissing” the outer sides of your buttocks. Point your toes back. Take a moment, and use your hands to move your outer heels toward the inner heels. You'll notice that, to do this, you must press the tops of your feet into the floor, while keeping the toes pointing straight back. This action can help to align the ligaments on either side of your knees. You may detect a subtle outward rotation of your shins. Do you feel as though your outer knees move down toward the floor, while your inner knees lift? If not, don't worry or try to create that feeling; just observe. The knee is a complex joint. When it is in full flexion, as in virasana, the outer edges should be neutral in relation to the midline. (For a brief anatomy lesson on the knee, see Doug Keller’s article “Yoga Therapy for Your Knees.”)
Continue to press the tops of the feet gently but firmly into the floor. Now rest your hands on your knees. Make sure the backs of your knees feel spacious, not crunched. You can create space by placing a yoga strap, washcloths, or a rolled blanket or yoga mat in the hollow behind your knees.
Press your shins and feet tops into the floor, lift your ribs and spine evenly. Release your bottom front ribs down and lift your kidney area in back, so the front and back of your rib cage remain parallel. Bring your shoulder blades onto your back. Imagine a line from the bottom tip of the shoulder blade to the center of the collarbone on the same side; breathe back and forth along that line. Sense the connection between back and front. Imagine the shoulder blades supporting your collarbones and sternum. Lift your breastbone and keep your shoulders relaxed. Breathe slowly and mindfully.
Remember Hanuman, and imagine a long flexible tail extending behind you. If your tail feels restricted, sit higher. You can lower your props systematically as you gain flexibility.
If your front ankles are too tight for you to sit comfortably with your feet tops on the floor, place a folded blanket under your shins, with the folded edge just above your front ankles. Let your feet hang off the blanket's edge. Alternatively, place a blanket under your feet, from ankle to toes. Some people enjoy elevating their feet, others prefer elevating their shins to make space in the front ankles. The point is to find a position in which the feet can be active and alive in their relationship with the floor. Stretching the ankles and feet in virasana regularly, over time, can create arches in flat feet and relieve the pain of heel spurs.
If your front ankles are too tight for you to sit comfortably with your feet tops on the floor, place a folded blanket under your shins.
To exit virasana, come to all fours, cross your ankles, and swing your legs forward into dandasana. It's important to straighten and “reset” the knees before proceeding to other poses.
Points for Practice
There are many variations of virasana: twisted, forward-bending, reclined, and half-virasana. Half-virasana offers an interesting opportunity to observe asymmetries in your body. Sit with one leg in virasana, as described above. Bend your opposite knee and place that foot flat on the floor, toes pointing forward. Ground both sit bones. Are they level? Extend your tail. Press both feet down and lift up through your spine. Fold your hands in namaste position, lift your heart, and soften your shoulders. Sit. Breathe. Change sides. Compare sensations in the two sides. Do you need less support on one? Is one ankle tighter than the other? What degree of release or holding do you notice in each hip crease? Does one side of your rib cage lift more freely than the other? Let the freer, easier side show the more restricted one what is possible.
Where is your sense of ease, of rest, in this position? Where does the pose feel effortful? Do you harden your eyes or tongue in response to some sensation of gripping in the legs?
Buddhist art depicts benevolent deities such as White Tara in the posture of “royal ease,” seated on a slight height with one leg drawn up into a bound-angle position, the other hanging down with the foot on the floor. This posture declares that she is both relaxed and fully prepared to come to the aid of her devotees at any moment. To me, half-virasana has a similar energy. You are simultaneously dasa and vira, receptive and filled with potential.
Take full virasana one more time, mindfully enlisting sensations of rest and alertness equally on both sides.
Once you have found the right setup for you, virasana is an ideal position for seated pranayama or meditation.
Relaxed and alert, that's Vir Hanuman, equally a devotee and a warrior, surrendered at the Lord's feet, but ready to serve at any moment. Patanjali (Yoga Sutra 2.48) tells us that, by mastering postures, we become free from the afflictions of opposites (dvandva). By remembering Hanuman in virasana, we get a taste of the state in which the body's calmness sets the mind free of its physical preoccupations. Once you have found the right setup for you, virasana is an ideal position for seated pranayama or meditation.
In Yoga Sutra 1.20, Patanjali speaks of five essential qualities that help even ordinary people to overcome obstacles in our practice and in our lives. Of these five, the first two—shraddha (faith) and virya (vigor)—are intimately connected. Shraddha is the joy we take in our practice, the thrill of realizing its connection to the purpose of life. Shraddha leads naturally to virya, enthusiasm and energy for the practice, for realizing our potential to heal and transform our lives.
Vir Hanuman is a perfect example of integrated shraddha and virya. His loving faith in Rama is the source of his power and all his motivation. When he uses that vigor to serve his highest ideal, he can transform his body—for example, flying over the ocean and shrinking himself to a tiny size in order to find and rescue Queen Sita—and alter events to serve the highest ideal.
How does your practice help you realize your ideals—physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally?
Ask yourself: What do I love most? What do I have faith in? What grounds and supports my efforts? From where do I draw my strength, my enthusiasm? What do I serve? Where do I put my energy? Write down some of the ways you see yourself being transformed by your practice. How does your practice help you realize your ideals—physically, mentally, spiritually, interpersonally?
Zo Newell, Ph.D., ERYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Dr. Rammurti Mishra (Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati). She earned her Ph.D. in religious studies from Vanderbilt University in 2011, with a dissertation on goddess images as a unifying cultural symbol for India's emerging national identity. She is the author of the award-winning book Downward Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Insitute, 2007). A former hospital chaplain and trauma counselor, Zo was a regular... Read more>>