Asanas of Virabhadra, the Mythical Hindu Warrior
Some of my favorite standing yoga postures, or asanas, include the different variations of the Warrior Pose, or Virabhadrasana (the pose name in Sanskrit).
These beautiful and challenging poses are named after the great hero warrior Virabhadra from Hindu mythology. They are active postures that require strength, steadiness, and a fierce determination to hold with integrity.
There are three traditional Yoga Warrior Poses:
- 1 — the front knee is bent, back leg straight, arms extended overhead, and the chest is turned in the same direction as the bent knee.
- 2 — the front knee is bent, back leg straight, arms extended out to the sides in line with the legs.
- 3 — balancing on one straight leg, with the trunk and arms extending horizontally forward and the lifted leg extending straight back.
We practice Virabhadrasana, not to condone violence, but to honor our fight against our own ignorance and ego, and to cultivate the strength and courage to do the right thing under difficult circumstances.
The Story of Virabhadra
The warrior Virabhadra was created by Shiva, one of the major Hindu deities, to avenge the death of his beloved wife, Sati (also known as Shakti).
Here is a shortened version of the story. As in many mythological stories of gods and heroes, there are some variations in the details of this story.
Daksha, Sati’s father, didn’t approve of Sati’s marriage to Shiva, so when Daksha decided to hold a huge festival, he didn’t invite Shiva or Sati. Sati was hurt by this snub and by her father’s refusal to accept her marriage, and she decided to go to the festival to confront him.
Daksha asked why she was there since she wasn’t invited, and he rudely asked if she had finally come to her senses and left that “wild animal of a husband”. Sati was saddened and humiliated, and decided to end her own life, not wanting to be associated with her father anymore. In one version of this story she throws herself into the sacrificial fires of the festival, and in another version she goes into a meditative state to increase her own inner fire, and her body bursts into flame.
When Shiva heard the news of his wife’s death, he was first devastated, then enraged. In a fury, he tore out one of his dreadlocks and threw it to the ground.
Virabhadra was created, springing up from the energy released by the ferociously thrown dreadlock. He was a huge and terrible being, with a thousand arms, three eyes, and wearing a garland of skulls.
“Vira” means “Hero”
“Bhadra” means “Auspicious”
Shiva ordered Virabhadra, this “auspicious hero”, to kill all the guests at the sacrificial festival, including the other gods. Virabhadra did this, and also cut off Daksha’s head. But when Shiva saw the bloody aftermath of this battle, his anger left him and he felt remorse. The slain gods were miraculously healed, and Shiva replaced Daksha’s head with a goat’s head. Daksha and the other gods honored Shiva for this, calling him “Shankar”, the “kind and benevolent one” (!). Shiva left with his lifeless wife and became a recluse for awhile.
Representation of Virabhadra in the Warrior Postures
One of my yoga teachers says the different poses represent the many arms and eyes of Virabhadra. In the three traditional postures our arms may extend upward, to the sides, or forward, while our gaze also may be upward, forward, or sideways.
According to the story of Virabhadra in Myths of the Asanas: The Ancient Origins of Yoga (see below), when Shiva tore out a dreadlock in anger at his wife’s death, he threw it down on the ground with such force that it bored into the earth, and made its way through the mountain to where the party was being held. As it emerged, it transformed into the warrior Virabhadra.
- Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose 1) represents Virabhadra as he emerged up from under the ground, arms reaching up and gaze upwards.
- Warrior 2 portrays when he drew his sword (this is very similar to a fencer’s stance) and sliced off Daksha’s head.
- Warrior 3 embodies Virabhadra as he picked up the head to place it on a stake (arms reaching forward).
Even though the story of Virabhadra is ancient, the Yoga Warrior Asanas as done today may be relatively modern additions. Many of the positions that we practice now, including most of the standing postures, may have been developed by T. Krishnamacharya in the 1930s, to build up the strength, stamina, and flexibility of his students.
Two of Krishnamacharya’s students, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, continued to develop the practice of these more “modern” asanas. B.K.S. Iyengar brought a refinement to the asana practice that not only teaches us to align the body in specific ways to bring about better health, but to also train the mind to stay steady and on task. This steadiness and attention embodies the spirit of the “yoga warrior”.
The practice of yoga has evolved to be a vibrant part of our modern life. Even if the Yoga Warrior Poses are not ancient, they embody the philosophy of yoga.
Virabhadra as a Metaphor for Battling Our Weaknesses
Ignorance, Ego, Injustice
Many mythological stories, are really metaphors for different aspects of our lives.
The story of Virabhadra can be seen as a metaphor for striving to overcome our own weaknesses. The growth of our “spiritual warrior” nature includes developing the courage, unwavering focus, and determination to deal with our life’s challenging moments.
Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, CA says, “The yogi is really a warrior against his own ignorance. I speculate that Virabhadrasana I is about rising up out of your own limitations.”
We practice cultivating the mind of the warrior, remaining unattached to the outcome as we learn to stay centered and work through our own physical, mental, and emotional limitations.
Downward Dogs & Warriors
Another Book About the Mythology Behind the Yoga Poses
From the book description, “…did you know that Virabhadrasana (Warrior Pose) was named for a god who embodied Shiva’s anger after the wrongful death of his first wife, Sati? ”
Videos Showing How to Do the Yoga Warrior Poses
The first two videos show Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher, John Schumacher teaching Virabhadrasana I and II. He gives clear, concise instructions for moving into both poses. These videos, and others that feature Schumacher’s teaching, will be invaluable to students and teachers alike for learning the alignment of the poses.
The third video, of Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3) shows three Iyengar Yoga practitioners in Paris moving skillfully from Warrior 1 (unfortunately shown very briefly) into Warrior 3, as is commonly taught.
All three videos show the beautiful control, extension, and alignment that are hallmarks of poses as taught in the Iyengar Yoga method.
Your Turn to Practice These Warrior Poses
Learning to do these Warrior Poses well can be difficult, but the benefits are well-worth the effort. All three poses strengthen the legs, arms, and the core muscles. And all of them challenge us to find the strength and courage to rise up out of our own limitations and weaknesses.