While Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I Pose) is a foundational pose in most yoga practices, the posture is not without its challenges. And we get it—Warrior I is filled with contradictions. Ground through your back foot but keep your leg straight. Bend your front knee and but keep lifting through your trunk. Reach through your arms but drop the torso down between the legs and don’t compress your lower back.
Virabhadrasana is a fitting name when you learn its origin is rooted in chaos and destruction. As the story is told in the Bhagavad Gita, Virabhadra was a warrior demon created by a scorned and grieving Shiva to destroy his father-in-law after his wife Sati’s death. Perhaps more so than any other yoga pose, Warrior I is the embodiment of the internal strife that Shiva may have felt in that moment. At face value, the story is about anger and death and struggle—not themes you would expect to find in yoga, where we like to focus on the practice of ahimsa (non-violence). But the pose itself is about perseverance and rising up. As you push through your perceived limitations, you may reach a new level of your practice that you didn’t think was possible.
From the mental to the emotional to the physical; there’s not a single aspect of your practice that this pose doesn’t invite you to address. Once you experience the transformative power this humbling pose holds, you’ll embrace the opportunity to let your inner warrior come out. Through this asana, you may experience the death and destruction of the beliefs that were holding you back, in both your yoga practice and in your everyday life.
Warrior I Basics
Sanskrit: Virabhadrasana I (veer-uh-buh-DRAHS-uh-nuh)
vira = hero
bhadra = friend
Pose type: Standing
Targets: Full body
Warrior I strengthens and stretches your legs and buttocks (glutes), the front of your hips (hip flexors), and shins. In your front leg, this pose strengthens the your thigh, calf, and ankle. In your back leg, it stretches the back of your thigh (hamstring) and calf muscles.
It’s also a powerful pose for the upper body. Reaching up stretches your torso from your psoas along your chest up to your shoulders. It also stretches and strengthens the area around your shoulders and builds power in your back and arms.
Other Warrior I perks:
- Boosts energy, helps fight fatigue, and improves balance
- May help build confidence and empowerment
- Improves posture and counteracts the effects of prolonged sitting and doing computer work
- Start from Mountain Pose (Tadasana) at the top of your mat. Step your left foot back 3–4 feet and gradually bend your right knee until it is directly over your right ankle.
- Turn your back toes slightly forward, pressing the back edge of your foot into the mat while squaring your hips and torso forward. Align the heel of your back foot with the heel of your right. (You can take a slightly wider stance for better balance.)
- Activate your breath: Imagine a corset wrapped around your waist beneath the skin and between your hips and your rib cage, and as you inhale, try to expand the corset along with your pelvis, rib cage, chest, and upper back. As you exhale, tighten the corset to actively press air out.
- With your breath well established, set up your lower body: Hug your ankles and shins into the centerline of your body to activate your inner thigh muscles. Engage the gluteal and hamstring muscles on your back leg by pressing your thighbone back, as if you were trying to lift the back leg off the ground. As you exhale, lengthen your tailbone down.
- Extending through your back leg into the floor, reach your arms skyward, palms facing in, lengthening your spine and lifting your chest.
- Widen your shoulder blades away from your spine. Keep space at the base of your neck.
- Gently lift your lower belly in and up.
- Hold the pose for 5–10 breaths. As you inhale, try to expand your midsection, rib cage, chest, and upper back. As you exhale, actively press air out. Step back into Mountain Pose. Repeat on the other side.
Explore the pose
- Yoga teacher Annie Carpenter explains that the greatest challenge in this pose is often maintaining the deep bend in the front knee while reaching the torso upward without compressing the lower back. She advises students to bring the pelvis toward a more upright or neutral position by lifting your front hip points.
- If you are new to the pose or have low back concerns, ease up on the bend in your front knee. This lessens the intensity of the pose and also lessens the compression in your lumbar region.
- The front knee may tend to drift inward in Warrior I. Engage the muscles on the outer side of your bent knee to subtly draw the knee toward the side of your mat. Move the knee just enough to offset the inward rotation and keep your knee directed forward.
- If you feel unbalanced in the pose, create a more stable base by inching your front foot a little farther out to the side from the center of your body. The wider your stance, the better your balance.
- Make sure not to aggressively tuck your tailbone. It creates tension, constricts the breath, and blocks energetic flow from your back heel to your head.
- If you feel a strain on your back knee, engage your thigh muscles as if you meant to draw your kneecap toward your hip while you keep your back leg fully straightened.
- Keep your front knee aligned directly over the ankle and heel. Don’t let it move ahead of your ankle or away from center. Avoid or modify if you have a hamstring or groin tear or injury, or if you have a hip injury or hip replacement.
- If you tend to easily come off balance, consider a pose variation using a chair or the wall for stability.
- If the foot position causes pain to your back foot, ankle, or knee, modify the pose and try Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) foot position with the back heel lifted off the mat. Or you can take a shorter stance.
- Do not tense your shoulders up toward your ears in this posture. If you find that you cannot keep your biceps by your ears and your arms straight without experiencing shoulder discomfort, let your arms fall away from one another in a “V” shape until your shoulders are able to release. If your shoulders ache, bring your palms together in the center of your chest instead of lifting them.
Here’s a partnering exercise for three people. (It’s helpful if you and your partners are similar in height.) You need a thick pole like a broomstick. Have your partners stand, facing you, to either side of your torso and hold the pole horizontally above your head. Grasp the pole with your raised hands, then you and your partners push the pole up until your arms are fully extended. Imagine then, as all three of you push, that your torso and legs are “hanging” from the pole.
Deepen the pose
After you raise your arms overhead and find your balance in the pose, you can go deeper by bringing your palms together overhead and looking up to your thumbs. If you take this variation, be mindful not to let your ribs flare open.
Warrior I variations
This pose can be performed with your arms in various positions. For example, you can keep your hands resting on your hips or you can clasp your hands behind your back, stretch your knuckles away from you, and lift your chest.
Or, try one of these creative variations:
Warrior I with a shorter stance
Try taking a narrower stance so you are more upright. You can still keep your feet hip-distance apart for balance. Make sure your front knee is either directly above your ankle or behind it (not in front of it). If this position is not comfortable or possible for your back foot, try tucking your toes under as you would in High Lunge and bringing your heel in line with the ball of your foot.
Warrior I holding onto a chair
Try holding onto a chair for better balance. Stand facing the back of a sturdy chair, holding onto it lightly, then step one foot pack into position. To test your balance, let go of one or both hands for a few moments. Then repeat on the other side.
Warrior I in a chair
Sit near the front edge of a sturdy chair. Turn your body to the right and move your buttocks closer to the left edge of the chair to create a support for you right thigh. Extend your left leg back and straighten it as much as possible.
If it’s comfortable, tuck your back toes under in a lunge position. If not, keep your foot flat on the ground. Lift your arms up if comfortable, or place your hands on the seat of the chair for support.
Stay in the position for several deep breaths, then slowly bring your left leg forward. Shift to the center of your seat. Repeat on the other side.
Preparatory and counter poses
Prior to practicing Warrior I, take your time in poses that stretch your hamstrings and shoulders and align your hips toward the front of the mat. Afterward, come into poses that lengthen your back to counter the slight backbend of Warrior I.
Your body in Warrior I | Anatomy
Warrior I demonstrates the concept of balancing simultaneous movements in different directions to create stillness. As your front hip bends and descends to stabilize the pelvis, your chest lifts upward. At the same time, that bend in the front hip creates a sense of forward movement while your back hip extends to maintain your rear foot on the mat in a grounding fashion. As a result of these simultaneous movements and unleashed tension, your body becomes a storehouse for potential energy.
In the drawings below, pink muscles are stretching and blue muscles are contracting. The shade of the color represents the force of the stretch and the force of contraction. Darker = stronger.
The flex in your front hip happens as a result of the contraction of your psoas and pectineus. The front knee has a tendency to drift inward in this pose. Continue to engage the abductor muscles on your outer front leg to keep your knee pointed straight ahead.
The muscles that extend from your heel to above your hips along your back body create a line of forceful engagement even if there is no apparent movement. These muscles include the tibialis anterior, adductor magnus, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, quadratus lumborum, and erector spinae.
Bring your attention to your chest and shoulders. The lower part of the trapezius muscle draws your shoulders down your back, releasing tension from your neck. The serratus anterior runs from the side of your rib cage to your shoulder blade and turns the lower edge of the shoulder blade outward. The contraction of the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles roll your arm bones outward and open your chest. The front deltoids activate and shorten to raise your arms. The triceps straighten your elbows while assisting the serratus anterior in rotating the scapulae.
Draw your lower ribs downward to engage the rectus abdominus that runs along your chest.
Put Warrior I into practice
Here are a few flows to try that feature Warrior I:
About our contributors
Teacher and model Natasha Rizopoulos is a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga in Boston, where she offers classes and leads 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings. A dedicated Ashtanga practitioner for many years, she became equally as captivated by the precision of the Iyengar system. These two traditions inform her teaching and her dynamic, anatomy-based vinyasa system Align Your Flow. For more information, visit natasharizopoulos.com.
Ray Long is an orthopedic surgeon and the founder of Bandha Yoga, a popular series of yoga anatomy books, and the Daily Bandha, which provides tips and techniques for teaching and practicing safe alignment. Ray graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School and pursued post-graduate training at Cornell University, McGill University, the University of Montreal, and the Florida Orthopedic Institute. He has studied hatha yoga for over 20 years, training extensively with B.K.S. Iyengar and other leading yoga masters, and teaches anatomy workshops at yoga studios around the country.