a long, nerdy post about alignment in this classic shape
Warrior 1: it sounds so fundamental, so simple, like, the most basic thing you could learn or do in a yoga class. So why do so many students struggle with it?
The truth is that for many of us, Virabhadrasana I isn’t really a simple pose at all. And many cues that you hear in a yoga class are confusing, contradictory, or downright painful to follow. In this post, we’ll look at how each of the elements of the pose is connected to another (your foot bone’s connected to your leg bone, etc), and why some cues may not make sense for some bodies. Let’s break down this pose and figure out the “right” alignment (for you)!
Here’s a stock photo picture of three women in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1 in Sanskrit). We’re going to look at the first two women (since it’s harder to see the third). Let’s call them Woman 1 and Woman 2.
heel to arch or heel to heel?
Have you ever been told to “line up your back heel with your front arch?” Or have you been directed to transition from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1 without moving your feet? In either of these cases, you’re going to end up with feet that are lined up with each other as the first two women’s are. While this might be just fine for them, it will not feel comfortable for many folks. If you feel as though you’re a little bit wobbly in the pose, I recommend trying to move your front foot out to the side (in this case, I would suggest moving the left foot a little bit to the left) to see how that feels.
If you’re transitioning from Warrior 2 to Warrior 1, it’s likely that you’ll want to move your feet to change your base of support. Warrior 2 tends to feel more comfortable in a “heel to arch” or “heel to heel” alignment, and its longer stance feels fine. When we move into a Warrior 1 shape, bringing the back hip forward into extension, suddenly it’s a whole different game. For that transition, I recommend widening and shortening the base by moving the front foot to the side and shortening the stance (stepping your back foot forward) until you feel stable and supported.
do what with my back foot?
Now, where should your back foot be pointing? If we look at the first two women in the picture above, you can see that Woman 1 has her back toes pointing more forward. Woman 2 has her back toes pointing out to the side. Which is right? Well, it depends. Many times (but not always), the foot position is dependent on what that hip is doing. Before we diagnose or lay out rules, we should ask, what is each of these women feeling? Woman 1 is able to have her back hip in a more neutral position here (a neutral hip is like what your hips do in Tadasana, Mountain Pose– they point straight forward), which means that her knee and foot are both able to point relatively forward. I would guess she’s experiencing a stretch through her front right hip. If you look closely, you can see that her back heel isn’t all the way on the floor (which is totally fine)! That might be because her front hip won’t allow her to stretch it that way, or her back foot doesn’t have the mobility to dorsiflex that much.
Woman 2’s back leg is externally rotated (external rotation is like what your bent leg does in tree pose; think about where your knee and foot point when you do tree pose, and you’ll see how what the hip does affects those two joints), which makes her back foot turn out. There are lots of reasons this might be happening– it’s not a random choice. If she isn’t able to dorsiflex (“flex”) her back foot due to lack of mobility, she may need to turn the foot out, and the knee/hip with it. Or, she may be restricted (“tight”) in her quadriceps or hip flexors. Turning the hip out to the side means she won’t have to feel a stretch in the front of that hip. None of these are bad reasons and it’s not a bad thing to do. In my own body, it doesn’t feel stable or good to have my back leg externally rotated that much. Woman 2 may have a very different experience than I do with that, so we can always ask her. She’s the expert on her body and what feels right for her.
should i square my hips?
Now, what if these women were given the cue to “square their hips to the front of the mat?” How would that feel in their bodies? Well, let’s look at Woman 2. With her right foot locked into place (let’s say she doesn’t move her foot at all), when she tries to pull her right hip forward, the movement is going to have to come from somewhere else– it might be the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. For this reason, I don’t cue students to “square” their hips. If for some reason (and I would hope there’s a reason beyond aesthetics), we want to try to experience “square” hips here, I would have them lift the back heel, balancing on the ball of the back foot, in more of a Crescent Lunge shape. This takes some of the tension out of the back leg, so the hip is more free to move. For some students, this will be much less stable as they’re now having to use their muscles to hold them in place, rather than the joints themselves.
(By the way, when students report pain to me from Warrior 1– it’s almost always the back knee, the back ankle, the SI joint, or the lumbar spine. Many times they weren’t even aware that the pose shouldn’t be painful– they thought this was how it needed to be done!)
Let’s look at one more example of Warrior 1. In the picture below, you can see that this woman’s hips are relatively “squared” forward, making a more neutral hip. Her back heel is slightly lifted, which allows her some room to stretch the front of her left hip and/or her left calf and Achilles. Her front foot is more to the right than her left foot is, so she’s got a wider base for her legs. The stance is pretty long, which is going to put more demand on her body in the pose overall. If that feels good for her, then that’s great!
oh, my aching back
Let’s take things just one step further in our Warrior 1 investigation: the backbend that occurs in the shape. The placement of the feet, combined with each individual’s anatomy– for example, a lack of extensibility (“tightness”) in the front of the hip and quadriceps muscles– can tilt the front of the pelvis forward and down into an anterior tilt. This is absolutely fine, unless it doesn’t feel good for that person’s body. Looking at all of the women in our photos, we can see some degree of anterior tilt in the pelvis, and a corresponding arch in the spine as they lift their torsos up toward a vertical position. Not familiar with anterior tilt? From a standing position, if you stick your butt out behind you, that’s an anterior tilt. If you tuck your tailbone under, you’re in a posterior tilt. Somewhere in between is your neutral.
What if that arch in the spine causes some lower back discomfort? How do we take out that pelvic tilt that’s pulling them into a backbend? If these women are told to lift their front hip points to try to reduce the pelvic tilt, they will be stuck. We can see that they are close to or already at their end range of motion, with the quads and hip flexors being pulled tight. In order to release the front of the hip to reduce the pelvic tilt, we’d need to either have the person lean forward more, i.e., not try to lift the chest up, or we can have them change the back leg by 1) lifting the heel (as Woman 1 and Outdoors Woman are doing); 2) shortening the stride by stepping the back foot forward; 3) changing the angle on the back hip by externally rotating it; or 4) un-“squaring” the back hip (letting it turn open more toward a Warrior 2 position) so that there’s less of a pull on the front of the hip. Any of these strategies can potentially reduce the torque on the front of the pelvis that causes spinal extension (the backbend)
what’s the right way for you to do the pose?
As we’ve seen, each of the models in our discussion is experiencing Warrior 1 in a different way. Some are getting a stretch through the front hip; others may be stretching their back calf. The backbend may be feeling good, or it may be feeling a bit crunchy.
The real question to ask is, why are we doing the pose and what would we like to accomplish? If our goal is simply to experience ourselves in an embodied way, then the physical alignment is secondary. If we’re looking for a stretch in the body, or to strengthen certain muscles, then we’ll want to emphasize those elements of the pose. And more than anything, I think it’s helpful to use our bodies wisely, avoiding pain in our practice. Beyond that, it becomes a matter of aesthetics, which is not a goal I pursue or teach. Rather than trying to fit our bodies into someone else’s idea of “good,” we can find ways to appreciate and enjoy our bodies for our own purposes, goals, and needs.