What does it mean to be a hero? The word has become quite mixed up with ideas of war and domination. But heroic qualities, such as courage and strength, take a very different meaning when you look at them through the lens of Yoga.
Our minds pull us into battle all the time with people, institutions or things. But fighting with things outside of you is just a distraction from the real battle within. This is the timeless battle that was outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, one that asks us to put the mind and ego in their right size and place. Being heroic in a battle like this requires us to put down the weapons of our ego and embrace the unity between us and all other forms of life. It may sound easy, but this journey takes deep fortitude.
Virasana, or hero’s pose, teaches the true meaning of heroism. As you sit in stillness, you are engaged in deep battle within. Will you push your way into the pose or will you choose to be kind to your body?
“The wise see that there is action in the midst of inaction and inaction in the midst of action Their consciousness is unified, and every act is done with complete awareness.”
- Bhagavad Gita 4:18
Virasana is not as simple as sitting on the ground with your heels outside your hips, at least not if you want to practice asana for the rest of your life. To do it safely, your thighs and the fronts of your feet will gradually open over time so that your buttocks can one day rest on the floor between your heels. For most people, this means using a blanket, bolsters or pillows in the beginning. But the ego fights the use of props. It tells you to push beyond your limits in order to mirror the pose you see demonstrated by teachers who have been easing into it for decades. But ego is just like a plant -- all you have to do is stop feeding it and it will stop growing.
Using props for a safer Yoga practice
Props allow us to move deeper into a pose gradually with ahimsa, or kindness and consideration. As you practice this month’s tutorial on virasana, use a blanket or pillow even if you have previously done it on the mat. We find that even experienced yogis often strain their knees in this pose. Better to have the prop nearby and find that you don’t need it than to stress these important joints.
As you sit down in virasana, notice the tops of your knees. They should remain horizontal the entire time. If they turn inward (see our trouble spots below), sit on a prop. As your muscles extend over time, you will be able to use fewer and smaller props. Eventually, you will find that you will have won the battle with your ego and can sit on the floor with ahimsa for your body.
How to fold a blanket for virasana
It’s a good idea to have a variety of props on hand for your home asana practice. Blocks are good for standing poses where you need to bring the ground closer. But in virasana, it’s better to sit on a soft surface, such as a pillow or folded blanket, that will “give” as your body releases. If you sit on the hard surface of a block, you’ll never know when you are ready to progress to a lower position.
We like to have several thick blankets on hand for this purpose. Folding a blanket in thirds, as shown in the photos below, creates the right-size prop that won’t push your heels too far outside your hips. Place the edge of the blanket just beneath your sit bones with the long end extending behind you.
Here at Hale Pule, we talk about asana with three designations: essence, anchor and strength. This is a simple tool to remember the intention of the pose, where your body is grounded and the muscles you engage for proper alignment. These components will support optimal energy flow and a sustainable practice throughout your life.
Essence: Calming and grounding
Strength: Pelvic floor
Anchor: Front lower part of legs and sit bones
Virasana from the ground up
Place your props on your mat beneath your buttocks before you begin. Keep a few other props in arm’s reach in case you find you need more support.
1. Start kneeling, knees hip-width distance apart. The insides of your feet should be just at the outside edges of your hips. Place your hands on the top of your thighs near the hip crease and externally rotate your thigh bones.
2. Sit down so that your buttocks come between your heels, ensuring that the tops of your knees are horizontal. If they start to turn inward (see trouble spots below), sit on a higher prop.
3. Place your palms on your thighs and extend the spine up from your pubic bone through the crown of your head. Breathe here for 15-25 breaths.
If sitting with your heels spread is too difficult for you, try vajrasana instead. This will bring a similar opening in the thighs.
Common trouble spots
Rounded back. This comes when there is not enough height propping up the buttocks. Add another blanket or use a bolster to lengthen through your spine.
Overcurved spine. Your spine should be in its natural curves as you extend up from your pubic bone. Avoid pushing forward from your lower back or ribs.