The postures we practice in class all have a much deeper meaning behind them than the physical appearance.
While the English language uses a word to describe something, Sanskrit is a vibrational language, and the words hold the essence of that something – for example; the word virabhadrasana translates as ‘hero’ (vira) and ‘friend’ (bhadra); the word holds the essence of a peaceful yet brave warrior, instead of just translating to the actual word warrior.
Just as the Sanskrit language embodies the essence of the word, the postures we practice in class embody what they represent. In the same way – virabhadrasana 2 is not just a bodily position we might stay in for 5-10 breaths and then move out of – the purpose (other than the physical benefits of strengthening the legs etc) is to feel the energy of a warrior as you hold the asana. Practicing in this way is one way to deepen the understanding we have of Yoga and its ancient roots.
While practicing this sequence, the warrior is represented as Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita….
Who is Arjuna?
Arjuna is one of the main characters in the important Yogic text The Bhagavad Gita, (or ‘song of the lord’) which is a part of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata; ‘Bha’ meaning ‘light’ or ‘knowledge’ (not to be confused with ‘veda’ which literally means ‘knowledge’; ‘Bha’ is more like ‘illumination’) and ‘Rata’ meaning ‘devoted’.
It is said that ‘everyone can find a home in this text’, even those who describe themselves as unspiritual. Aldous Huxley, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Henry David Thoreau, Beethoven and Ralph Waldo Emmerson are just a few well known but unlikely people to have read The Bhagavad Gita, and taken great comfort and inspiration from it.
To put it very simply, the 700 verses play out a conversation between Arjuna (the archer and warrior) and Krishna (God, our higher consciousness, or our ‘higher Self’). The story begins in Kurukshatra, ‘the land of righteousness’, or ‘dharmakshetra’, a battlefield upon which Arjuna is faced against an army consisting of his teachers, uncles, fathers, brothers, and friends. It is his duty or ‘dharma’ to fight and kill the opponents in order to win back the kingdom that is rightfully his, and was wrongly stolen by the other party.
Seeing the faces of those he knows so well, Arjuna finds himself full of doubt and unable to fight, and throws down his bow and arrow. The story begins as Krishna and Arjuna’s conversation starts, and from there on we’re lead through a tale of overcoming self-doubt, non-attachment to actions, trust in a higher power, and the ability to know your ‘dharma’ or ‘life purpose’ and to do it with all your might, amongst other valuable and practical life lessons.
In order to derive the most meaning from the story, it needs to be understood that Arjuna represents us – each one of us – in human form, complete with our ego, self-doubts, fears and fluctuating thoughts. Krishna represents our ‘higher consciousness’ and the battlefield represents the mind. The opponents are often thought to represent our negative thoughts, habits and life-obstacles which we must overcome in order to live our life’s dharma or duty.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Postures like virabhadrasana (warrior), Dhanurasana (bow pose), and Arkarna Dhanurasana (archer’s pose, or more literally ‘towards-the-ear bow pose) can all be closely linked to the tale of the Bhagavad Gita.
This transition from a variation of Virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2) to Ardha Chandrasana (half moon) depicts Arjuna as he shoots his bow and arrow and goes into battle. Moving in this fluid way requires balance, core strength and stability, and the ability to connect strongly to the breath. I usually teach this transition multiple times – moving in and out of the postures repeatedly so as to build up familiarity with how it feels to move in this way.
One of the most important lessons to be learned from the Bhagavad Gita is non-attachment to the fruits of actions, which basically means doing your best in each situation and letting go of the outcome. This is an extremely valuable thing to practice, and leads to a lot less fear, anxiety and worry in day to day life.
When we move through this transition, ‘letting go of the fruits of actions’ can be practiced as you release any sense of worrying about whether you’re doing the posture well or not. Release expectation of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you might be at this, and instead be open to experiencing whatever happens in the practice. Wobbling is very likely – especially if you’re new to this transition, but after practice, the body begins to understand the movements more. This transition is brilliant to include in a daily practice, because it provides a good gauge as to how you are that day; extra wobbly? Maybe there’s a lot on your mind (or maybe you had one too many glasses of wine last night), feeling strong and stable? Then it’s likely the body is in a calm and balanced state of health.
Bringing elements of yoga philosophy and ancient yogic texts and stories into our practice is just one other way to really deepen your practice and understanding of Yoga as a whole. We realise that each posture not only transforms us physically, but its effects travel much much deeper into the mind and psyche.
To prepare the body:
All too often Yoga practitioners experience pain in the more distal joints of the body, such as the wrists, shoulders and knees. This may be for a number of reasons; alignment issues, pushing to far into a posture, or either too much or too little flexibility – although it could also be because of the way we’re using the body….
Moving in a fluid and dynamic way means we need to be very aware of each moment, how we’re doing it, and which parts of the body are involved in that particular movement. If we’re unaware of the fact that one part of the body is compensating due to lack of strength in another, this is where injuries often occur. Having a strong connection to our core – our center of power – allows us to move with a deeper sense of strength, using stabilising muscles to stabilise, rather than relying upon smaller muscles, joints and ligaments.
As I’ve explained before in multiple posts; the core is not just the muscles of the abdomen, it’s more like a deep line that runs throughout the whole body – from the toes to the top of the head. Deep core strength utilises the body’s ability to work together in an integrated way, much like a finely tuned orchestra.
Feeling the strength of the adductors (inner thighs) leads to more understanding of how to engage the pelvic floor muscles (mula bandha) and therefore cultivates a gateway to deeper core strength.
A simple yet effective way to feel the power of the adductors, is to squeeze a block between the thighs. Feel the internal rotation of the femur bone (the thigh bone) and lengthen the spine and tailbone. This action can be done in many postures in order to awaken the core, such as: plank (on the hands or forearms), Navasana (boat pose), Adho mukha svanasana downward facing dog), or even Tadasana (mountain pose).
Practice these postures with a block often, and you’ll soon notice the difference in how much lighter your practice feels because of the ability to access your core.
Other ways to prepare for this transition include; this variation of Virabhadrasana 2, Trikonasana, and a static version of Ardha chandrasana itself.
Link these together by practicing a few rounds of Surya namaskar, followed by Warrior 2 and Trikonasana, and then transition into Ardha chandrasana.
Practice this to both sides of the body and then come back into Virabhadrasana 2 to prepare for the final postures.
- From Virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2): straighten the front leg and drag the heels in towards each other (you may notice the inner thighs and lower abdomen ‘switch on’)….
- With the arms reaching out either side of the shoulders, turn the palms to face the same way as the body.
- On an exhale, sweep the back palm to the front so the palms meet. Curl the fingers into the palm to create a fist and on an inhale, pull back through that arm to create the effect of drawing back upon a bow-and arrow. In this position, the body is mimicking the stance of Arjuna the warrior.
- As you exhale, release the ‘arrow’ and shift the weight into the front foot. Ensure the toes are spread on the mat and not gripping so that the are able to feed back to the body; when the whole sole of the foot is connected to the floor, the body literally feels more stable, grounded and balanced.
- There are an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 exteroceptors on the sole of each foot (these are nerve endings which gather information about the outside world) and it’s important that these nerve endings are able to communicate with the earth in order to prevent us from wobbling all over the place when walking or balancing in a yoga class.
- Pressing firmly into the front foot, begin to lift the back leg away from the floor, with the inner thigh and inner arch of the foot facing the floor and make your way into this variation of Ardha chandrasana.
- As much as you can, keep the bottom hand slightly away from the floor so you’re just using your balance, breath and core strength to move in and out of the posture. Open the front of the body (imagine aligning the shoulders and hips so the front of the body is completely open and not rounded or hunched). Press out very firmly through the back lifted foot, almost as though you were pressing into a wall.
- To transition back into the warrior posture, bend the front knee slightly, and step back slowly with the top foot.
- Find your grounding and stability before inhaling to lift the body back up into the warrior variation with the arms positioned ready to shoot the bow and arrow.
- Do this about 3 times, transitioning fluidly without stopping (yes, wobbling may happen!) Until you’re ready to find stillness in Ardha chandrasana for a few breaths.
- Transition out of Ardha chandrasana as you had been doing before, and return to the ‘classic’ alignment of Virabhadrasana 2 (warrior 2).
- To practice on the other side of the body, simply turn the feet in the other direction and start with Warrior 2 facing the other way.
- To counterpose this group of postures and movements, stand still in Tadasana for 5-10 breaths, being aware of the contrast between movement and stillness.
- From there, make your way to a comfortable seated position, and practice Gomukhasana to lengthen the IT band and quadriceps we’ve just been using, and finish with Paschimottanasana – with the intention to find quiet and stillness, rather than to ‘get into’ a very deep forward fold.
- Sit in stillness after this (or lie in Savasana) and contemplate the representation of the battlefield and how it might link to your life on and off the mat.
“Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward.”
― Ved Vyasa, The Bhagavad Gita