Warrior Pose, or Virabhadrasana, is a fairly common pose for many Western yogis. In fact, you’re highly unlikely to show up to a Vinyasa or Hatha Yoga class without getting into at least one variation of the pose. So, what’s the story behind the Sanskrit name?
You may be surprised to discover that Warrior Poses weren’t practiced in traditional yoga until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Warrior Pose, along with many others, actually came from European gymnastics.
In this article, you will learn about the origins of the physical pose, along with the mythology and legend behind Virabhadra, one of Shiva’s forms that gave the physical pose its name in modern times.
The Origins of the Physical Warrior Pose
According to modern yoga researcher Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, the physical Warrior Poses were inspired by the Danish text Grundgymnastik eller primitiv gymnastik (known in English as Primary Gymnastics), published by Niels Bukh in the 1920’s.
If we commit to honoring yoga as a living tradition, any pose is bound to evolve, and so is our perception of it.
Though that may come as a surprise, it’s no secret that yoga in the West is a far cry from India’s ancient Rig Vedas scripture.
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However, if we commit to honoring yoga as a living tradition, any pose is bound to evolve, and so is our perception of it. As we learn about the human body and explore the ways yoga comes into play with our current personal challenges and world issues, it makes little sense for the practice to remain the same.
After all, the mindset aspect of the physical practice of asana is an important part of yoga, arguably the part that makes yoga yoga.
Regardless, the philosophy behind each pose offers timeless lessons that we can appreciate as we dig through the layers and examine their deeply set Hindu roots.
Virabhadra, the Hindu God Form of Shiva: How Warrior Pose Got Its Name
In Sanskrit, Vira means hero and badhra stands for friend. An impressive and imposing form of Shiva, Virabhadra often translates to “distinguished hero” – here’s why.
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Sati (a form of Shakti) was married to Shiva, and Sati’s father, King Daksha, strongly opposed their union.
According to the legend, one day, Sati heard that her father organized a great sacrifice (yajna) and didn’t invite the couple to the celebration – which, some versions of the story say, King Daksha held to show how much he disliked the lovers’ union.
Sati decided to confront her father, who insisted listing all the ways Shiva wasn’t the right fit for her daughter: he didn’t associate with the right people, places, nor did he dress or do his hair appropriately. Sati, disconcerted and upset, sat down and entered a state of trance that eventually resulted in her bursting into flames.
When Shiva learned about this, angry and grieving, he cut off a dreadlock of his hair, threw it to the ground and Virabhadra came to life.
Rage, Revenge, and Compassion
The fierce warrior Virabhadra sought revenge, and with those intentions, destroyed everything around him and even beheaded King Daksha. Shiva later arrived at the place and realized what his summoned warrior form did.
Alarmed at the damage, his anger and rage slowly turned into sadness and regret. He went looking for King Daksha and, only finding his body, replaced his head with a goat’s. King Daksha, suddenly alive, recognized Shiva’s strength, remorse, and compassion, and bowed to him.
In this story, Shiva could be seen as the Higher Self killing the ego – represented by King Daksha – in the name of love – represented by Sati.
An interpretation of this dark episode can be told through the three versions of the Warrior Pose: First, Virabhadra rose, hands in the air, weapons in his hands, ready to strike. Second, he struck, drawing his weapons, destroying everything. Third, he reached out to behead King Daksha. There, we have Warrior Poses I, II, and III.
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Lastly, the humble version of the Warrior Pose could be the illustration of Shiva’s remorse and desire to let his anger go to make space for compassion.
The Warrior Within Kills the Ego in the Name of Love
Although these kinds of legends aren’t the most positive of all, there are always many ways to interpret them to see the silver lining and lessons they hold.
In this story, Shiva could be seen as the Higher Self killing the ego – represented by King Daksha – in the name of love – represented by Sati. The ego, here, focused on the differences between it and its supposed “competitors” or enemies. Sati’s father saw only what was wrong with Shiva rather than the love the divinity felt for his daughter.
Once this settled and King Daksha recognized Shiva’s strength and the way he cared for Sati, all signs of anger or disdain were put aside for mutual recognition. There was no more fighting or anger, only compassion, love, understanding, and respect.
Incorporating the Yoga Pose Virabhadrasana into Our Modern Practice
Before postural yoga emerged, the practice involved mostly pranayama (breathing), dharana (focus), and nada (sound).
But even if the ancient yoga practice didn’t involve getting into the Warrior Poses, we have the opportunity to practice them today while incorporating the story of Virabhadra.
Next time you practice the Warrior Poses, gather the strength within to first feel and then let go of your anger. Notice the ways you’re experiencing it in your life, and what would be possible if you could allow compassion and humility to replace anger.