The warrior poses, Virabhadrasana I, II and III, are commonplace in most yoga classes. Understanding the origins of the asanas that have been done for centuries can add meaning to one’s practice. It always seemed odd to me that a peaceful practice like yoga that stresses ahimsa or nonviolence should incorporate a pose called the warrior. But, the origin of the warrior poses comes from ancient Hindu mythology, through a story of violence, revenge, remorse, sorrow, compassion and love. The symbolism of that myth has been transformed into the asanas we do today.
Sati, the daughter of powerful King Daksha, marries Shiva, one of the principal deities of the Hindu religion and known as the destroyer and transformer. The King does not approve of the marriage, as he cares not for Shiva, a reclusive god who meditated on mountain tops, rather than being an active part of society, and someone he felt lacked the integrity to be good enough for his daughter. Shiva's reputation was preceded by such behaviors as cutting off one of Brahma's five heads. King Daksha hosts a Yagna, a religious sacrifice and celebration. He invites all beings of heaven except Shiva and his daughter, Sati. An enraged and slighted Sati goes to the Yagna. In deep states of meditation and rage she activates her inner fire through yoga to such a degree that it totally consumes her physical body. Hearing of his wife’s violent demise, Shiva rips off his clothes and tears out his hair. One of his locks that he throws to the ground is transformed into the malevolent warrior Virabhadra, vira meaning hero and bhadra meaning friend. Shiva instructs Virabhadra to go to the Yagna, kill everyone, behead the King and drink the King’s blood. Virabhadra enters the Yagna head on with two swords, one in each hand, raised above his head. This posture becomes Virabhadrasana I, in which we square our bodies forward with arms raised above the head and front knee bent, ready for the battle. In Virabhadrasana II, we are positioned as if we are warriors ready for the attack, with an unwavering gaze directed over an extended sword in our front hand and front knee bent ready to thrust that sword into the King. Finally, in Virabhadrasa III, we extend both arms forward, as if holding the two swords downward, and balance on one leg, as if fully committed to carrying out the murder of the King. Shiva finally arrives at the sacrificial celebration and witnesses all of the death and destruction that his warrior created. Feeling remorse and compassion, he restores life back to King Daksha. And ultimately, Sati is restored back to life, as well.
Meanings and messages contained within this myth are up to individual interpretation. I believe that we do the warrior poses, not only to experience our physical strength, but also to remind ourselves to use our strength to access restraint in order to avoid the remorse and sorrow that may result from rash and reflexive actions in emotionally charged situations. Of course, one might also reflect on how he or she is a proud warrior in life, having faced or presently facing life’s challenges with determination and courage.