Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga... Part 3: Warrior One
Updated: May 20, 2019
Welcome to part three of this series Yoga Foundations - Understanding Vinyasa Flow Yoga! For yoga beginners and more experienced practitioners alike: these articles are aimed at helping you refine your practice!
Be sure to check out parts one & two as well. Especially part one: as it introduces more of the key ideas for this whole series.
This article, and then next look at Warrior 1 and 2. These two poses feature pretty often in vinyasa flow yoga. But the position of the body, particularly the foundation of the lower limbs - is quite different so I thought it would be helpful to a lot of practitioners to clarify the differences. We're going to start with the detail of Warrior 1.
This pose is complex, but that inspires me actually! It helps me tune into the details in different parts of my body and really hones my focus to integrate them all at the same time.
Once you find the optimal version of this pose for your body you’re going to physically benefit by strengthening your ankles and feet, toning your core muscles around the whole of your lower torso (remember core is not just the front of your abdomen), finding a balance of space and strength around your outer hips as well as strengthening your thighs.
Set up of the legs
I find a hips-width position of the feet in Warrior 1 is generally optimal for most people. This can allow the pose to feel more spacious across the hips and it’s a little more easy to stabilise down through the legs and feet.
Maybe you might have heard the language in class before: ‘square the hips to face the front’ or similar? This is not the greatest cue as it suggests the hips can turn all the way to the front.
But understand this cue is not meant to suggest that full movement, only a partial turning in that direction.
How much turning? Well that’s a good question - and I’m afraid there isn’t an exact answer. Much like many parts of the physical yoga practice there is no one correct alignment for everyone. It would be easier - for sure, especially for teacher! But it's not at all sustainable for us to approach the practice from that mindset.
I’m going to outline two main options for this - which are affected by the position of the back foot!
Of course, with any of these suggestions - if they bring up pain or discomfort in your body, don't force it. Instead explore other variations for yourself, or just choose not to do this pose if you can't find a way that feels appropriate for your body.
You turn the toes of your back foot out to approximately a 45 degree angle or perhaps slightly less.
In this position the foot and hence the leg direction (because it’s all connected folks!), allow the hips to more naturally follow that direction and turn forward a bit.
When you turn the leg in this way, it may be more difficult to get your heel all the way to the ground, but that is not absolutely essential, so you could work without a slight lift of the heel, and just encourage it downwards.
Or, if you don’t like this feeling of the heel being slightly elevated try placing a block/blanket or yoga wedge beneath your back heel so you can still benefit from the feeling of stability by fully grounding your foot.
You can also shorten the length of your stance and it will be easier then to ground your heel fully, while still feeling many of the benefits of the pose.
And bending the back knee a bit helps lots of people too! So have a play around with that - especially tuning into if it feels better for the knee joint itself, or for the hip!
With the foot and leg aligned in this way and the hips facing more forward, it’s typically a good position for your sacrum and lower back (an area that often shows up with injuries in yoga practitioners - especially over time), so that area of the body doesn’t end up twisted or forced too much.
You turn the toes of the back foot out more - ie between 60 and 90 degrees. This will suit people who are a little more restricted in the calf muscles.
This variation offers more external rotation of your back leg, and you definitely don't want to go too far with this, as it significantly changes the experience of the pose. As well, because of that you won’t be able to turn your hips so much towards the front.
If you force the hips to be more square towards the front it's much more likely that you're going to compromise the stability of the sacrum and lower back region, so go carefully here - especially if you're practising a style of yoga that includes this pose a lot. In many typical Vinyasa classes this will repeat quite a few times, especially during sun salutations. So only work to your own capacity and expect your hips to be angled slightly open - perhaps at around a 45 angle.
Lower back alignment
The length of your stance will influence the position of the pelvis, with the longer your stance the more likely it is your pelvis will tilt forward - taking you into more of a backbend experience.
So tune into how it feels around your lower back, and if you find a sense of compression or lack of length and space here, take the action of trying to lift the frontal hip bones (at the top, front of your pelvis) and lengthen your tailbone down a little behind you.
Essentially, you’re trying to feel a fairly neutral alignment for your lower back.
Looking at the upper body
Now that we’ve created a grounding of the feet and legs, and hence stability of the lower body, we are more able to benefit from the lifting upward action through the torso. You might like to think of these as opposing actions in the body. I quite like the phrase “root to rise”.
Lifting the arms overhead encourages a lengthening of the side waist and lower back.
Just extend your arms as much as feels good, and don’t feel you have to bring your hands together (as is often taught, I find that option tends to bring more tension in the shoulder region).
Be quite active with that feeling of reaching upwards, turning the palms towards each other as you do so.
Have a sense that the front and back of your torso are lengthening evenly on both sides, rather than the ribs jutting forward and giving into more of a back bend expression.
Which will probably feel easier in some ways, but it’s not teaching you the stability we often need around our whole core.
As with any yoga asana guidelines, explore them in your own body and see how the different options feel. Sometimes we have to be patient to understand and learn about all the aspects of a posture, so don't worry if at first you're not quite sure. Keep coming back to this as you explore and practice, and see how your understanding evolves over time.