Virabhadrasana series of poses includes three variations that could be considered most iconic of standing postures. These challenging and empowering poses give practitioners mental focus and strength. Just the name ‘Proud warrior’ helps us to visualise ourselves as able to overcome obstacles. Students are in fact encouraged to epitomise the spirit of a warrior while standing in these challenging poses.
Although many of us yogis are familiar with the basics of the poses, how many know the mythical significance of these martial postures? And furthermore, how are ‘warrior’ poses linked to the peaceful, spiritual essence of yoga?
The story behind Virabhadrasana takes us to the great Shiva and his consort Shakti. In one of her many incarnations, Shakti was known as Sati, and she was born to a powerful priest named Daksha. Sati was very beautiful and from an early age, wholly devoted to Shiva. She spent many years worshipping him and professing her love to him in private. However, Daksha was not a fan of Shiva and he wanted a better match for his daughter. Shiva, wearing dreadlocks, with face covered in ashes, was known as an ascetic, who spent a thousand of years in meditation on the mountain top.
When Sati came of age, her father organised a party, inviting all eligible suitors except, of course, Shiva. But Sati was a cleaver young woman, she feigned interest in a few young men, but when the time came to choose her future husband, she threw the garland she was wearing around her neck towards the sky and invoked the name of Shiva. Shiva appeared in the sky and according to the tradition, whoever got the garland had to wed the daughter, so Daksha was powerless to stop the wedding.
But Daksha couldn’t reconcile himself to his daughter’s choice of husband. He organised another celebration and invited everyone except Shiva, which was an insult of the highest order. Sati decided to come anyway but was ridiculed and shunned by her father in front of everyone. Her anger and sadness drove her to jump to her death into the yagya fire and she was reduced to ashes in front of all the guests.
Shiva was devastated when he heard of his wife, Sati’s death. In his rage, he pulled out a dreadlock of his hair and threw it onto the ground. This lock transformed into a powerful warrior, Virabhadra (Sanskrit meaning: Vira - hero, and Bhadra - friend) and he ordered him to go to the party and destroy Daksha. At Shiva’s request, Virabhadra appeared at the party and beheaded Sati’s father and placed his head on a stake.
Some interpretations of this myth liken the transformation of Virabhadra to the Warrior Poses. As he rises out of the ground his hands are raised and face turned up (Warrior I); as he draws his sword to cut off Daksha’s head his arms are outstretched (Warrior II); when he places Daksha’s head on a stake, his arms reach forward (Warrior III).
In the world of the gods, anything is possible, so Sati takes another form, so that she can go and reason with Shiva. She scolds him for beheading her father, saying that reacting in anger doesn’t really solve the problem. Shiva comes to accept that his anger, which caused him to impetuously react in sending Virabhadra to demand revenge, was in fact, a mistake. He didn’t realise that his actions would make things worse and he didn’t consider Sati’s feelings. So, in order to vindicate himself, Shiva attaches the head of a goat to Daksha’s body, which brings him back to life. Daksha was very grateful for get this life back, that he forgives Shiva and realises he didn’t behave in a dignified way towards him.
This mythical story depicts even gods, as fallible souls who display completely natural human responses to emotions. We all make mistakes. There is often an unrealistic expectation to that natural human emotions like anger, jealousy, and bitterness shouldn’t be displayed by those who follow spiritual pursuits like yoga. There is a profound aphorism in Yoga Sutra that states - ‘In order to preserve an elevated state of mind, be happy for those who are happy, cultivate compassion for those who are sad, feel delight for those deemed to be lucky, and experience indifference toward those perceived to be wicked.’
But in reality, this is hard. Daksha couldn’t be happy for his daughter, despite the fact she adored Shiva for many years before marrying him. Having compassion is also not easy at times. When Sati came to her father in sadness because of his rejection, he was too caught up in being right instead of sympathising with his daughter. Shiva on the other hand, couldn’t stay indifferent to what he perceived as Daksha’s wickedness and decided to seek revenge.
So, the myth teaches us that it is not easy to be a warrior fighting against a reactive mind. The lesson we can take from the myth is that when we make mistakes, we have the opportunity to reflect and do our best to make things right. Virabhadrasana poses are a constant reminder that fierceness is not just used to destroy but also give us strength and tools to become a spiritual warrior, and achieve compassion, forgiveness and integrity.