Originally posted to AskYogaNerd blog on Sep. 25, 2013
Warrior I has been getting a bad rap lately.
I suppose my defense of Warrior I began when several colleagues mentioned that was their least favorite beginner pose. (Mine was triangle.) I could not for the life of me understand why anyone wouldn’t love Warrior I (aka Virabhadrasana I.) The sweetness of the mild backbend, the strengthening and stability of the quad, the stretch in the back leg, the stabilizing and grounding of the shoulder blades and feet, what’s not to love? The hips, they said. The hips! As a result of my knee problems, or perhaps arguably the cause, I have a variety of hip issues, but I frequently USE Warrior I to help them! I was bewildered as to why some of my most respected friends and fellow teachers would hate one of my favorite poses so!
After this mystifying conversation I began to notice a trend: yoga models were starting to opentheir back hips a bit more in Warrior I far more than I recalled. It seemed odd. I thought perhaps this was an emerging modification to handle the statistically likely tightness of the iliopsoas and ease into the stretch.
Then one of my students came to me concerned about knee pain she was experiencing in Warrior I when she tried to square her hips. She said she’d found an article that said yoga instructors should stop instructing to square the hips and it was OK to have your hips at a 45 degree angle to match the foot. (I thought at the time she said she found it in Yoga Journal, which is why this entry includes so many references to YJ magazine.) Suddenly the variations in Yoga Journal pictures made sense.
I began to research why this recommendation came about since I personally require the action of squaring the hips to stretch the muscles that contribute to my knee problems.
In a Gaiam article on yoga knee mistakes, I found Sadie Nardini cautioning against squaring: “With your back foot anchored at 45 degrees, if you try and turn your hips farther forward than 45 degrees, it’s your knee joint that will take the twist.” This sounds completely plausible to me, but while I have knee issues and am extremely mindful of knees in Warrior, I don’t believe that squaring my hips has done me harm, nor have I had any physical therapists tell me otherwise. I can often use the act of squaring to provide a good stretch to some muscles in the hip, spine and pelvis I have trouble with (usually illiopsoas, quadratus lumborum, and quadratus femoris), and rarely have a resultant issue with my knee. (When I do, the modification is quite simple. This is what we in the literature biz call foreshadowing…)
Don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate torquing the knee. However, I do not agree that having a slight hip-knee-ankle-foot spiral (or in some traditions spirals) is necessarily a bad thing. The tibia does have a slight degree of natural rotation in both natural form and in range of motion and can potentially translate a slight amount of the rotation between the foot and the knee. This link suggests ROM is as much as 30-40 degrees, although Netter’s Concise Orthopedic states closer to 10-15. The linked goniometry standards also mention that accurate measurements of tibial rotational ROM are quite challenging.
The tibia naturally begins to rotate laterally over time as we age. This is true among a variety of ethnic populations, although individual use of the body can influence this. Populations that sit cross-legged frequently generally have less natural lateral torsion (natural external rotation of the tibia). The action we are concerned with, internal rotation of the tibia, presumably becomes more challenging as our natural development, particularly in a chair-oriented, sedentary culture, causes the tibia to rotate outward. However, the link also suggests that in a culture that spends more time opening hips, this natural rotation may be alleviated. I continued in my quest, mostly to see why it was, particularly with knee and hip problems, I never had a problem with Warrior I despite the concerns of my colleagues and now one of my students.
As I continued my research, I found that most of the teachers I found recommend squaring the hips. Senior intermediate Iyengar instructor and teacher training director for Yoga Works, Los Angeles, Lisa Walford, wrote a Yoga Journal column guiding a student toward squaring and advising how to deal with tight hip flexors. Walford has some controversial opinions on health, however, so I continued to search. Julie Gulmestead, a respected teacher on matters of anatomy, noted some of the problems that can occur if one has tight hip flexors and suggests that many yoga teachershave a problem squaring the hips in Warrior I due to an imbalance created by stretching hamstrings and not balancing the corresponding hip flexors. Yoga Journal’s official pose guidelines suggest “squaring the front of your pelvis as much as possible with the front edge of your mat”. Annie Carpenter’s Yoga Journal feature on Warrior I doesn’t specify squaring the hips, but comes to the pose from Tadasana and then Parsvattanasana stance, suggesting the hips remain as previously squared.
It isn’t just a style-variation either. This Yoga Journal article goes over a variety of styles and their approaches specifically to Virabhadrasana I, and although the Ashtanga teacher shortens the back foot angle to 30 degrees, he still specifies squaring the hips, as do most of the other styles listed in the article. Another Yoga Journal response to a letter about the struggle with the hips prioritizes getting the feet and back leg together before worrying about the hips. In another Yoga Journal column, linked below, Roger Cole also addresses the squaring of the hips and suggests it is a priority over traditional foot placement.
In the yoga tradition we tend to build from the ground up: place the foot, work your way up. But why are we allowed to move or modify so many other aspects to suit our bodies and not our feet? If Western yoga practitioners frequently modify based on our culture’s greater tightness in hips due to our chair-sedentary culture, why do we not extend this modification from the hips downward? If having a slightly wider than hips distance stance, or a slightly more acute foot angle in the 15-20 degree range rather than 45 degree range solves the concerns of over-torquing the knee, while still giving the benefit of the hip stretch, then why not?
So, in answer to the question, why do people hate Warrior I so, I find that I have a secret weapon, one that my colleagues were discouraged from using:Pssst… Move your feet. Now, I link to this Roger Cole article because I believe his anatomical opinion carries considerably more weight than mine, but we came to the conclusion the same way. I was taught that full form is heel to arch, but that most people are too tight in the hip flexors (although I’d add a few other muscle groups to the mix) to be able to have the feet in this stance and bring the hips forward. Yoga Journal, in many but not all of the above articles and in its official pose guide, continues to advise heel to heel, an improvement over heel arch, but the fact is many students still struggle with that. Many of the teachers in the multi-style Warrior I article even suggest hips distance at all times.
I was also taught that tightening the angle, from 45 to 30 as mentioned above, or even 15 degrees, was also a perfectly acceptable modification on the path to stretching out the hips while maintaining knee safety.
So, for many teachers, myself included, the initial answer should always be, if it hurts don’t do it. But this gets overapplied: If it is too challenging to have a 45-60 degree foot with a square hip, then don’t square the hip. Rather than simply cross this aspect of the pose off our teaching list, though, we should delve deeper into the concern and find ways to bridge this gap!
While not squaring the hips is a perfectly fine modification, it is just that: a MODIFICATION.Unfortunately, these modifications to account for natural anthropological variations begin to become prescriptions, based on uninformed, unqualified generalizations rather than the actual human in front of the teacher in the moment. If it hurts, then certainly don’t do it. But if it stretches the thing that is tight, the muscles we as a society often struggle with the most, WE SHOULD STILL DO IT. Once in a while, we should be able to change our professional ‘mantra’ to one more accurate and productive: If it hurts, move the foot!
And with this oh-so-deep thesis, my great defense of Warrior I ends with a whimper. If it is too much torque on the knee, work your way up to stretching the necessary muscle groups, slowly, gradually, and with mindful intention. Part of holding the center of the room and the seat of the teacher is to use your skills of observation and reason to guide your students, rather than just delivering absolute pronouncements that may ultimately result in creating hip problems in the wrong recipient of your ‘wisdom’.
Ultimately my answer is this: Understand the concerns in a practical way, make a reasoned judgment based on the person in front of you, and if you have to make a sacrifice in the form of the pose, think it through. Or don’t sacrifice and make it a teaching moment: Choose to alternate between squaring the hips and foot placement from time to time; Offer both variations to your students to allow them to make informed decisions about their bodies; Have a class where students go through a variety of foot placements and ask them to observe their own bodies and make an informed decision.
As for my personal practice, I’ve decided it’s hip to be square. And for the record, I’m not the only one warring for warrior There are more of us than you might realize. Feel free to join us in the comments below…