Reconsidering the Foundation of Warrior I: The Ankles, Knees, and Hips
A Dharma Drops Podcast Follow-up
by Jess Hartmann
In Episode 5 of Dharma Drops, “Mythbusting the Perfect Yoga Pose,” Rebecca and I talked at length about the need for the asana practice to honor tradition, but to also recognize the unique needs of the body. Specifically, we discussed this from the standpoint of modern science and biomechanics. You can listen to the full episode or check out the recap post. But, to continue the discourse, let’s rethink the alignment of one of the most classic postures.
From basic to advanced practices, Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) is a foundational yoga posture used to promote strength, stamina, and a sense of grounding. I often hear yogis mention that Virabhadrasana I creates strain on the feet, knees, and lower back. As such, it’s important to reconsider the foundation of this pose.
Looking at the biomechanics of the lower extremity; the joints of the hips, knees, and feet have varying degrees of rotation where they will be in the most comfortable, and safest, position:
In the ankle, we consider or the degree of natural turnout of the feet.
In the knee, this position is dependent on the position of the patella as well as the joint between the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (lower leg).
In the hips, this is called a version angle. In other words, this means that anatomically, we all have a different amount of natural rotation in our hips, a boney position that does not change with stretching.
Because each practitioner’s ankles, knees, and hips have varying degrees of rotation and mobility, it is safe to suggest that yogis will experience Virabhadrasana I differently. In fact, as mentioned in Episode 5 of Dharma Drops podcast, no two postures need to look alike—and modern science and biomechanics support that claim.
In the spirit of honoring the unique needs of each body in Virabhadrasana I, here is a step-by-step guide to reconsidering the ankles, knees, and hips in Warrior I:
1. Find a natural starting point
Begin Virabhadrasana I in Tadasana (Mountain pose). We may have often heard the cue “bring the feet parallel to each other” or “bring the big toes together.” For many of us, this may create strain to the joints of the lower body over time.
Depending on the version angle of the hip (the amount of natural, anatomical internal/external rotation), the position of the patella (kneecap) and the amount of natural turnout in the feet—usually 0-10 degrees—forcing our feet forward does not set us up for success. Instead, let the feet fall in a position that feels natural for your body.
2. Notice the alignment of the hips
Bend the knees slightly. Keep the right foot where it is and step back with the left foot, keeping the hips in the same plane. This means that the boney landmark on the front of the left hip is not farther back than the right hip.
3. Allow the back foot to remain in a natural position
Traditionally, we may have been taught to turn the back foot out anywhere from 30-45 degrees. This significant turnout can contribute to strain in the medial foot and ankle, the medial knee, damage to the bony structures of the hip, the SI joint, and the lower back.
Based on what we have learned about biomechanics over the years, let’s evolve this posture and encourage the back foot to remain at the same angle that it started—anywhere from 0-10 degrees.
4. Check in with the position of the knees
Moving upward in the body, the right knee will track over the second and third toes. The left foot is facing forward, or only slightly (0-10 degrees) externally rotated. This will allow the left knee to face forward, a safer position than torqued out to the side, as well as the hips.
5. Find a neutral pelvis
Find a neutral pelvis, not overly arched or flattened in the lower back. When we find this neutrality in the spine, we are able to fully engage the muscles that will stabilize this posture through our core, hips and legs.
When we re-think our asana practice, based on the research in the fields of biomechanics and kinesiology, we are able to allow our practice to evolve in a way gives us permission to practice in a way that is safe. We can focus on strength, stability, and mobility in a way that supports the longevity of our practice and health of the joints and soft tissues in our body.
Jessica Hartmann, PT, PYT, E-RYT is a physical therapist, medical yoga therapist, and educator in Wilmington, NC. She is the owner of Integrative Rehab and Wellness Inc., a lecturer at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and a faculty member with the Professional Yoga Therapy Institute. You can follow Jessica on Instagram at @integrativerehabandwellness.