“From Warrior II, flip your front palm to face the ceiling and lean back into Reverse Warrior…”
Sometimes, with repetition, a pose can start to feel…routine. As much as the body and brain are wired for the familiar, hearing the same cues for the same pose can cause a subtle staid feeling. An ennui. A sense of being in a rut with our practice, which can cause us to simply go through the motions.
The moment you hear an unexpected approach to a pose, you trigger new sensations, subtle awarenesses, deeper understandings, greater nuances, and expansive exploration. And that change can occur whether the shift happens through a physical sensation or a thoughtful switch in your brain.
Sometimes called Proud or Peaceful Warrior, Viparita Virabhadrasana is a commonly misunderstood pose that could actually benefit more than most from a rethinking of our cues. When Reverse Warrior is approached as the asana was intended, it opens the side body and targets the intercostal muscles, which are located in the hard-to-reach spaces between the ribs. These muscles are typically tricky to isolate.
Side bends, such as Reverse Warrior, are a relatively rarity in yoga. As such, the asana is commonly misunderstood and practiced as a backbend, which means the pose no longer has the potential to target the intercostals. When our cues anticipate and address that tendency, the pose can be practiced with more conscious alignment and bring its intended effect. It can then also strengthen the core and leg muscles, bolster spinal mobility, and stretch the hamstrings, thighs, and hips.
We collected cues from teachers whose instructions may help you upend your thinking of the asana.
“Think about lifting up before you lean back,” explains Amy Leydon, a yoga instructor and the founder of Soma Yoga Center. “As you reach your front arm up to the ceiling, imagine your spine is a slinky, stretching longer. Feel the coils pull apart, then start to bend your slinky back.”
If you change only one thing about your approach to Reverse Warrior, let this cue be it.
Ledyon emphasizes that this also applies to your shoulder socket. She often cues, “Allow your arm bone to slide out of the shoulder socket, reach for the ceiling and rotate your palm to face behind you.” After you start to lean back, says Leydon, “you can gently relax your shoulder blade down.”
“I think imagery cues are especially useful for conveying a sense of the overall, holistic feeling of a movement, without getting caught up in lots of detail,” says Joe Miller, a New York City-based yoga anatomy and physiology teacher. Miller has found that using a familiar image, such as a steering wheel, helps create a feeling of a whole-body movement when students ares coming into poses. This approach is especially useful as a reminder that Reverse Warrior is, indeed, a side bend, not a back bend.
“I rarely call it ‘Reverse Warrior,’” explains San Francisco-based yoga teacher and Yoga Journal contributor Sarah Ezrin. “I call it ‘Side Warrior’ more often because it is all about lateral flexion. And it’s that lateral flexion that loosens up and releases the ‘emotional junk drawers’ of the hip flexors.” As she cues students to transition from Warrior II on the right side, Ezrin reminds students to “Lift your pelvis off your front thigh and lengthen your right waist.”
“This helps create a sense of lifting into the pose, rather than just letting the weight of the upper body fall onto the back leg,” says Miller. “Establish balance by grounding the front foot,” he explains. This allows you to work with— rather than against —the natural pull of gravity.
You want to engage the muscles without actually moving your feet, explains Marco “Coco” Rojas, a yoga teacher who led packed classes in New York City for more than a decade and was named one of “America’s Most Influential Yoga Teachers” by Sonima. This isometric engagement activates the inner thigh muscles, which are easily overlooked in Warrior poses.
A warrior is strong and grounded yet allows for flexible movement to adapt to any situation as needed, explains Rojas. “Be a warrior — but one that is smiling, with strength, in a relaxed manner,” said Rojas. This approach also applies to engaging and releasing tension in your muscles. Rojas often reminds students of the concept of finding sukha (or ease) in each pose after you have moved past dukha (or discomfort).
Think of your physical body and energetic self grounding into the Earth, suggests Rojas. Connect with the ground, thinking of the bottoms of your feet as roots. Allow this stability to reverberate through you and engage your muladhara, or root, chakra. When you work from the ground up, focusing first on your feet, it enables you to integrate alignment throughout the pose from a strong foundation.
“Anchor your back heel into the ground,” says Olivia Mead, founder and CEO of Yoga for First Responders. She thinks of it as energetically integrating the earth and water elements into a single force.
“I do the ‘look down’ cue a lot during twisting classes or neck-focused classes,” explains Ezrin. When you look up, there can be a tendency to drop the head back and strain the neck in some students. Always listen to your body. It will tell you what you need.
Sara Santora, an E-RYT 500 yoga teacher, also suggests students reconsider their drishti, or focal awareness. “This variation of Reverse Warrior stretches the QL [Quadratus Lumborum] muscles of the lower back, making it a great prep for poses like Janu Sirsasana,” explains Santora.
“Elongate your neck, don’t drop it back,” says Lawrence, who cues students to visualize a bobblehead toy as inspiration for the looseness you want to feel in your neck—minus the actual bobbling. Focus on your drishti, or focal point, to ignite new sensations.“The gaze follows the fingertips,” is her refrain, whether its the fingers overhead or the fingers resting on your back leg.
When you focus on the expansion of the ribs and conscious breathwork, you can more effectively elongate the side body, explains Gwen Lawrence, a yoga teacher and author of Power Yoga for Sports and Teaching Power Yoga for Sports. A common tendency among students is to lengthen only the side closest to the front leg and, in so doing, collapse on the other side. “This lengthens both sides of the body,” says Lawrence.
“Press down through the outer edges of your feet,” explains Aisha Bam, New York City-based yoga instructor. “And, pay particular attention to lifting the arch of the back foot.”
Rojas likes to invoke the elements in his teaching, reminding students of the qualities and their relationship to our practice. The human body is nearly 70% water, and when we recall that we contain the attributes of this element within ourselves, we can hold ourselves differently and find fluidity in our movement and our stillness.
Prioritize the graceful, swan-like qualities of elongation and ease, rather than forcing your back into a deep bend, says yoga and pilates instructor Riva G. “Rather than focus on how deeply you can bend, prioritize lengthening and lifting throughout your spine.”
“I like to slide the front thigh bone back,” explains New York City-based yoga teacher Kristina Erikson, while maintaining the bend in the front knee and, at the same time, lifting the back hip. Together, these actions intensify the side stretch.
“In Reverse Warrior, turn your chest towards the floor and gaze at your back foot,” explains Sara Santora, an E-RYT 500 yoga teacher. “Continue to reach your top arm towards the back of the room and breathe into the lower back muscles.” This prevents collapsing and compressing the lower back.
As we open up our side body in our Reverse Warrior, we open ourselves to releasing any stagnation or limitations that no longer serve us, explains Katherine Cespedes, RYT 200 and former Yoga Instructor at CONBODY. ”“Standing strong and firm, we reach as if the Universe were holding right in front of us—the answers to questions ruminating in our minds, or the new possibilities we have been seeking,” says Cespedes. “While holding the pose, we want to keep everything from our navel to our feet exactly the same—as much as possible—and create a sphere in which we shower ourselves with new energy, vitality, and the opportunities gifted to us with love and light.”
About our contributor
Crystal Fenton is an E-RYT200 YACEP Yoga Instructor and author of The Healing Power of the Pineal Gland: Exercises and Meditations to Detoxify, Decalcify, and Activate Your Third Eye Chakra.