Hero pose, known as virasana in Sanskrit, is a restorative posture that gently stretches the muscles of the thighs, hips, and ankles. It is the base pose for what the yogi Swami Satyananda Saraswati calls the vajrasana group of asanas. This group channels the power of gods, heroes, and their weapons – thunderbolts – into a series of meditative postures.
This unassuming pose is incredibly beneficial for the body. According to Saraswati, hero pose changes the flow of blood in the pelvic region and, therefore, brings about changes in the function of the abdominal and reproductive organs. The pose relieves menstrual cramping and discomfort and, Saraswati claims, redirects sexual energy.
Hero pose alters the blood circulation in the abdomen and hips to – Saraswati claims – prevent hernia, relieve piles, improve digestion, relieve hyperacidity, heal peptic ulcers, reduce menstrual cramps, and temper sexual desire. There are many benefits and few contraindications to practicing hero pose. It is an accessible pose in which to practice breathing or meditation, even for those in poor health.
Because hero pose naturally discourages slouching and encourages spinal extension, it is an excellent pose for improving posture. It is easier to maintain hero pose for long periods of time without developing a backache than easy pose (sukhasana), for example. Saraswati calls hero pose “the best meditative asana” for those with sciatica.
As a restorative pose, easy pose has the mental benefits of relaxation and stress release. The posture includes a simultaneous external rotation of the hips, which releases muscle tension. When paired with meditation, the pose has a wide range of well documented benefits including increased focus, decreased anxiety, increased immunity to disease, an increased sense of well being, better memory, reduced blood pressure, and a longer life.
Do not attempt hero pose if you:
- have a knee injury.
- have an ankle injury.
Hero pose is the basis for different breathing practices including yogic breathing (ujjayi pranayama) and breath of fire (bhastrika pranayama). To practice ujjayi breath, first assume hero pose. Close your eyes and relax your face. Then, let your breathing become rhythmic. Imagine you are breathing with your throat – drawing the breath in and out not with your nostrils, but with the back of your throat. Contract your throat gently so that you produce a light snoring sound in the back of your throat, like the sound of a sleeping baby.
To practice breath of fire, first assume hero pose. Close your eyes and relax your face. Breath in, through your nose, rapidly (like you are sniffling). Then, immediately exhale just as rapidly. Imagine you are breathing with your abdomen. Expand the abdomen to inhale, contract it to exhale. Repeat. Practice several rounds of ten breaths.
Hero pose is also the basis for a wide range of mudra practices beyond just chin mudra and jnana mudra including the “invocation of energy” (prana mudra), “closing the seven gates” (shanmuki mudra), “awareness of inner space” (akashi mudra), and many others.
How to do the Virasana Yoga Pose
- Begin kneeling on the mat with your knees touching each other.
- Separate your feet slightly more than hip distance apart and angle the toes very slightly inward. Press the tops of your feet against the mat actively.
- Exhale. Lower your buttocks halfway to your shins. Place your hands on your shins, just inside your knees, and press the upper calves toward your feet to make room for your thighs.
- Sit back onto the mat between your heels. Adjust your weight so that you plant both seat bones on the mat firmly.
- Internally rotate your legs by drawing the tops of your thighs toward each other. This engages the hamstring muscles associated with internal rotation.
- Open your chest by pressing the bottom, inner corners of your collarbones toward your heart center. This will draw your shoulders down and back.
- Rest your fingertips on the mat next to your feet.
- Lengthen vertically by pressing down into the mat with your tailbone as you, mentally, draw the top of your head toward the sky.
- Close your eyes.
- Breath and hold the pose.
- To leave hero pose, push off the mat with your hands to lift your buttocks several inches into the air. Cross your feet underneath you. Sit back, behind your feet. Uncross your legs and extend them in front of you in staff pose (dandasana).
Modifications and Props
Prop the pelvis with a blanket. If the quadricep muscles in the front of your legs are too tight to comfortably sit all the way on the mat during the pose, roll up a blanket and place it on your shins in step one (above). When you sit back, the blanket will cushion your seat.
Prop the pelvis with a block. Alternatively, if your legs are too tight to comfortably sit all the way on the mat during the pose, place a block between your shins in step one (above). When you sit back, sit onto the block. You can combine this modification with the first.
Fold forward the stretch the glutes. To lengthen your gluteus muscles and the erector spinae muscles in your back, gently bend forward in step ten (above), keeping your seat bones planted firmly on the mat.
Rest your hands in chin mudra. You can position your hands in one of several mudras – literally “gestures” – instead of resting them on the mat in step seven (above), place your hands on your knees. For chin mudra, turn your palms upward. Bring your thumb and pointer fingers together. Extend your pinky, ring, and middle fingers. This mudra is open to the world and energetic.
Rest your hands in jnana mudra. For jnana mudra, turn your palms downward. Bring your thumb and pointer fingers together. Wrap your pinky, ring, and middle fingers around your knees. This mudra is closed to the world and self-reflective.
According to traditional yogic texts, the hands are vehicles by which the body’s energy – or prana – enters the world. Placing the thumb and pointer finger together in chin mudra or jnana mudra creates a circuit of energy between these two fingers that cuts off some of the energy exchange between the practitioner and the outside world. It, therefore, aids meditation. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, for example, insists that no one should attempt meditation without using one of these two mudras.
Reclining Hero Pose (Supta Virasana). This challenging variation stretches the body from head to toe. In step ten (above), exhale and lower onto your elbows. Place your hands on your lower back and gently ease your back onto the mat. Draw your tailbone toward your navel to tilt your pelvis and bring your lower back firmly against the floor. Rest your arms by your side, palms facing up. Breath and hold the pose. Press your forearms against the floor to lift yourself out of the pose.
Half Reclining Hero Pose (Supta Ardha Virasana). This variation, though also challenging, eases the practitioner into reclining hero pose. Begin in staff pose (dandasana). Bend your right knee and swing it around so that your foot is tucked close to your right hip, as in hero pose. With your left leg still extended, go into reclining hero pose. Breath and hold the pose. Press your forearms against the floor to lift yourself out of the pose. Release your right leg. Repeat on the left side.
Quadriceps. The quadricep muscles cover the front and sides of the femur, making up much of the muscle mass of the thighs. The quads stabilize and allow extension of the knee joint. Hero pose stretches the rectus femoris in the front of the thighs.
Glutes. The gluteal muscle group includes the three buttocks muscles: the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, and the gluteus minimus. The glutes are some of the body’s strongest muscles and are the primary movers of the hips and thighs. Hero pose stretches the glutes, particularly if you modify the pose with a forward fold.
Erector spinae. The erector spinae is a bundle of muscles and tendons in the back that control extension and rotation. Because they are responsible for straightening the back, the strength of the erector spinae muscles is closely linked with posture. Sitting tall in hero pose gently strengthens your erector spinae.
Abdominals. The abdominal muscles are located in the lower belly, between the ribs and the pelvis. They control the tilt of the pelvis and the curve of the lower spine. Hero pose gently strengthens your abdominal muscles as you extend vertically.
Hip flexors. The hip flexors are a large group of muscles located deep in the thighs, hips, and buttocks. They connect the leg, pelvis, and abdomen and allow you to lift your upper leg towards your body or to bend your body over your upper leg. Sitting for long periods of time weakens the hip flexors, making it difficult to lift the upper legs and to bend over. In hero pose, tight hip flexors lengthen as you extend vertically or bend forward.