Vira is a Sanskrit word translated variously as heroic, powerful, strong, excellent, eminent. It is the root of many other words, most notably perhaps, Virabhadrasana. If this word is familiar to you, then as a yogi, you probably know this word as ‘warrior.’ There are three warrior poses: Virabhadrasana I, II, and III. All are strong standing poses, which require physical strength and stamina, and a good dose of mental willpower to remain in the pose for an extended hold.
Lately, I’ve been encouraging my students to discern whether they are acting out of courage or heroism. Courage requires a suspension of doubt or fear, and enables a mental fierceness, sustaining one in a difficult moment. We learn to be courageous in simple accessible ways on our yoga mats, and without effort or even consciousness, we find ourselves being a bit more courageous in other settings.
Heroism, however, is a little different. I’m thinking superheroes! Whether Superman, the Amazons, or Virabhadra, all of these mythical beings have powers well beyond the ordinary human being. Superman has extraordinary strength and can fly through the air; the Amazons were a nation of all-female warriors from Greek mythology; and Virabhadra was a fierce and giant warrior with many arms from Hindu mythology, first noted in the Ramayama. All of these heroic figures have one thing in common:
They all transcend normal limitations.
Reading about superheroes and mythological gods is fun. What is most refreshing and inspiring about these tales are the moments where we suspend our belief systems. We are able to briefly inhabit a fantastic world where all is possible. The young boy reading about Superman in his favorite comic book believes for a moment that humans can fly and that good always triumphs over evil. While we don’t literally leap off a tall building and soar through the air; we may imagine that small miracles are possible in our own lives. We won’t grow eleven arms to avenge the death of Lord Shiva’s wife as Virabhadra did, but we may need and evolve multiple methods to perceive and eliminate an old and nagging habit. While we certainly won’t cut off a breast to be a brave Amazon warrior, we may need to let go of old ideas of who we are and what truly matters to us. Ultimately, we are inspired to consider a life free of limiting ideas and habits. It then can become possible to imagine a courageous self who can seek out and slay our inner demons.
As yogis, we often consider ourselves spiritual warriors. Not with the intention to commit violence against one another (non-violence is our first “vow,” if you will), but we are battling our own ignorance and self-imposed restrictions. Enduring the challenge to see the limitations that we unconsciously place on our lives takes courage and willpower. Cultivating willpower in asana practice — sustaining those long holds in Warrior pose — literally gives us the stamina to investigate and root out unhealthy mental habits. Exploring courage by trying new poses without expectation of success, feeds our adventurous spirit to experiment with new attitudes and relationships both with others and ourselves. Practicing Warrior 1 and embracing the heroic spirit of Virabhadra we may begin to transcend our limitations, finding our inner super-hero!