Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 pose) is a wonderful warming yoga posture that can be enjoyed in most hatha yoga practices when aligned mindfully. Yielding numerous benefits, Warrior 1 pose strengthens the shoulders, arms, thighs, ankles and the muscles of the back; expands the chest, lungs and shoulders; stretches the hip flexors, abdomen, and ankles; develops stamina and endurance in thighs and core muscles; stimulates abdominal organs and digestion; improves balance, concentration, and core awareness.
Like all yoga poses, Warrior 1 often needs modifications for beginners in order to produce the desired benefits. Traditional Warrior 1 positions the feet in one line so the back foot is slightly angled forward while this back heel is placed directly behind the front heel. This direct alignment of the heels proves to be challenging for most people especially when one has limited flexibility in the ankles and/or hip joints. Turning the back foot so it angles forward allows one to targets the hip flexors (as a primary benefit of the pose, rotation of the humerus or thigh bone forward draws the stretch deeper into the thigh connection of the hip flexor tendon). But this forward angle is difficult to achieve if the ankle has limited mobility. Therefore, many participants position the heels in this direct line, but then angle the back foot out at 90 degrees or more. If the back foot is angled out at 90 degrees or more, AND one then rotates the pelvis forward, an aggressive torquing motion can be transmitted into the knee joint – shine bone is turning outwards while the thigh bone is turning inwards.
If one has substantially limited range of motion in the ankle, this same angling of foot and pelvis can send harsh pulling forces into the muscular and connective tissues of the lateral ankle. Solution?
I find one can minimize the torquing pressure in the knee and the straining energies in the ankle in Warrior 1 by doing one or both of the following alignment modifications:
1) Reduce the distance between the heels. (Be mindful that the forward knee does not excessively bend forward over the foot and toes – should remain vertical over the heel)
2) Position the back heel a couple inches outwards from the traditional heel placement, thus creating a slightly staggered heel position rather than heel in front of heel.
With one or both of these modifications, one will find that the back foot can angle more effectively forward thus moving the stretch into the calf muscle and Achilles tendon rather than into the lateral edge of the ankle. This forward angle of the back foot already adds an extra internal rotation of the shine bone, therefore can significantly reduce the torque that can often travel into the knee when the humerus is internally rotated and the pelvis is turned forward.
Personally, I prefer to have the spine performing only one plane of motion at a time in all poses to insure proper flow of energy and to apply ample openness in that specific range of motion. Warrior 1 is a classic back arch. If the back foot is positioned so that the pelvis can not effectively turn forward, then the spine will travel into a spiral (twist) while arching. I find this minimizes the flow of the arch by having portions of the vertebrae slightly compressed due to the spiraling while arching. Again, another reason to stagger the heels, turn the back foot more forward, and encourage the inwards rotation of the humerus – overall, squaring the pelvis forward to generate the most even back arch possible. Observe what limitations may exist in your Virabhadrasana 1 and modify to accommodate.