By Alanna Kaivalya
One of the most gratifying challenges of hatha yoga is learning how our work on the mat can be applied to any action we take in daily life. In order to act consciously—whether in asana practice, professional endeavors, or interpersonal relationships—we have to carefully examine what we do and how we do it. We can look to the Bhagavad Gita for wisdom on the yoga of action, or karma yoga, which guides us to approach our worldly work with one-pointed focus, courage, and a spirit of selflessness.
Arjuna, the despondent warrior hero of the Gita, faces a moral dilemma and a crisis of faith as he surveys the battlefield before him—the site of an impending war with his kinsmen and the symbolic field of dharma, or right living. The conflicted archer turns to Krishna, his divine charioteer, for counsel. Krishna begins by teaching that it is imperative to act in order to fulfill our dharma in this world. But our very actions, both great and small, will bind us unless we approach each deed as a form of service—an offering to something higher than ourselves. The key to transforming our daily activities, as well as our life’s work, into a spiritual practice is to continually let go of attachment to the fruits of our efforts. As Krishna instructs in the Gita: “Selfish action imprisons the world. Act selflessly, without any thought of personal profit” (3.9). “Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. Brahman is present in every act of service” (3.15; translation by Eknath Easwaran). In this way, we surrender our individual ego to higher Consciousness, always keeping the greater goal of life in sight as both a target and a guide.
The challenging backbend dhanurasana, or bow pose, offers an opportunity to embody the selfless spirit of the inner warrior and apply these teachings in your practice. Resembling an archer’s bow, this posture encourages a powerful stretch along the front of the body and a deep opening at the heart center, helping you cultivate an attitude of fearlessness and grace as you set out to pursue your dharma and offer up the fruits of your actions.
In anticipation of dhanurasana, the sequence below is designed to open the shoulders, stretch the hip flexors, and strengthen the muscles of the back. On an energetic level, the stabilizing warrior poses help build stamina and determination as you set your sights on life’s higher purpose. The uplifting backbending postures promote courage and dispel despondency, invigorating you to fulfill your true potential in this world. As you move through the poses, use a soft ujjayi breath and keep your mind focused on the intention to surrender to your higher Self.
1. Uttanasana/Utkatasana (Standing Forward Bend/Fierce Pose) Warm-Up
Stand with feet together and fold forward into uttanasana. Keep the weight evenly distributed through both feet and engage the quadriceps while keeping the knees soft. Clasp your hands behind your back so that the palms press together. Draw the shoulder blades toward each other, and reach your clasped hands away from your back to stretch the front of the shoulders. Keep your shoulders away from your ears. Inhale, and bend your knees deeply to come into utkatasana. Squeeze your knees together, and lift your chest away from your thighs. Continue to stretch the shoulders as you look forward (fig. 1a). On the next exhalation, fold forward by straightening your legs and releasing the crown of your head toward the floor (fig. 1b). Repeat this flow five times, coordinating the movement so that both the breath and the body move seamlessly, finishing in uttanasana.
This warm-up helps to generate heat in the body and creates stability in the legs. The addition of the shoulder stretch serves as preparation for the shoulder extension in dhanurasana.
2. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) to Humble Warrior
From uttanasana, release the shoulder stretch, bend your knees, and place your hands firmly on the floor, shoulder-distance apart. Step your feet back into adho mukha shvanasana (downward-facing dog). On an inhalation, step your right foot forward between your hands and spin your back heel flat to the floor, so that the foot is at about a 45-degree angle. Keep the right knee bent and aligned over the ankle as you stretch your arms up. Strongly engage and internally rotate the left leg while sealing the left foot to the floor. Press your palms together, bring your gaze to your thumbs, and soften your shoulders away from your ears. Stay here in virabhadrasana I for five breaths before transitioning to humble warrior.
After your fifth breath, keep your hips facing forward as you inhale and straighten your right leg. Exhale, and interlace your fingers behind your back, pressing your palms together. Inhale, lift and open your chest to prepare, and then exhale as you bend your right knee and bow forward, bringing your torso and head down along the inside of your right thigh. Release your head toward the floor in a gesture of humility and surrender. Reach your clasped hands up toward the ceiling. Make sure the weight is evenly distributed between both feet, and keep the right knee aligned over the right ankle. Remain here for five breaths.
Then, with an inhalation, press into both feet and rise back up into virabhadrasana I. Keep your front knee bent and unclasp your hands to reach both arms up. Exhale, bring your hands down to either side of your right foot and step back to adho mukha shvanasana. Repeat this warrior series on the other side.
3. Parshvottanasana (Pyramid Pose) with Reverse Prayer to Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
From adho mukha shvanasana, step or jump your feet up between your hands and roll up to tadasana (mountain pose). Bring your hands behind your back into reverse prayer position. (As an alternative for tight shoulders, simply grab opposite elbows behind your back.) Then, step your left foot back approximately three feet. The back foot and thigh are strongly turned in and the hips are facing forward. Seal both feet to the floor. Inhale, open your chest, and look up. Exhale, and fold forward over your right leg. Strongly engage your lower abdomen and use that core strength to move more deeply into the stretch. Keep both legs straight and press firmly down underneath your right big toe while engaging and lifting the right quadriceps to deepen the right hip crease.
After five breaths, inhale and lift up halfway to a flat-back position with your hands still behind your back. Exhale, bend your right knee slightly and shift your weight more into the right foot, preparing for virabhadrasana III pose.
Inhale, lift your back foot off the floor and extend both legs firmly as you come into virabhadrasana III. The left hip will have a tendency to lift in this position; make sure both hips are even. With each inhalation, feel as if your back is arching slightly around your hands (fig. 3c). Hold this variation of virabhadrasana III for three to five breaths and, on an inhalation, return to a standing position with both feet together. Repeat this sequence on the other side.
4. Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Release your hands from behind your back and stand in tadasana. Inhale, and reach the hands overhead. Exhale, and fold forward into uttanasana. Inhale to a flat back position and step back into phalakasana (plank pose).
Exhale, and lower your body all the way down to the floor. Keeping your hands underneath your shoulders, squeeze your legs together and point your toes, pressing the tops of the feet into the floor. Draw your tailbone down so that the pubic bone presses into the floor to lengthen the lumbar spine.
Inhale, and use only the muscles of the back to lift into a low bhujangasana, allowing your heart to open and your focus to remain steady. Move the shoulder blades toward each other and keep the neck long. Take five breaths in this position before releasing back to the floor.
5. Shalabhasana (Locust Pose) Variation
Interlace your hands behind your back and cross your legs at the ankles. Inhale, and lift the head, chest, arms, and legs off the floor. Keep your hands pressing together and lift your hands away from your back for a greater heart opening.
Stay here for three breaths, and then switch the interlock of the fingers and the cross of the legs—this will help to integrate both the right and the left hemispheres of the brain. Stay for another three breaths before releasing to the floor.
The Peak Pose
6. Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)
Bend both knees and reach back with your hands to grab your ankles, one at a time. If it is challenging to grab the ankles, wrap a strap around both ankles and hold the ends of the strap with your hands. On an inhalation, lift your head and chest, and press the feet back into your hands to lift the legs. The extension of the legs will draw the body up higher as the chest opens. The knees will have a tendency to open wide; use your inner thigh muscles to draw them hip-distance apart.
Keep your neck long and continue to breathe into your lower back while engaging your lower abdomen, and reach the toes up toward the ceiling. Allow the chest to open as the shoulder blades come toward one another and move down the back. Feel the expansiveness at your heart center as you reaffirm your intention to take aim at life’s higher purpose and offer up the fruits of your practice. Take five breaths here before coming to rest on the floor, releasing the ankles. Rest for two or three breaths, and repeat the pose one more time.
7. Parshva Dhanurasana (Side Bow Pose)
In this variation, you’ll experience the pose from a new perspective, reminding you to stay focused on your true goal, regardless of life’s challenging circumstances. From the same prone position, reach back, grab your ankles, and lift into dhanurasana on an inhalation. Exhale, and prepare to roll to the right side. Allow the inhalation to carry you over to the right, so that the entire right side of your body is on the floor, as the legs extend behind you. If it’s comfortable to do so, rest your right ear on the floor.
After five breaths here, let the inhalation carry you back up to the original position, then exhale and prepare to roll to the left. The inhalation will carry you over so that the left side of your body is on the floor. After five breaths, inhale, and come back to center, and then release to the floor.
8. Parivritta Vajrasana (Kneeling Twist) Variation
From a relaxed prone position, press up onto your hands and knees, and then sit back on your heels. Place your right fingertips on the floor just behind your toes, and bring your left hand to your right knee, twisting to the right. Turn your gaze over the right shoulder and keep your spine tall. Use the inhalation to lengthen your spine further, and the exhalation to deepen the twist. Twist to the right for five breaths before switching sides.
9. Balasana (Child’s Pose) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend
From this kneeling position, walk your hands forward and come to child’s pose. Bring your knees slightly wider apart than your hips and keep your big toes together. Allow your forehead to rest on the floor, reach your arms forward, and turn your palms upward (fig. 9a). Not only is this a gesture of softness and receptivity, but the external rotation of the arms aids in further opening the muscles of the shoulders and upper back.
From child’s pose, come to your hands and knees, tuck your toes, and extend your legs to come into adho mukha shvanasana. Enjoy this posture for a few breaths before slowly walking your feet forward into uttanasana. Keep your feet together, with the weight distributed evenly. Place your hands on the floor with your fingertips in line with your toes, or you can place your hands on blocks. Keep the back of the neck long and the shoulders away from the ears. Engage the lower abdomen and use the strength of the belly to deepen the posture (fig. 9b). Remain here for five breaths.
You can finish here or close with an inversion sequence. Finally, relax into shavasana for 10 or more minutes. Allow the body and mind to completely let go, embodying the inner warrior’s spirit of selfless surrender.
Alanna Kaivalya leads retreats, workshops, and teacher trainings all over the globe, along with weekly classes in New York City. She is the author of Myths of the Asanas (Mandala Press, 2010).
Photos: Jim Filipski / Guy Cali Associates; Model: Luke Ketterhagen; Wardrobe: Top: Model’s own; Bottom: Prancing Leopard