Brad's Iyengar Yoga Notebook
"Arms ascending, groins descending."   -- B.K.S. Iyengar
There are essentially three directions of movement in this pose -- you move forward in your front leg, backward in your rear leg, and upward in your torso.   Virabhadrasana I is often called the first backbend, although it is not a true back bend itself.   Merely concaving the spine is not back bending -- we concave our spine in our forward bends as well.   Certainly Virabhadrasana I is a good preparation for a back bending practice, though.
Actions of the torso, hips, and pelvis
In this pose, we begin by jumping our feet to the sides into Utthita Hasta Padasana (the "starfish posture") and then we move right away by raising our hands into Urdhva Hastasana even before we turn to the side to do the pose because we want to seek symmetry for our arms in a symmetrical leg position before turning into asymmetry in our lower body.
Although the full pose is done with essentially the same distance between your feet as you take in Trikonasana, initially you can begin practicing this asana by taking a shorter step than normal if that is what you need to gain the feeling of turning your torso and pelvis fully in the direction of your front leg.   Also at first, not bending your front knee will help you learn this pelvis/torso movement well.   If you cannot turn your navel completely in the direction of your front leg at first, placing a sandbag under your rear heel to allow that heel to come off the floor, but remain supported, will help.
This is one of the three main wide-legged standing poses in which the pelvis is rotated toward the front leg to approximate being perpendicular to the plane of the legs.   (The other two are Parivrtta Trikonasana and Parsvottanasana).   In these poses, there is the tendency not to rotate the rear hip strongly enough forward to bring it in line with the front hip.   Resist this by a strong forward action in your rear hip, combined with a rearward turning of your front hip and buttocks.   Move your rear buttock bone away from your tailbone to assist your pelvis in turning forward.   This action will become easier with time and hip flexibility.   It is more important at first to get your hips square facing the direction of your front leg than to get your back heel on the ground.
Watch when turned to the side in preparation for this pose that your belly is not protruding or poking forward. Tuck your sacred under as much as you can even in this difficult position and draw your abdomen inward and upward as you lift your chest.
Establish your pubic bone straight ahead in the direction of your front foot with your pelvis squared toward that foot as well as your torso and head.   Do these things before you bend your front leg.   As you bend your front knee, make your navel and sternum stay in line with your inner forward thigh -- do not let your torso rotate toward the front side.   You want to rotate your navel as close to center of your forward thigh as possible.
As in the other standing poses, tuck your pelvis underneath and take your sacrum forward.   An important action in Virabhadrasana I is the lifting of the two font hip points (anterior iliac crests).   If your low back hurts or feels compressed, lift your hip points upward more toward the ceiling and tuck your tailbone underneath more to protect your low back.   Remember with regard to the front of your torso, everything from the level of your frontal hips bones should be lifting upward
Notice that the hip of your front leg tends to be higher than the hip of your rear leg -- raise your rear leg hip to make them level.   It is more important to have your pelvis level than to square your hips perfectly toward your front foot.
Raise up your side and rear ribs.   Lengthen both sides of your torso from your hips to your armpits away from your pelvis.   Lift your torso up off your lower back.   Lift your navel upward away from your pubis.   Lengthen the front of your torso from your navel to the top of your sternum.   Lengthen from your pubic bone to your chin, from your hip points to your fingertips.   Lift your sternum toward the ceiling strongly as you draw your shoulder blades into and down your back to assist the gentle backward bending in your spine.   Often in this pose, we tend to have the lower back overworking and the upper spine not lifting and curving enough and that is often the big problem in our regular back bend practice as well.   While you are in the pose, remember to continue to draw your abdomen inward and upward.
Actions of the legs and feet
For Virabhadrasana I, your rear foot should be a little more turned inward than in Trikonasana, but less so than in Parsvottanasana.   You may have to adjust your rear foot placement a little when you are in the pose until it feels comfortable with reference to your leg position.   If your rear ankle is talking to you, listen to what it is saying.
Try to stretch the skin on the soles of both your feet to lengthen and broaden them.   A good time to do this is when you are turning your feet.   When you are turning the heel of your rear leg back, lift it up and stretch the skin on the sole of your foot before you place it back down on your mat.
Turn completely to the side in the direction of your front knee before trying to bend your front knee.   Before bending your leg, make sure both of your front hip points and both of your nipples point straight forward in the direction of your front knee like headlights.
Take care to bend your front leg to a right angle with your shin perpendicular to floor and your thigh parallel to the floor.   Your front knee should be directly over the ankle and heel of your front leg.   Lengthen your inner front thigh from the groin to the knee in order to keep your knee going straight out over your foot (toward your second toe).   You may even need to feel as though you are moving your knee toward the outside of your front foot to achieve this alignment.   Have enough distance between your feet that when you bend your front knee fully, your femur comes parallel to the floor just as in Virabhadrasana II.   Your front leg femur should also pull strongly into the hip socket of its pelvis.   Watch your back leg and see that it stretches and stays straight as you bend your front knee.
Concentrate on keeping your rear leg straight, pressing your rear shinbone back strongly, since the rear knee has the tendency to bend.   Stretch down through your rear inner calf into your heel.   Be on your heels strongly.   Lift the underside of your rear leg upward and press the outer edge of your rear foot down to the floor.   In this pose, the rear leg does the "grunt work."   It is not easy to keep it strongly straight and lifting, with the thigh pushing back strongly as in Adho Mukha Svanasana, but it is key to the pose.   As much as your inner arms are stretching upward, stretch your rear leg back, strong and straight.   Observe that most people tend to bend the rear leg in this pose (it can be subtle).   Focus on the middle 1/3rd of your rear leg and move it strongly back.   Don't sacrifice the straightness of your rear leg for anything.  Bring your rear hip forward without losing the stretch of your back leg.
Move the bone of your rear femur into the hamstring flesh and move the flesh of your hamstrings into the skin to open the back of your rear thigh.   As you draw your rear thigh bone deeply into the back of your leg, draw back through the inner aspect of your rear thigh more than through the outer to assist the inward rotation of your rear leg.   One of the hardest things about this pose is to keep your rear leg inwardly rotating (as opposed to Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana II, and Parsvakonasana) and absolutely ramrod straight.   Do not inwardly rotate your rear leg so much that your knee faces the floor, however.   Take your inner thighs away from each other and both strongly back to bring consciousness to this inner thigh area.   If your inner thighs are crisscrossing, you need to spread your legs a little more.
Actions of the hands, arms, and shoulders
You must first make your elbows straight by lengthening your arms.   Donít just turn your palms toward each other, turn your whole arms both inward.   Then you may bring your palms together into Urdhva Namaskarasana if possible.   Don't bring your palms together at the expense of bending your elbows.   If you cannot join your palms with your elbows straight, then keep your arms parallel and extending upward strongly.   As your arms grow tired in holding the pose, you may feel that you want to cross your thumbs.   Crossing your thumbs helps give you strength to hold your arms up.   Do it only if you need to do it, not as a routine part of your pose.
Rotate your triceps toward each other.   Lift your arms more from the outer armpits, but also lift from your inner arms (which is a little more difficult).   Keep your arms and upper torso lifting maximally toward the ceiling while you allow your legs and groins to descend downward toward the floor.
Before bringing the head back to look upward at your hands, your thoracic spine must be drawn inward and your chest open.   Use your arms strongly to lift your chest with your trapezius muscles descending down your back and your collarbones broaden into the sides.
As you bend back to look at the ceiling, focus more and more on lifting your sternum and lifting your arms higher.   Imagine you have eyes in your collar bones and look upward from there.   Stretch upward through your little fingers a little more than through your index fingers.   Use the lifting of your arms to create maximal space in your torso.   Lift your arms to lift your side ribs.   Before coming up out of the pose bring your chin back to parallel to the floor.
One way of working on this pose is to try doing it at the wall.   Take your front toes up the wall and have a block on its side pressed to the wall with your upper front shin.   Press your fingertips on the wall to keep your torso erect.   Verify that you have front feel to rear instep alignment and that your stance is long enough so that your front femur is parallel to the floor (that may mean walking your rear foot way back more than you're used to).   Then your work is in squaring your hips to the wall in front of you.   Try to get your hips more and more turning -- use your hands on the wall to help turn your hips.   Pull the rear side of your pelvis toward your inner front knee.
This is an exhausting pose.   Though you are working hard, try to calm and normalize your breathing.   Don't grit your teeth into the pose, breathe into it.   Relax your face and breath.
"The decision to relax rather than to grip, even in the face of impatience
or fear, is a conscious and brave choice."   -- B.K.S. Iyengar