If yoga has a poster pose, it’s Padmasana, a popular media image for conveying the inner peace that yoga offers. Ironically, Lotus Pose isn’t often instructed in today’s yoga studios. For one thing, it’s associated with meditation and pranayama, and contemporary classes focus almost entirely on physical yoga. For another, Padmasana—the very picture of serenity—is skipped because it’s a source of struggle and discomfort for many students.
Padmasana is named for the lotus flower, a symbol associated with the chakras, particularly the thousand-petaled lotus of the crown chakra, which represents the opening of higher consciousness. Also associated with beauty, purity and creative energy, the lotus flower has special significance to aspirants: Though its roots lie deep in mud, it grows beyond the murky waters to bloom.
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For those who attain the pose, Lotus can feel incredibly stable and equilateral, almost pyramid-like in form, making it perfectly suited for meditation: The spine is aligned along natural curves, the belly is relaxed, and breath and prana can flow freely. However, as lifelong chair-sitters, many Westerners haven’t developed the hip flexibility necessary to practice Padmasana without stressing the ankle or knee joints or slouching through the lower back. In this case, the resulting discomfort and distraction make Lotus Pose entirely unsuitable, even risky.
In Padmasana, the hips are flexed, abducted and externally rotated. In fact, having a tremendous range of external rotation (being able to turn the thighs outward from the hip socket) is the key to practicing this pose. Rotation can be limited for two reasons:
Reason #1: The muscles are too tight. The good news is that consistent practice of hip openers, especially Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Pose) or Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) help develop hip flexibility. Try this self-adjustment to increase rotation and build muscle memory: Using the hands or a strap, roll the thigh outward to help rotate the femur (thigh) bone in the hip socket a few more degrees. If you sense that there is no hope of further rotation—that is, if you feel a point of deep compression in the joint itself (not resistance in the surrounding soft tissues), consider #2.
Reason #2: The bones won’t allow it. Human skeletons come in wondrous varieties—and some of us have femurs and hip sockets that aren’t ideally shaped for external rotation. Unlike muscle, bones aren’t easily changed. (In the language of the gunas, muscles are rajasic, bones tamasic.) It’s possible to sit on folded blankets to elevate the hips, changing the angle of rotation to make Lotus more accessible, but for some of us, this will mean perching on a “tuffet” so tall that the stable, grounded quality of the pose is lost.
Building a peaceful Padmasana takes time and patience. (That’s why we call it practice, right?) The muscles and ligaments of the hip are densely spiraled, and unraveling the tension here is a valuable lesson in self-assessment and discernment. A good place to start is with supine hip-openers, which support and protect the spine as you explore the hip spiral by shifting the position of the femurs and knees. Your patience will be rewarded: Many yoga asanas require hip flexibility, and as you progress toward Padmasana, your entire practice will improve.
Until you can sit in Lotus Pose without risking your knees or lumbar spine, choose an alternative seat for meditation, such as Sukhasana (Easy Pose) or Ardha Padmasana (Half Lotus). Alternate the legs each time you practice and never sit for long periods without a break to help restore flow to nerves and blood vessels. If your hips are especially tight, Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) is a good choice, or meditate seated in a chair with the feet on the floor. If this doesn’t feel “yogic” enough, add a hasta mudra (gesture) like Bhairava (palms up) or even Lotus Mudra. (Bring the palms together in Anjali or Prayer Mudra, continuing to press the thumbs at the heart center while you open all but the little fingers.)
Even if your body will never adapt to Lotus Pose, you can still make the most of what is possible by embracing the example of the lotus flower, rooted in mud and earth but rising up to blossom. The inward pose of the lotus is for everyone.
Do you practice Padmasana? What has your experience taught you about this pose?