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Some Southern Zen

Growing up a Lotus

© Nanabozho (Gichi Wabush)
Mis à jour le 5 novembre 2006

Versione italiana

See also

Introduction: my personal approach

Limbering up exercices: the sun salutations

The practice of zazen

How to Grow a Lotus
Adapted from an extract from the Yoga Journal
by Donna Farhi Schuster
March 1987

Sooner or later, it can happen to even the most experienced meditator. You've been sitting crossed-legged for years without any problem, and one day, in the middle of a retreat, you develop the most excruciating pain in one of your knees. You haven't been paying enough attention to stretching your hips, and now your poor knees are starting to suffer.

Or perhaps you've been thinking of meditating but find that legs simply won't hold into one of those pretzel-like poses. So you're holding back--interested, but unwilling to put yourself through the excruciating pain.

Well, join the club--you're just one of millions of westerners who find Padmasana (Lotus Position) and the other cross-legged postures among the most difficult yoga poses to master. Unlike our Indian friends, we did not grow up sitting on the floor, and consequently our hips have developed an adaptation to our sitting on chairs.

Throughout childhood, and especially in the typical adult sedentary job, prolonged sitting on chairs has caused a shortening of the very muscles and ligaments that need to be flexible for Padmasana. To make matters worse, the hip is an deep ball-and-socket joint with some of the strongest ligaments in the body, which prevent the femur from becoming disassociated. With this stability comes a subsequent lack of mobility. To change the structure of the hip takes careful, persistent, practice over a long period of time. But take heart--the Divine is infinitely patient and will not exclude you from a happy rebirth if you do not attain Padmasana in this lifetime!

Never force yourself into Padmasana or the other cross--legged positions. The knee joint is particularly susceptible to injury for a number of reason. First, the knee is one of the most primitive joints in the body and is much weaker than the hip. If you have very tight hips, you may over-stretch the knees without increasing you hip flexibility one iota. The hips, not the knees must be flexible for lotus pose. Second, when fully extended, the knee joint will not rotate. When the joint is bent, however, a slight rotation does come into play, and this rotation can be injurious to the knee, damaging the ligaments, cartilage, and meniscus. The knee is an unforgiving joint; once injure, it may never be the same again. Therefore, if you feel a sharp pain in the knee, adjust your position or seek the help of a competent teacher.

The following series will help you prepare for Padmasana. The stretches are best done after practicing standing poses when the body is warmed up. Those who are tight should practice in the afternoon, when they have more flexibility. Begin by holding each position one minute, increasing to five minutes as the poses come with more ease. Use a watch or timer for consistency, as one minute can rapidly become fifteen seconds in the more intense stretches.

Those with knee or ankle injuries should be especially cautious here. If your discomfort cannot be alleviated by adjusting your position, you would be wise to seek the help on an experienced teacher. You might also try alternating sitting positions, such as Virasana (Hero Pose) or Siddhasana (Sage Pose) with the buttocks elevated on a firm blanket. These poses are excellent for both meditation and pranayama practice.

In all stretches, use deep abdominal breathing to open the body from inside. Rather than "trying" to relax by pressing the muscles into the stretch, take your breath deep into the center of the pelvis. With each inhalation feel the hips expand, and with each exhalation allow the muscles to slip away from the bones. [This being said, this is an image: from the anatomical point of view, muscles don't slip away from the bones] Working gently in this way, the body will welcome the pose and progress quickly toward achievement of Padmasana.

Figure 1.


Lunge I:

Stretches the ligaments and muscles of the external rotators of the bent leg and the psoas and groin of the straight leg.

Sit with the heel of the right foot in line with the pubic bone. Extending the other leg straight behind you, with the kneecap facing downward. Keep the chest lifted to take the weight of the pelvis off the femur. Repeat on the other side.

But be careful about the loins-sacrum hinge.

Figure 2.

Lunge II:

To make the lunge stretch more intense, move the foot away from the thigh until the upper and lower legs form a right angle. Keeping the knee on the floor to stabilize the joint, attempt to move the left hip toward the floor.

Figure 3.

Supta Virasana

(reclining hero posture):

Lengthens the psoas and quadriceps muscles of the thigh,
especially above the knee.


Sit in Virasana (hero posture) with the knees in line with the hips. Drawing the center of the pelvis into the center of the thighs, recline on your back onto the elbows. Depending on your flexibility, either support your back with a bolster or recline on the floor with the arms over the head. Do not attempt to recline if the knees splay out or come off the floor.

Figure 4.

Through the hole stretch:

Stretches the external rotators.

Lie on your back with both knees bent. Cross the left leg so that the outside of the calf is resting on the right thigh. Take the left arm through the gap of the left leg around the back of the right thigh. Clasp hands. As you draw the right thigh toward you, turn the left hip out and move the left knee away form you to open the hip.

Repeat on the other side.


Figure 5

Upavista Konasana II (Seated angle posture):

Stretches the hamstrings, adductors, and groin and the lateral hip and buttock area.

Sit with the legs spread wide apart. Turn the torso to face over the right thigh. Elongate and twist the spine as you bend over the extended leg. Press the opposite hip down to increase the stretch on the lateral side of that hip and buttock.

Repeat on the other side.

Obviously, few people succeed in doing this right from the start. Thus, and especially for men, I advise that you fold the knee so as to better seize the foot, rather than holding the leg straight and be content of pullingit, in an attempt to seize the calf. The articulation shall progressively stretch.

Figure 6.

Baddha Konasana

(bound angle posture) [variation]:

Stretches the adductors and lateral hip.

Sit in Baddha Konasana with hands clasped around the feet. Hold one minute. Now elevate the feet in front of you on a book or folded blanket. Use the arms to keep the spine in an upright position, moving the torso toward the feet. Hold for up to five-minutes. Now try Baddha Konasana with the feet on the floor. You may be surprised at how much closer the knees are to the floor.

Figure 7.


(Cow Face Posture):

Increases elasticity in the hips, legs, and ankles.

Sit with the legs extended straight in front of you. Raising your seat, bend the right kne back and sit on the right foot. If this is too difficult, place a folded blanket between the buttock and the heel. Now cross the left leg over the right leg so that the knees are resting on top of one another and the left foot is turned under. Place the hands on the thigh and press the knees firmly together. Repeat, changing the cross of the legs.


Figure 8.

Supta Padangusthasana

(Reclining leg stretch) [variation]:

Stretches the lateral rotators and psoas of the extended leg.

Lie flat on the back with the legs extended straight. Bend the left knee and taking hold of the foot in both hands, draw the knee down and toward the floor next to the rib cage. Press the right thigh down as much as possible.

Repeat on the other side.


Figure 9.

Janu Sirsasana

(Head-to-knee Posture):

Stretches the lateral rotators, hamstrings, and adductors.

Sit in Dandasana. Bend the left knee and draw the leg up and out to the side. Rotate the left thigh out as much as possible. Turn the torso to face toward the big toe of the extended leg, and pivot forward from the hips into a forward bend over the right leg.

Repeat on the other side.


Same indication as to figure 5. Fold the knee so as to better seize the foot, rather than holding the leg straight and be content of pulling in an attempt to seize the calf. The articulation shall progressively stretch.

Figure 10

Tailor's stretch.

Stretches the lateral rotators.

Sit in a simple cross-legged position. Now move the feet away from the groin until both legs form right angles. Maintaining this position, tip forward with a straight spine until you feel a deep stretch in the outside of the hip. Repeat, changing your legs.

Figure 11.

Cradle stretch:

Stretches the lateral rotators and adductors.

Sit in Dandasana. Bend the left knee and turn the leg out. Place the sole of the foot in the crease of the right elbow and the thigh in the crease of the left elbow. Clasp hands. Gently move the hip back and forth, rotating the hip outward as you do so. To increase the intensity of the stretch, keep moving the left foot away from the floor until the leg forms a right angle. Go on to the next pose before practicing the Cradle stretch on the right.


Figure 12.

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimoi Tanasana

(Seated bend half lotus)

From the Cradle Stretch, place the ankle on top of the right thigh so that the heel is pressing into the lower abdomen (see figure A & B). If you are unable to bring the heel to the abdomen, place the ankle further down the thigh. Support the knee with a folded blanket if it does not reach the floor. By supporting the knee in this way, you make it possible for the muscles of the hip to gradually let go. Toward the end of your stay in the pose, remove the prop -- you may be surprised to find that the knee moves with ease toward the floor.


Same indication as to figure 5. Although it may not be so simple as in figure 9, try to fold the knee so as to better seize the foot, rather than holding the leg straight and be content of pulling in an attempt to seize the calf. Otherwise, do as you can. The articulation shall progressively stretch.

Figure 13.

Figure A : good

Figure B : incorrect

When bringing the foot onto the top of the thigh for Padmasana, hold at the shin and ankle, not at the top of the foot. Keep the ankle flexed (figure A) to prevent supination, or sickling (figure B). Once the ankle is resting on the thigh, you may relax the foot. Sickling can pull on the ligaments and cartilage of the lateral knee, causing potential injury to these delicate structures. And, any other way, DON'T OVERSTRETCH. Whatever you may be told, change position, rather than bear the pain. This is no masochistic contest.

Figure 14.


(Sage posture)

Siddhasana is relatively easy to practice and provides an excellent warm-up for Padmasana. It can also be used as an alternative to Padmasana in meditation. Bring the right heel in line with the pubic bone. Place the left ankle on top of the right, with the toes of the left foot between the thigh and calf of the right leg. Sit with the weight of the sitting bones (ischial tuberosities). If the lower back rounds, elevate the buttocks with the folded corner of a blanket. Sit for five minutes. Now change the cross of the legs.

Figure 15.


(Full Lotus Posture)

Sit in Dandasana, using a firmly folded mat to elevate the hips. Keeping the spine erect, bring the right leg into the Cradle Stretch position (Figure 11). Extend the inside of the right ankle as you externally rotate the right hip. With the foot flexed to prevent rotation at the knee and ankle joints, place the right foot on top of the left thigh.

The sole of the foot should be pointing to the side, rather than up at the ceiling, and should press gently into the lower abdomen. Once the ankle is resting on the thigh, you may relax it. Now bend the left knee and cross the leg in front of you. Grasp the lower shin of the left leg and gently lift up onto the right thigh to complete the pose. (Figure 15) The left knee will be slightly above the floor. If necessary, support it with a folded blanket.

Sit with the center of the diaphragm balanced over the center of the pelvis so that the breathing is free. Maintaining the lift and breadth of the sternum and chest, rest the hands on the knees with the palms facing up. Begin by staying in the pose for brief periods, increasing your stay as your hips become more flexible. Change the cross of the legs and practice on the other side.

Figure 16.

Do not despair if you cannot lift the second leg up into the full position. Continue with the preparatory stretches and try practicing a Half Lotus Pose (one leg in Full Lotus, and the other crossed tailor-style underneath; see Figure 16). Gradually increase the length of stay in Half Lotus as you feel the hips becoming more flexible. Like Siddhasana, Half Lotus may be used as a meditation posture in its own right. Just be sure to alternate legs from session to session to correct the imbalance inherent in the pose.

In practicing Padmasana, remember that the body and the asana must meet on their own terms in their own time. If you inflict the asana on the body, you may set up a dichotomous relationship between what you think the body "should" be and what the body is. The body then becomes an enemy to be conquered rather than a companion on the journey. By giving up your preconceived idea and images of how far you think you should go, you free yourself to explore the asana in the present moment, just as a lover might give full attention to his beloved. Practicing with true affection, let the pose become a journey rather than a destination. Then even a difficult posture like Padmasana will become enjoyable. (return to the top of the page)


Donna Farhi Schuster is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, and educational bodywork therapist practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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