When she's feeling ungrounded or anxious, KK Ledford turns to one of yoga's quintessential poses, Lotus. As the San Francisco-based Anusara instructor moves into this time-honored asana, she feels her femurs root, her groins settle down, and her side body lift. Settling in, she finds her midline and visualizes her roots descending to the earth as the energy moves up and out of the top of her head. From this dance of stability and softness, a natural contentedness and calmness sweep over her. This powerful hip and heart opener has completely shifted her energy. "I feel the earth is holding me, and from that place I feel really balanced as a sense of freedom emerges from my heart."
Lotus Pose (Padmasana) is considered by many to be an archetypal yoga posture. The arrangement of your hands and feet in the pose resembles the petals of a lotus flower—the blossom that grows from its base in the mud to rest above the water and open to the sun. The image is nothing less than a metaphor for the unfolding process of yoga. "A lotus is rooted in the mud, and when it grows, it blooms into a beautiful flower," says Richard Rosen, the director of Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California, and a Yoga Journal contributing editor. "In the same way, when a person begins yoga, they are rooted in the mud as part of the mundane world. But as they progress, they can grow into a blooming flower."
Lotus's Humble Origins
The lotus, or padma in Sanskrit, is a powerful symbol that transcends time and religion. Over the centuries, the flower has symbolized a whole span of states, including enlightenment, detachment, cosmic renewal and rebirth, purity, beauty, and spiritual and material wealth. This recognizable flower plays a prominent role in the creation stories of ancient Egypt and India. It is also a commonly used symbol in Hindu iconography, associated with many powerful deities. Lakshmi (the goddess of abundance) is often shown sitting on an open lotus and holding another in her hand. The same is true of Ganesha, the elephant-headed destroyer of obstacles, and Lord Vishnu, who is said to represent the principle of preservation in the universe. And lore has it that wherever the Buddha walked, lotus flowers bloomed.
From such profound imagery, the yoga pose emerged. Scholars aren't really sure when the first mention of the asana was recorded. Patanjali'sYoga Sutra, written circa 200 CE, talks about the importance of finding a steady and comfortable seated posture to facilitate yoga's goal of self-realization, but doesn't mention Lotus by name.
This happens a few centuries later: In a work considered the oldest authoritative commentary on the Yoga Sutra, circa 400 CE, the sage Vyasa expands on Patanjali's idea of finding a comfortable seat. He makes reference to Lotus as one of 11 important poses—including Virasana (Hero Pose) and Dandasana (Staff Pose)—that can facilitate meditation and pranayama.
Lotus turns up again in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century and thought to be the first text to talk about doing specific physical postures for health rather than just for meditation. Calling Lotus the "destroyer of disease," it lists the myriad physical and energetic benefits of the pose. According to the Pradipika, because of the way the body is "locked" into place, various parts of it in Lotus Pose press into the acupuncture points of stomach, gallbladder, spleen, kidneys, and liver. This brings about changes in the metabolic structure and brain patterns, helping to create balance in the whole system.
The Pradipika's companion texts, the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita, also mention Lotus Pose—in somewhat lofty ways—as a pose to master for Pranayama. (Together, these three works are known as the oldest texts on classical hatha yoga.) The Gheranda Samhita instructs students to "sit in Lotus Posture (Padmasana) on a seat (asana) of kusha-grass, an antelope or tiger skin, a blanket, or on earth, and face either east or north." And the Shiva Samhita says: "When the yogi seated in the Lotus posture leaves the ground and remains firm in the air, he should know that he has attained mastery over that life-breath which destroys the darkness of the world."
Contemporary practitioners, though not likely to sit on antelope skins or attempt to leave the ground, continue to practice Lotus for its numerous physical and energetic benefits. The pose is said to increase circulation in the lumbar spine, nourish and tone the abdominal organs, strengthen the ankles and legs, and increase flexibility in the hips.
But anyone who practices Lotus can tell you that its benefits go beyond loosening the hips. "What is unique about Padmasana is that it's both a grounding and a profoundly expansive pose," says ParaYoga founder Rod Stryker, who has been teaching yoga since the late 1980s and who designed the sequence shown here. "The grounding happens in the body, but energetically it directs our awareness toward the spine and the higher centers."
In other words, Lotus holds the alluring potential to awaken the dormant energy known as kundalini at the base of the spine and move that energy up the chakra system. You do this by engaging the bandhas, or energetic locks, located at the chin, abdomen, and pelvic floor. According to Stryker, the body's position in Lotus makes it easier to access Mula Bandha, the pelvic-floor lock, since it brings the pelvic floor directly into contact with the earth, and the heels press into the belly, helping to naturally draw the pelvic floor up. (The best way to learn more about chakras and bandhas is to seek out an instructor who focuses on yoga's energetic practices).
"In yoga, this is a key practice to begin to collect and channel life force," says Stryker. And once we have begun to channel our life force? We feel less flighty and more grounded. Less fatigued and more vibrant. We can more wisely use our energy, whether toward progressing in our own spiritual development or being of service to others.
One aim of a hatha yoga practice is to awaken kundalini energy. The Pradipika explains how Lotus helps us reach that goal: "Having placed the palms one upon another, fix the chin firmly upon the breast and, contemplating upon Brahma, frequently contract the anus and raise the apana [down breath] up; by similar contraction of the throat, force the prana [life force] down. By this [the yogi] obtains unequalled knowledge through the favour of Kundalini, which is roused by this process."
By creating physical stability, Lotus provides solid ground for yogis who set out to rouse kundalini. But that's not the only reason to practice the pose. In our hectic, always-connected world, many of us walk around disconnected from our bodies and minds. "A lot of people have jumped up off their pelvises and operate from their neck and shoulders," Ledford notes. By collecting your energy and redirecting it back into the pelvis, Ledford says, Lotus can help you learn to root down energetically and ground yourself.
Calming the Mind
While energizing the body, Padmasana can also be a profoundly calming and stabilizing pose. Lotus helps to maintain proper posture and spinal alignment, which facilitate the deep breathing necessary to obtain a meditative state. And interlocking the body parts helps keep movements to a minimum. From this steady seat, the senses can turn inward. According to Stryker, the pelvis grounded into the floor stimulates the nerves in the sacrum, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system for a calming effect.
Ledford adds that when the body releases apana downward, excess vata energy (characterized by air) leaves the body. "Releasing excess vata has a calming and grounding effect on the nervous system," she says. Richard Rosen says that the results of sitting in Lotus can be quite dramatic. "The pose itself transforms consciousness. It quiets the brain and it draws your awareness inside," he says.
Whether you practice half or full Lotus, with the arms bound or on the thighs, for 10 breaths or 10 minutes—you create an opportunity for this archetypal pose to change your perspective. "When doing the pose, imagine that you are a lotus," says Ledford. "It's gravity calling you to get rooted again. Even if your life is muddy, you can blossom and open your heart to the sunshine."
Let your mind be undisturbed, like a lotus leaf in murky water.
Pankajam is one of the many Sanskrit words for "lotus"and means "that which is born out of the muck or mud." The lotus flower grows in the swamp but rises above it, sitting on top of the mire so that it is not sullied by the swamp it came from.
That something so beautiful and pure can rise above its origins makes the lotus a symbol of kaivalyam, or "liberation." Kaivalyam is synonymous with freedom from suffering, which is the ultimate goal of yoga.
The lotus leaf does not absorb what falls on it; water beads up and slips off, leaving the leaf unaffected. So we, too, should strive for the mind to be undisturbed by whatever it comes into contact with. No matter what our background or what circumstances we are born into, we all have lotus potential.
Grow Your Lotus
Asana sequence by Rod Stryker
Benefits: This sequence opens the hips, knees, and ankles; stretches the hip flexors and sacral area; and orients the pelvis and femurs in a strong external rotation. Add warm-ups, Sun Salutations, and counterposes for a complete practice.
Contraindications: Chronic knee or ankle issues, instability in the sacrum or low back, and (if the pose is done with a strong pelvic-floor lock) pregnancy.
1. Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose, variation)
Start by standing with your feet parallel, 3 to 4 feet apart. On an inhalation, lift your arms out to the side in line with your shoulders. On an exhalation, twist and bend down to reach your left hand to the floor or onto a block near the outside of your right foot. Reach your right arm up. Stack your shoulders and your arms over the bottom hand. (To modify the pose, slightly bend the right knee.) On each exhalation, twist from the navel as you rotate it toward the ceiling. Stay for 8 breaths. Unwind and come back up to standing with your arms at your sides. Repeat on the other side.
Benefits: When done with the feet parallel, creates a gentle release in the hips, low back, and thighs.
2. Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)
Stand with your feet parallel and 3 to 4 feet apart. Place your hands on your hips. Inhale and lengthen your spine. Exhale and fold forward, placing your hands on the outside of your calves
or ankles. Bend your left knee, lengthen the front of your torso, and move your upper body through your legs. Lift your sitting bones and draw them toward each other. Hold for 8 breaths. Do the other side, straightening the left leg and bending the right knee. Come back to Tadasana (Mountain Pose).
Benefits: Opens the hips and lengthens the inner thighs.
3. Ardha Padmottanasana (Half Lotus Standing Forward Bend)
From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), bend your right leg and place your right heel at the top of your left thigh in Half Lotus. If this strains the knees, place your foot in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Flex your right foot and slightly bend your left leg. Inhale and lengthen the spine. Exhale and fold forward, bringing your hands to the floor or to blocks. Ground the big-toe side of the left foot into the floor. Flatten the lower back, elevate the sitting bones, and draw the shoulder blades in and down. Hold for 6 to 8 breaths, keeping a flat back. Inhale to come up. Release your right leg and repeat on the other side.
Benefits: Prepares the hips, knees, and ankles for Lotus.
4. Jathara Parivartanasana (Revolved Abdomen Pose, variation)
Come to the floor and lie on your back. Bend your knees, lift your hips off the floor, and shift them 3 to 4 inches to the right. Straighten your left leg on the floor. With the right leg still bent, take it across the body. Elevate your right heel 6 to 8 inches off the floor as you work your right knee toward the floor; your foot should be higher than your knee. (This opens the outer hip area.) Lower your right shoulder to the floor and gaze to the right. On each exhalation, contract the navel and twist to the left. Repeat on the other side.
Benefits: Loosens hip rotator muscles and prepares the pelvis and low-back muscles for full Lotus.
5. Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend)
Roll to one side and sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) with your legs stretched in front of you. Bring your arms behind you, lean back, and open your legs into a 90-degree angle. Flex your feet, press your thighs down, and rotate them outward so the kneecaps are facing the ceiling. Place your hands on the floor in front of you. Inhale to lengthen your spine. Exhale and walk your hands forward without rounding the middle or lower back. (If your back rounds, sit on a folded blanket or cushion to elevate your seat.) Press through your heels, lengthen and lift the inner thighs toward the ceiling, and press the femurs toward the floor. Stay here for 6 to 8 breaths. Inhale to come up.
Benefits: Creates flexibility in the inner thighs and orients the femurs toward external rotation.
6. Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose)
From your wide-legged position, bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet together. Allow your knees to fall open. Wrap your hands around the tops of your feet. Inhale and lengthen your spine. On an exhalation, fold forward with a flat back. On each inhalation, lengthen the spine, and on each exhalation, release the upper body toward the floor. To deepen the stretch, place your elbows onto your calves, and lengthen your spine as you gently encourage your knees toward the floor. Stay for 6 to 8 breaths, slowly come up to release, and return to Dandasana.
Benefits: Stretches the inner thighs and tones the sacral and lumbar areas.
7. Ardha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half Lotus Seated Forward Bend)
From Dandasana, bend your right leg and turn the sole of your foot toward the ceiling, allowing your thigh to release. Bring the top of your foot to the top of your left thigh as close to the groin as possible. Once your foot is in place, strongly flex it. Press your straight leg firmly into the floor and tilt your pelvis forward. Bring your hands to the ball of your left foot, or use a strap. On an inhalation, lift the breastbone. On the exhalation, press the lower back toward the thighs. Stay for 6 to 8 breaths. Repeat on the other side. If this pose strains your knees, practice Janu Sirsasana (Head-to-Knee Forward Bend) instead.
Benefits: Creates a deep stretch in the knees, ankles, and hips in final preparation for the full pose.
8. Padmasana (Lotus Pose)
Come back to Dandasana; snuggle your right foot into the top of your left thigh. Then bend your left leg, externally rotate it, and take hold of your left foot, turning the sole toward the ceiling. Place the left foot on the top of the right thigh. Flex both feet and draw the inner thighs toward the pelvic floor. Lengthen your spine and rest your hands on your knees, with your palms facing up. Take 5 smooth, even breaths. As you inhale, feel the crown of your head moving toward the ceiling. On each exhalation, maintain the action of the inner thighs, gently lifting the pelvic floor in Mula Bandha (Root Lock). Maintain a soft gaze, with eyes relaxing downward. Connect with the sense that as your mind turns inward, you are growing ever more vibrant. Feel that your heart is buoyant and open. Stay for 6 to 12 breaths. Switch legs and repeat on the other side.
Note: If you weren't able to do the Half Lotus versions of the previous poses, your body is not yet open enough to do Lotus without risking injury. Keep working on the previous poses until you are ready.
Nora Isaacs is a contributing editor at Yoga Journal and the author of Women in Overdrive: Find Balance and Overcome Burnout at Any Age.