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Padmasana, or Lotus Pose, is a traditional yoga posture in which our legs are crossed on top of one other with each foot resting against the opposite hip. When practiced carefully, the leg bind of Lotus creates a strong and stable seat from which the spine can lengthen upward and the breath is able to flow freely, allowing us to enter the subtler limbs of pranayama and meditation.
However, we must honor our individual bodies in any pose. Forcing your legs into Lotus can damage your knees. Injury is not the goal of yoga! The intention of the practice is to cultivate a steady breath and a steady mind.
Lotus Pose can easily be modified so you can still find that steadiness. For many of us who sit in chairs all day long, these less-intense versions of the classic shape can offer tremendous benefits by opening our hips. Working on these variations is also a safe and careful way to work toward full Lotus Pose, which you can then use to practice physically challenging postures that begin in Lotus Pose, including modified versions of Garbha Pindasana in the primary series of Ashtanga yoga, Karandavasana in the second series, and Urdhva Kukkutasana in the third series.
The following seated sequence, inspired by the Ashtanga yoga primary series, will allow you to find a variation that feels appropriate for you and, if you desire, help you work toward Padmasana.
5 alternatives to Lotus Pose
As you practice, bring careful attention to your knees. If you observe any pain or pinching sensations, these are signs to back off and find a gentler way.
Between postures, you may want to take a vinyasa or bring your legs into Navasana (Boat Pose) for a few breaths. Another posture that is therapeutic for the knees in between poses is Virasana (Hero Pose), practiced either with your hips on the ground or elevated on a block, depending on your flexibility.
1. Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Forward Fold)
Sit with both legs extended straight in front of you. Bend your right leg, externally rotating your right hip, and place your right ankle just above your left knee. Flex your right foot, which activates the muscles around your right knee and protects it. Stay upright.
If you feel comfortable here, you can fold forward from your hips to whatever extent feels appropriate for you and reach both hands for your left foot. (If your hands do not easily reach your foot, use a scarf, towel, or strap around your left foot.) Take 5-10 steady breaths here. Repeat on the other side.
If your knees felt good in the variation above, then explore a slightly more intense version of Half Lotus. Start again with both legs extended straight in front of you. Bend your right leg, externally rotate at your hip, and place your right foot on top of your left thigh as close to your left hip as is comfortable. Reach your right arm behind your back and try to grasp your right foot.
If you are recovering from an injury or experiencing stiffness in your knees but would still like to explore Half Lotus, roll a scarf or towel and place it in the crease behind your bent knee before coming into the position. I’ve found that this acts as a spacer for the knee joint and often allows me and students I work with to come into Half Lotus positions more comfortably. It also prevents us from overdoing it by limiting our mobility.
2. Marichyasana B (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi B)
Sit with both legs extended straight in front of you. Bend your left knee and open it out to the side as you bring your left heel close to your body. Place your right foot on the mat in front of your left foot with your right knee pointing upward. Reach your right arm forward inside your right leg. Stay here in a gentle forward bend or wrap your right arm behind your back, reach your left arm behind you as well, and either clasp your hands or use a scarf, towel, or strap to help create the bind. Stay upright in Marichyasana B or fold forward and take 5-10 steady breaths. Repeat on the other side.
If you’d like a little more challenge, try the same posture with your left leg folded in a Half Lotus position by placing your foot on your right thigh instead of folded on the ground. In this variation, you will need to shift your weight to your left thigh and allow your right hip to lift off the ground when bringing your right foot in toward your body. Bind your arms if it feels appropriate. Stay upright or fold forward and take 5-10 steady breaths. Repeat on the other side.
3. Marichyasana D (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi D)
In this posture, come into the same leg position that felt most appropriate for you while practicing Marichyasana B. Your right leg will be folded on the ground or in a Half Lotus Pose. Your left foot will be on the mat with your knee pointing upward. From here, carefully twist to the left, bringing your right arm to the outside of your left leg and your left hand behind you. If you are familiar with the arm bind, you are welcome to take it by bending your right arm and reaching your hands toward each other behind your back. Otherwise, rest your left hand on the mat behind you. Stay here for 5-10 steady breaths. Repeat on the other side.
4. Baddha Padmasana (Bound Lotus Pose)
Cross your legs comfortably into a Half Lotus Pose with one leg on the mat and your other leg on top. If this feels like too much, sit in a cross-legged position. You can take even more pressure off your knees by elevating your hips on a pillow or folded blanket. Take your arms behind you and clasp your opposite elbows with your hands. Take several deep breaths here, allowing your chest to expand as you inhale while you engage and lift the pelvic floor.
Either repeat this position, switching which leg is on top, or, if your knees have felt comfortable thus far, come into a full Lotus position. Take your arms behind you and either clasp your elbows or find a bind by grasping your same foot with each hand.
If your left leg is on top, take your left arm back first to find your left foot, and then your right arm back to find your right foot. If the right leg is on top, do the opposite. Take 10 deep breaths here.
5. Padmasana (Lotus Pose) with Jnana Mudra
Find the best cross-legged position for you at this moment—crossed legs, one leg in Half Lotus Pose, or both legs in full Lotus Pose. Feel the ground underneath you and elongate your spine. Straighten your arms without tensing and rest the backs of your hands on your knees. Bring your thumb and forefinger gently to touch and extend your last three fingers straight. Feel free to close your eyes or gaze softly past your nose. Take 10 deep and nourishing breaths here.
Jnana mudra serves as an energetic seal at the closing of asana practice. We sit and breathe with our hands in this position to integrate the benefits of our practice. We do so internally via the circle created by the thumb and forefinger, and externally via the remaining fingers which are extended outward.
About our contributor
Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.