Padmasana, or Lotus pose.
This is a glorified seated yoga posture, usually shown as the ultimate posture for meditation. The posture is a cross-legged seated asana, with the feet pulled up and tucked into the hip creases.
Padmasana is often depicted in yogic imagery as the epitome of advanced practice, and the gateway to enlightenment.
As a teacher who is very passionate about skeletal variation, self-empowered practice, and student autonomy I would like to unpack several of my thoughts about Padmasana, and hopefully help you to feel comfortable in whatever seated posture works well for your body.
Why Padmasana is not for everyone (and why that is a good thing)
1. "One day you will get there"
No other phrase from a yoga teacher in a class setting bothers me as much as this one does. It implies that the yoga posture you are "struggling" with (and maybe have struggled with for years, I also would argue with the concept of "struggle" but maybe that is for another day), will be achieved on the proviso that you put in enough effort, and if you don't, then that is the reason you cannot do this posture. Let me make a bold statement here, if you have been sincerely working on a particular yoga posture for more than two years and are still having "difficulty" getting it to "look right" there is a good chance that this is it. Where you are with the posture is your version of the posture, and your body is not able to "go deeper" or get whatever extra it is that you are trying to make happen in your anatomy, and that is ok by the way! It is actually perfect by the way, and so are you, just as you are.
But why won't it happen for me you ask?
Well, I suspect that your incredible bone structure is at the root of that "why."
Each person has their own set ranges of motion in their joints, because of the shape of their bones. This is called skeletal variation (more on this later on). And when you get to the end range of motion, whether it is in your hip socket, your shoulder joint, your ankle joints, and your bone shape does not allow for you to go further, there is nowhere to go. What you might feel in that situation is a "pinching" or a "stuckness" or you may simply think of that area in your body as being "tight." This situation is known as compression.
Coming back to my favourite teaching phrase. What is often happening in a yoga classroom, is the teacher is cueing the room of students, according to what they themselves experience in their own body. That is understandable, as none of us truly have a felt-sense as to what another person feels, sensation wise, in their body, during their yoga practice. If they can do it, you should also be able to do it. If as a teacher, all you know is what you feel, a common faux pas is to cue the room with the expectation that your physical experience is possible for everybody, as in "one day you will get there." But if students in the room do not have the bone shape in their hip sockets that allow for a large degree of external rotation in the first place, Padmasana is simply not going to happen for them. And no amount of trying to contract your glutes, or pull the calf muscle out of the way, or pull the knee back behind you first, or squeeze your mule bandha is going to change the fact that the bones of the hip socket do not allow for this posture.
What might be a more accessible way to offer Padmasana, could be to first have the students move into a posture where they can get a felt and visual sense of their ability to externally rotate at the hip, to see whether or not their skeletons agree with this asana. And then the question that really needs to be asked is, "what is the intention of coming into Padmasana in the first place".
Is it for meditation?
Is it to target specific tissues or joints in the body?
Whatever the intention is, let that guide the way alternatives are offered, and this will create a much more inclusive, safe, and autonomous environment for the class, and hopefully lessen the degree of psychological dismay for students who are not able to come into this posture.
2. Preventing knee injuries
Flowing on from point number 1, most teachers and students do not have adequate knowledge of general skeletal variation, or the variation of their own body, and therefore have a tendency to push through pain with the hope that "one day their hips will open." They have also probably been told this over and over. Because we don't have the x-ray vision to look into the bodies of our students, all we have to work with is our muscles, and that tends to be the focus on how to work your body to get deeper into a posture. But the shape of your bones is the ultimate decider in your end range of motion, so you have to pay attention to what you are feeling in a posture. Once your bones are at compression, there is nowhere for them to go, so there is no more "opening" to be achieved, unless that opening is coming from muscular or soft tissue elongation, which would be tension related, rather than compression.
For the student with limited or borderline external rotation in their hips, that can manage to drag their feet up into the hip creases, please take careful note of the following: if the medial side of the knee (inner side) aches, pulses, feels hot, or is in pain during Padmasana, (and the days that follow your practice) please stop and come out of the pose. Padmasana is not for you, and that is a good thing!
The medial collateral ligaments (which attach to your meniscus) are taking too much force (likely because your external rotation at the level of the hip socket is at its max). The soft tissue and cartilage of the knee joint, is trying to give you the slack that your compressed hip joint cannot, and that force needs to go somewhere, and it is in the knee. There is nothing to be gained from sitting in that kind of knee pain. It is not a temporary state on the way to a magical moment with god in Padmasana, it is your body telling you that is it in pain and to please stop what you are doing.
Padmasana is a common culprit of meniscus tears inside the knee, when this injury has occurred from yoga. Please trust me when I say that this is a part of the body you would really love to not tear. Being cartilaginous (and one of the yin tissues of the body), your meniscus does not have a large blood supply, as in, it is fairly avascular. This means that if it tears, or rips off the bone, it can take a long time to heal and often does not heal entirely. Prevention is much better than cure.
Has the experience of a teacher with big conviction led you to ignore your own body's communication? Sometimes as students we can hand our power over to the teacher with the assumption that they know our bodies better than we do, and that we should follow their instructions to the letter, even if it creates painful sensations in the body. Let me be clear here, they don't! They only know the feeling and experience of their own body.
The best thing you could ever do in your yoga practice is really get to know what you are feeling, to hear when your body gives you sensation warnings, to know what it feels like when you meet end range compression in your joints, and then to experiment with the postures in a way that makes you comfortable and not in pain for days after your class.
This is a great nod to Leslie kaminoff who is a great world teacher and his opinion on padmasana and knee injuries:
3. The posture is not the gateway to God. Your mind is.
Somewhere along the way, yoga has mostly become all about the postures and what they look like (thank you #instagram). But the real message of yoga, and every practice it has to offer, from breath work to philosophy, is that you are not even a physical body!
Every single practice in yoga is trying to help us get back to the memory of one-ness with God, which is our true state, our true nature, our true reality. The concept of individuality, and more importantly, a special human body all of your own, is the kingdom of the Ego. We all have this, and we are all on a journey of peeling back the layers of the Ego's clever construct, and that is part of this wild human life.
If we place major emphasis on the body and what it looks like and spend our time on the yoga mat trying to achieve that "perfect posture," we really have missed the point.
Hopefully that is a just a stepping stone moment for a student, who continues to ask questions, and begins to taste the possibility that they are infinite, rather than this limited human form.
When we go deeper than the form (the body), we begin to travel into the realms of the mind. Not easy by any standard as we have the treacherous waters of our thoughts to tackle; insecurities, doubts, judgement, emotions, and so on. This is where the yoga gets interesting, as the further we delve, the more we begin to realise that we are not our thoughts. The thinking that flows through the mind is transient, constantly in flux, and often trying to pull us off our centre (thanks ego). Don't get me wrong here, a focused physical practice of yoga is an extraordinary tool to observe the mind, and build resilience, determination, strength and discipline. Yoga is amazing for the mind! It is also hard work. When we slip into the borderland of body and mind, we travel deeper. You could call this 'the realm of meditation'.
Sadly, I have even had some people tell me that they don't believe they can meditate properly because they cannot sit in this Padmasana. As if this posture is a pre-requisite to have access to their mind.
I guess my point here is that we need to pull Padmasana down from its pedestal, especially if this posture was held up as the ultimate meditation asana, and just get comfortable in your body, so that you can turn inward and see where that leads you.
4. It has nothing to do with flexibility and everything to do with your bone shape.
Hip sockets are shaped differently in every skeleton (and usually different from left to right in the one pelvis). In the words of the great Paul Grilley "what is easy for one skeleton, is impossible for another".
In this image (left) of two pelvises, courtesy of Paul Grilley, we see that the specimen on the left has a hip socket that is relatively deep and is turned forward and is pointing slightly down.
The specimen on the right is not so easy to tell whether the hip socket is deep or shallow, however you can see that the socket itself is facing directly outward (as in towards you reading this article). And we are only looking at the left sides of these peoples hip sockets. Their right hip sockets will be slightly different. Think about your own hips, do you have a "good" side and a "bad" side? Or a side that you say is "tighter"?, it might be that what you are feeling is more bone related rather than muscle related.
There are more variables that would come into play here; the neck of the femur, the angle of the femur head, and possibly the biological gender of the person that will all mix together to create the set range of motion for that person's hip joint. However, based on what we can see here alone, these two people would have very different ranges of motion when it comes to external rotation of the hip. Its highly likely that the specimen on the right will find Padmasana pretty easy to get into (assuming their muscles and soft tissue have enough give), whereas the specimen on the left may meet compression in their external hip rotation earlier than the specimen on the right, and may not be able to practice Padmasana without creating a lot of stress and vulnerability to their knees.
Remember, your bones determine the ultimate range of motion possible in your joints, and this should be respected and honoured, instead of overlooked or misunderstood.
5. It actually doesn't matter how you sit.
Cross legged, in a chair, having your legs out long and extended, you can even lay down on the floor. When the mind becomes quiet, and the fluctuations of thinking begin to still, it often feels like you do not even have a body anyway. The inward journey is far more important than the shapes you make. If the emphasis is only on the shape making, then I lovingly suggest you keep diving deeper into what a path of yoga truly has to offer, rather than simply aiming for what the external shape will "look like."
Ahimsa is the principle of "non-harming" and Santosha is the principle of "contentedness." If Padmasana is creating pain in your knees, or you are frustrated or self-critical with the natural shape of your bones, then these two beautiful yogic gems might be great for you to spend some time contemplating. Wrecking your knees over a physical shape is not worth it, and neither is beating yourself up because of some ideal, set by a person whose bone structure allowed for them to sit that way. That is not yoga.
Yoga is a beautiful, complex and challenging path towards your true centre; where you realise that none of the identifiers associated with your small self really mean anything. The old "peeling the onion layers" comes to mind. Each layer is peeled off (and there will be tears), until you reach the centre, and realise that the confinement of the perfect body, the perfect yoga posture, the perfect anything, was all a farce of the ego..... So why not enjoy the ride, and find your own comfortable way to be in the body throughout the journey, instead of being in conflict and struggle.
Want to learn more about Anatomy for Yin Yoga? Check out my course which is available now, you can even watch the first two lectures for free.