Drawing conclusions about yoga from one yoga asana is analogous to generalizing about Rolfing from the fact that some Rolfers put their fingers up the client’s nose. The value some people ascribe to the full lotus posture (padmasana) ignores the fact that the lotus is just one of countless yoga positions. Perhaps the association of enlightened beings sitting blissfully in meditation while doing padmasana has aggrandized the pose disproportionately. But more about that later.
From a Rolfer’s point of view, all of the yoga positions are different ways to ask the structure to yield to a different set of demands. The beauty of yoga is that through the combination of poses, any bias in the structure becomes evident. For example, it might be relatively easy for the practitioner to sit in a position that flexes the hips while stretching the hamstrings-a basic forward bend. But if that same practitioner has great difficulty in adducting the hips with the legs and spine extended, then her body is selectively flexible, which is not the formula for balance and optimal function. Yoga students are encouraged to explore the poses which are particularly challenging. Within these poses lies the potential for the student’s body to yield to a greater degree of energy flow, self and somatic awareness, and musculo-skeletal release and reorganization. In other words, this is where the body learns important lessons toward positive change.
The full lotus is a fairly advanced yoga asana. Under no circumstances should a beginning student attempt this position. For a body that has not adapted to the demands of some of the more basic poses, padmasana would inevitably cause shortening, rather than lengthening, and disorganization, rather than organization. In other words, if the pose is too difficult, the effort to release in the pose is offset by the body’s overwhelming need to guard itself against a stretch for which it isn’t ready. When the body does not feel supported by gravity, when the muscles and connective tissue are so challenged that restfulness is practically impossible, the body will use its own internal pulls and counter-pulls to brace against the demands of the stretch. There is a concomitant mental tension: The mind finds great difficulty in quieting itself when the body is under duress. I often tell my students that there is nothing wrong with the intensity of the yoga poses. Stressfulness, however, is a situation to be avoided.
The particulars of full lotus are as follow: The weight of the sitting bones rests under the pelvis. Each hip flexes, externally rotates, and abducts, while the knees flex deeply. The pelvis is asked to surrender under the weight of the spine, torso and extremities, while the spine extends and the knees and hips rest within the gravitational field. If the weight between the two sitting bones is uneven, then the spine shortens as it exits the pelvis, rather than lengthens. If the pelvis is horizontal, then the spine exits the pelvis vertically. In an uneven pelvis, the spine’s path is circuitous: It curves to one side, then curves back in order to move upwards. These curves of the spine shorten the muscles and connective tissue along either side of the vertebral column. Full extension is the longest position of the spine. Lateral side bending causes it to shorten. Other than in an exceptionally well-adapted body, this liability of the spine is a likelihood in padmasana. It is important for the yoga practitioner to therefore focus her attention not only on the areas where the stretch is obvious (hips, pelvis, legs), but in the areas in the body, such as the spine, which are affected by any high demand elsewhere.
It is imperative that the pose be practiced on both sides (alternating one leg on top, then the other.) This is a must to avoid giving a message to the body that causes an increase to its asymmetries and imbalances. Everybody, every body, is somewhat asymmetrical. This is evidenced by the fact that by alternating the leg on top the practitioner is given completely different feedback from her body. Focusing on the deep releases that are necessary and different for each side to adapt to the demands of padmasana, adds further structural advantages to the pose.
Rolfers are very interested in understanding structural compensations. We use this word to describe the process in which the musculoskeletal system shortens, adjusts, collapses, and overworks in response to an imbalance, weakness, or tightness elsewhere. When the body lacks balance somewhere in the structure, the work load is inevitably transferred to another body part, or parts, which then protect or compensate for the other problem area. When we describe the structural parts as being all connected, we are speaking literally. In the full lotus, it is imperative that the spine be prevented from compensating due to an imbalance in the pelvis. Otherwise, the benefits of the pose are offset by the compensation in the vertebral column and the deepening of the imbalance in the pelvic girdle itself.
On a more positive note, for the yogi’s body to release into this pose, the spine, pelvis, and legs move to a higher order of energy flow, function, and structural balance. But even here there is one caveat: the advantages of padmasana are achieved in the context of a series of yoga asanas which collectively address as many of the structural issues in the practitioner’s body as possible. Mastering one yoga pose does not a balanced body make. There are a wide variety of yoga poses that prepare the practitioner for padmasana. When this preparation has occurred, the intense flexibility and balance required for the practitioner to allow more energy and relaxation to flow in her body in full lotus are extremely advantageous. This is a high demand pose. It is an excellent pose to open the pelvis and stretch the hips. And the practitioner must prepare her body for it.
PADMASANA AND MEDITATION
The association with meditation is one of the strongest attributes ascribed to the lotus position. This always baffled me; to take the pose out of the context of developing the physical body to the point where the lotus is possible is meaningless. In the Ashtanga or eight-limbed system of yoga, the hatha branch (the physical postures) is realized before the “higher levels of consciousness” are achieved. The physical body is prepared before the practitioner can contemplate samadhi or nirvana. When students of mediation have asked me what I recommend for a sitting position for their practice, I rarely suggest full lotus. If it is, in part, the objective of meditation to quiet the mind and emancipate the spirit, this process would be challenging, if not impossible, if the body were in high stress. A comfortable sitting position, perhaps in a chair, is ultimately more conducive to meditation. Padmasana can be pursued on its own merits, namely as an advanced yoga position with an intense focus of energizing, balancing, and opening the physical body. It’s not that this process precludes mental concentration or quietness. Rather, the demands in the lotus position are great enough that the object of the meditation becomes the physical body itself.
As Rolfers, we are always interested in ways to align and balance the body along the vertical and horizontal axis. To our understanding, a body that is at rest has beautiful lines of symmetry and grace. There is an ease to a well-aligned body. In the full lotus posture, the practitioner has the opportunity to align her body even while the demand to stretch and remain balanced is great. With both hips at rest, with the spine easing itself vertically from the sacrum, and with the conscious habit of having stretched both sides (alternating one leg on top, then the other leg on top), the advantages of full lotus are enormous. They need to be balanced with the precautions mentioned above. Thus, the deleterious side-effects can be avoided through attention to detail and education.